State lawmakers heard hours of heated public testimony
last week on the right-to-work question in Missouri.
A key piece of energy legislation, supported by Empire District Electric Co. and other investor-owned electric utilities, also is being closely watched.
Discussion on what proponents characterize as the right-to-work issue began after a bill came before the House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee. That bill was proposed by state Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.
It would bar payment of union dues as a condition of employment and make Missouri the
nation's 25th right-to-work state. Under existing state law, employees working at union companies don't have to join the union but are required to pay dues and fees for the organization's main functions, such as collective bargaining, under the argument that nonunion employees benefit from union contracts.
If the legislature passes Burlison's proposal -- and even with a Republican supermajority that is uncertain -- it would be placed before voters on an upcoming ballot. That would sidestep the need for Gov. Jay Nixon's signature. Nixon, a Democrat, opposes the right-to-work bill.
The standing-room-only crowd that spilled into Capitol hallways Wednesday to watch the hearing included Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, House Speaker Tim Jones and Minority Leader Jake Hummel, an electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who participated in the hearing.
Republicans have upped their push for the policy in recent years. Last year, state Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, sponsored a similar measure in the House, and then-Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer sponsored it in the Missouri Senate, but the effort did not move, mainly because of opposition from then-House Speaker Steven Tilley.
Democrats are united against the change because of what it could do to the state's union membership -- a key constituency in Democratic politics. They claim the bill would allow "freeloaders," those who would benefit from union representation but not pay for those services. Union representatives said the legislation also would weaken the rights of workers and decimate the middle class.
"This legislation is about dividing and fracturing unity," Brian Kelley said Wednesday. He is the chairman of the Missouri legislative board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Boosting Missouri's economy was a key part of the debate.
State Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, said three companies that he did not name chose not to move into his western Missouri district because the state does not have a right-to-work law.
Democrats argued there could be a variety of other economic factors that could cause a company to look elsewhere, including transportation infrastructure.
The committee did not vote on Burlison's measure Wednesday.
House Speaker Jones placed distance between himself and the right-to-work policy during a statewide tour last December before deciding to co-sponsor it in January.
Jones said in December that he was concerned about the political reality of what could be a tough vote for some moderate Republicans in his caucus. Going through the ballot process, however, eliminates the need for a
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