Web exclusive: Senate GOP vows to push anti-labor bill

By Joe Yerardi

JEFFERSON CITY – Both labor and business organizations are beginning to react to the possibility raised by Missouri Republican leaders that “right to work” legislation would be a high priority for 2011.

Sen. Rob Mayer, picked by the GOP Senate caucus to be the Senate’s president pro tem, said he would like to see a so-called “right to work” law move through the chamber.

A right-to-work law would abolish the union shop, where employees at a unionized business must either join the union or pay fees in place of union dues within two months of being hired.

Supporters of such a move say right to work improves the business climate and encourages investment.

“If you’re a right to work state, you’ve got a factor that Missouri doesn’t have. Is it a deciding factor? It could be in some instances,” said Dan Mehan, President of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters like Mehan note that of the eight states that border Missouri, the only states without right to work laws — Illinois and Kentucky — have the highest unemployment rates. In comparison, all the open shop states except one, Tennessee, have unemployment rates lower than that of the Show-Me State.

“You’ve seen a lot of development go on in states, especially in the Southeast and the South, and one of the reasons is the right-to-work environment,” Mehan said.

Opponents of right-to-work laws say companies are attracted to other states not because of labor laws, but because of looser business and environmental regulations, and generous tax incentives.

Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO, said Missouri’s going open shop will lead to lower wages and a less secure working environment for the state’s employees.

“It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with economic prosperity,” said Johnson. “It’s a race to the bottom and nothing more than that.”

Johnson suggested a more sinister intention behind the Republicans’ efforts to pass a right-to-work law: weakening the powers of organized labor, a group that tends to back Democrats.

“It really is an attack on organized labor to try to reduce our influence politically and legislatively,” Johnson said.

Rafael Gely, a professor at the University of Missouri and an expert on labor relations, said that it’s difficult to determine what exactly attracts employers to certain states over others.

“I’m not sure whether the labor relations component is as important or more important than, for example, the tax climate or the regulatory climate,” said Gely. “I’m not sure there is clear evidence that indicates that one of them is more important than the other.”

If the leadership of the larger GOP majority in the legislature next year chooses to push right to work legislation, opponents warn it would trigger a Senate filibuster that would require a rarely used motion to shut off debate.

In 1978, an initiative petition proposal to repeal the union-shop law was rejected by Missouri voters by 60 percent.