© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: 'Right to work' still faces long odds in the legislature

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2013: Between three terms in the Missouri Senate and over two terms as lieutenant governor, it’s fair to say that Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder knows how the upper chamber of the Missouri General Assembly operates.

That may be why Kinder’s declaration about “right to work's” legislative prospects grabbed so much attention. At a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Chicago, the Associated Press quoted the Republican: “I believe we will pass right-to-work next year and bypass (Gov. Jay Nixon) entirely by putting it on the referendum ballot for voters.”

“Right to work,” of course, is the shorthand supporters use to describe laws barring unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues if a majority vote to organize. Proponents say that companies are more attracted to states that adopt the policy. 

Detractors sometimes call the proposal “right to work for less,” arguing that the goal of "right to work" is breaking organized labor's clout. They also say it would allow "freeloaders" to get the benefits of union representation without paying for it.

Kinder’s remarks were somewhat surprising as they defy conventional wisdom. Even though Republicans have supermajorities in the Missouri House and the Senate, most analysts assume that any right to work proposal would have difficulty getting out of the Missouri Senate.

That’s because a bloc of senators can often stall or kill legislation by talking a bill to death. It’s a near certainty all 10 members of the Senate Democratic caucus would participate, and that would be nearly impossible to stop without a “previous question” motion. And the Senate hasn't quashed debate with that maneuver since 2007.

Through a spokesman, Kinder declined to elaborate on his comments in Chicago. But Missouri AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Mike Louis said he's skeptical. He said in an e-mail that Kinder's statement had "more to do with assuring the CEOs, who were funding the posh event at the Palmer House, that he’s on their side." 

Louis went on to say that “we have had continual dialogue with state representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle who remain opposed to so-called 'right to work' and other attacks on middle-class Missourians.” That’s likely a reference to several Republican legislators who won his group's endorsement last election.

“While special interest groups like ALEC keep pushing unfair and dangerous legislation like 'right to work' bills, it is important to remember that here in Missouri many members of both parties recognize that these proposed laws are unnecessary and allow the government to interfere unfairly in the freedom of businesses and their employees,” Louis said.

For his part, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said in a statement to the Beacon that "we are set to meet as a caucus later this fall to discuss what policies we will pursue during the upcoming session.”

“I believe labor reform may be a topic of conversation, and I will listen to my colleagues over the next few months as we discuss ideas to put Missouri on the path to greater economic prosperity,” said Dempsey, who was endorsed by Missouri AFL-CIO last year during his unopposed re-election bid.

Jones, Diehl see issue as priority

While "right to work's" prospects in the Missouri Senate are murky, two high-ranking GOP House members are looking at the issue.

In separate Politically Speaking podcasts, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and House Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town Country, both said "right to work" would be a priority for the Missouri House.

After noting that six of Missouri’s eight bordering neighbors have adopted "right to work," Jones said the state “does definitely not exist in an oasis or a vacuum.”

“We really have a decision to make,” Jones said. “We can either look toward the states that are surrounding us, that are lowering their tax structure and either becoming 'right to work' states or maintaining that status. Or we can look to states in the Rust Belt to our east and to our north that are losing jobs, losing population and lowering and shrinking their economies.”

Jones added that “right to work” would have a good chance of passing in the Missouri House, especially since bills altering prevailing wage and direct depositing laws made it to the governor’s desk.

“It’s going to be on the agenda for next year,” he said.

When told that Jones was “serious” about pursuing "right to work" next year, state Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said during her appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast “that statement there frightens me in the first place. He wasn’t serious last time?”

Walsh – who is also the president of Missouri State Building & Construction Trades Council – previously told the Beacon she would be willing to “fall on the sword” to stop "right to work." She also said that people aiming to curb organized labor’s clout have painted an inaccurate picture of the movement.

“We are way past an age when folks think that labor leaders are big thugs that drive fat cars and have fat wallets. I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen both sides of it and I grew up with the labor leaders of today,” Walsh said. “And they’re young men with college degrees and sometimes young women. … They’re middle-class working people. And they just want to provide their members with a nice middle-class living.”

After noting that Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, has been a supporter of "right to work" for some time, Jones added “I don’t yet know how far the Senate’s willing to go.”

“But I’m willing to give them the opportunity,” he added.

Born to lose?

Kinder’s declaration that the legislature will send right the work for the voters to decide is a reflection of political realities.

Even with 24 members of the Senate and 109 members of the House, Republicans probably won’t have the votes to override Nixon's inevitable veto. Louis predicted that “a lot of Republicans don’t want their head in the guillotine when they have to vote on these issues.”

But even a ballot initiative is fraught with risk.  For one thing, a "right to work" ballot item failed decisively in 1978. If the legislature does put the issue up for a public vote, that could mobilize organized labor to the polls next year -- in the process hurting Republican legislative candidates, even those supporting labor’s position.

“Probably the only way that they could do anything with it is put it on the ballot,” Louis said. “I just don’t think there’s even a willingness of a lot of the other side of the aisle to do that.”

Still, Louis added “I don’t want to be in a position where it sounds like I’m confident about anything.” Walsh said “if I would say that we’re strong enough, I would be letting my guard down.”

Their trepidation may be warranted, especially if Republicans can capture the governor’s office in 2016 election. That may be why Attorney General Chris Koster urged building up Democratic ranks in the legislature. Not doing that, said Koster, could be “the difference between a Missouri that shoulders the strength to resist 'right to work' and one that does not." 

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.