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Government, Politics & Issues

Bills to change workers' rights high on state Senate's agenda

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2012 - Soon after the Indiana state House voted a few days ago in favor of making Indiana a "right-to-work" state, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry fired off a tweet alerting its thousands of followers of the bill's progress.

While Chamber president Dan Mehan said his staff was just taking note of the news, Greater St. Louis Labor Council president Bob Soutier saw the message as just another piece of evidence that the debate in the Missouri General Assembly over worker-related legislation is part of a national agenda orchestrated by big business.

"Certainly, it's a national push, with area chambers coming out against labor," said Soutier. "These companies want to control everything. They hurt workers, whether union or non-union."

Mehan disagrees. What's happening in Missouri and elsewhere, he said, is "a general focus on trying to create a solid business environment."

Changing the state's labor laws, especially those dealing with workers compensation, wages and discrimination, is part of an effort to make Missouri more competitive, Mehan added.

Either way, there's no dispute that the Missouri General Assembly, particularly the state Senate, is focusing early on such issues.

For at least a week, the Senate has been involved in a filibuster over a bill (SB592) -- vetoed last year by Gov. Jay Nixon -- to make it more difficult for workers to sue their employers for discrimination.

State Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah and the chief sponsor, says the bill would simply put Missouri's anti-discrimination laws in line with federal civil-rights protections. He and his allies contend that "a series of court reinterpretations by judges" over the past 10 years have skewed Missouri's law more toward workers.

The early push, says Lager, comes from the fact that re-introduced bills are often placed at the front of the legislative calendar.

But state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis and one of the filibuster's leaders, contends that the bill would weaken the state's Human Rights Act and "undo all the steps forward in the judicial process."

In addition, she added, "Corporations that are behind this bill have an interest in moving cases from state courts to federal courts," where judges tend to be less sympathetic and more likely to toss cases out.

"What Lager is trying to do is create more barriers that would benefit corporations," she said. "This is about profits over people."

Start of update: At a Jefferson City press conference, Rep. Steve Webb, D-Florissant, told reporters that "anything that brings us back a step toward discrimination, we're not going to stand for."

"Civil rights acts were put in place to protect people," said Webb, who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "These bills are derived in greed and discrimination and we're going to fight them as hard as they can."

Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, said that she's been told that Nixon will veto the bill if it gets to his desk. And state Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said the filibuster against the measure would last "as long as it takes." End of update.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Chamber continues to lobby on its behalf, while citing changes from the version vetoed by Nixon last year.

Rich AuBuchon with the chamber said this year's version has clearer language and stronger protections for whistleblowers and the disabled. The bill also would apply to businesses with six or more employees compared to the federal law that applies only to business with at least 15 employees, he said.

The chief aim remains the same. This year's bill, like last year's, would change Missouri's law so that discrimination would have to have been a "motivating factor" for an employer's alleged discriminatory action. State law now requires that discrimination be a "contributing factor."

Chappelle-Nadal says the filibuster will continue. The state Senate has procedures to allow leaders to break filibusters. Lager and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, say they don't foresee any immediate action to cut off the filibuster.

Lager is confident, however, that the bill -- perhaps with a few more amendments -- will pass the Senate and be sent to the state House.

Prevailing Wage Legislation

Other bills on the Senate's immediate schedule include proposals to curb or eliminate the requirement that the prevailing wage be paid for construction projects financed with state money, and to revamp the state's workers compensation system.

Mayer said in an interview that higher union wages in the urban areas leads to a higher prevailing wage in rural areas than what local wages actually would require. As a result, he said, local governments in rural communities tend to delay or drop projects because of the high pay.

Soutier disagrees and contends that rural legislators simply "hate St. Louis, hate the people" and propose bills reflecting that view. The loss of manufacturing jobs in rural Missouri has depressed wages for other sorts of work, he said.

Nixon, a former state senator, has said little publicly about any of the bills, except for the financially troubled workers compensation system, which the governor acknowledges needs to be tackled.

A Nixon spokesman said the governor will not comment on pending legislation.

Mehan said backers of Lager's bill on discrimination hope to meet with the governor next week. The chamber chief says that passage of that bill, along with changes in the state's workers compensation program, are among the chamber's top objectives this session.

'Right-to-work' Legislation

The chamber also backs so-called "right to work" -- which would bar companies from operating closed-union shops, in which all employees must pay union dues if the majority has voted to be in a union. Several such measures are pending in the Senate, where President Pro Tem Mayer has been a major proponent.

Missouri voters rejected a "right to work" proposal in 1978, which labor groups have dubbed "right to work for less." But some "right-to-work" proponents believe that Missouri's voters may be more sympathetic now to the idea -- particularly if Indiana succeeds in changing its labor laws for the first time in 47 years.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has said he will sign a "right-to-work" bill if it lands on his desk. Indiana's state Senate is expected to take up the issue soon.

Indiana's state House vote, which came amid huge acrimony in that state's Capitol, has been a thunderbolt in the right-to-work fight.

Mayer, the head of the Senate, said the Indiana vote "does offer optimism and encouragement" that more states are seeking to turn away from what he calls "forced unionism."

Mayer cites statistics from the federal Department of Commerce that he says show that younger workers are leaving states that don't have "right to work." Labor leaders in Missouri and elsewhere cite other figures that show many "right-to-work" states -- including Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina -- have higher unemployment rates than Missouri.

In any case, Mayer acknowledges that Nixon is likely to veto any "right-to-work" bill, and that the General Assembly probably doesn't have the votes to override the governor.

Mayer's proposal, as well as his prevailing wage bill, would skirt the governor by calling for a statewide vote on the matter. Missouri governors cannot block such votes, if the state House and Senate pass resolutions to put an issue on the ballot.

Mehan says the chamber's objective overall, in pressing these bills, is to make Missouri friendlier to business and to encourage out-of-state industry to "look here first."

But Soutier contends the aim is to drive down wages, and curb unions' clout. He points to the state's recent success in adding more good-paying jobs at the Ford and General Motors plants in the state.

Barriers to Cooperation

Labor leaders say the dispute over the bills has made it more difficult for both sides to work together on issues of potential common interest. Soutier cited, as an example, previous union-business efforts to push for measures to encourage a China trade hub at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, and to encourage the construction of a second nuclear power plant.

State Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake and a union electrician, says that Republican legislators in general -- and the Senate, in particular -- are more interested in politics with their decision to focus first on bills affecting workers.

Green cited the state's budget problems, controversies over education, efforts to improve the state's highways and the long-simmering fight over Ameren's now-dormant proposal to build a new nuclear plant.

"We have all these other issues, and we have a leader (Mayer) who wants to blame it all on labor," Green said. "The rhetoric is getting a little old."

Mayer replied that action is under way on the other matters, but that they slated to come up later during the session. He also acknowledged that measures affecting workers are a top priority of the Senate's Republican caucus -- as well as business leaders.

And as Mayer sees it, what's happening in Indiana could signal that his long-held stances are getting a new look.

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