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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri House passes, but may have killed, 'right to work'

Reps. Sue Entlicher and Eric Burlison during the right-to-work debate. 5.13.2015
Tim Bommel | Missouri House of Representatives

Amid a sex-text scandal engulfing the House speaker, the Missouri House voted Wednesday to approve an anti-union bill that would make Missouri the nation's 26th "right-to-work" state.

But the 92-66 vote was well shy the 109 needed to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s promised veto, prompting even some Republican lawmakers to blast their leadership for pressing for the controversial matter during the session’s final week.

“This symbolic gesture has killed all of our bills,’’ said state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. “Does this make any sense?”

“Right to work” would bar employers and unions from requiring all workers to pay dues if a majority have voted to join a union. Such an arrangement is called a “closed shop.”

Backers contend that the measure would make Missouri more attractive to business, while opponents asserted it would hurt workers. Wednesday's vote was almost identical to the House tally when it first voted on the issue in February.

Assuming Nixon vetoes the bill, the House and Senate would attempt possible overrides in September during the annual veto session.

The bill’s chief House sponsor, Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, contended the aim was to give workers more freedom and flexibility. Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, asserted the real intention was to help the wealthy. “This is for the 1 percent,’’ she said.

House Democrats also pointed to language in the Senate version that would impose penalties – including possible jail time -- on employers who had closed-shop arrangements with unions.

Burlison and other allies acknowledged the troublesome language, but added that they doubted that judges would impose such harsh punishment.

Diehl’s troubles divert attention

The three-hour debate was further muddied by sexual allegations directed at House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, who is accused of exchanging sexually suggestive texts with a college-age intern, some of which implied a relationship.

The Kansas City Star published screen shots of the alleged texts on its website Wednesday.

Nixon, others weigh in -- on right-to-work

As expected, Nixon criticized the House's action. He also zeroed in on the Senate-added provisions that penalize businesses. “In fact, rolling back the rights of working people would weaken our economy by lowering wages and making it harder for middle class families to move up the economic ladder," the governor said. "This bill also takes the extreme step of subjecting Missouri employers to criminal and unlimited civil liability, which would stifle growth and discourage investment in our state."

Also blasting the bill was Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a fellow Democrat running for governor in 2016.  “Simply put, right-to-work is about lowering wages in the construction industry, and it's part of a long-term effort to reduce wages generally across our economy," Koster said. "I firmly disagree with this economic philosophy. I would never use government policy to lower the earnings of doctors, teachers or engineers, and we shouldn't use our government to lower the wages of folks who build our cities and towns, either."

But GOP gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway, a former House speaker, praised the bill and called on Nixon to sign it into law. "States such as Michigan and Wisconsin have recently passed right-to-work into law in an effort to say they are open for new investment and new jobs," she said. "It is time for Missouri to follow suit."

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry also praised the General Assembly's action. This session was the first time either chamber had passed a right-to-work bill. “This means more jobs and opportunities for our state, plain and simple,” said state chamber president Dan Mehan.  “Too often, Missouri has been overlooked by businesses looking to expand because we were not a right-to-work state..."

Senate still paralyzed

In the Senate, no work was being finished, as Democrats made good on their promise to block votes on legislation because the Republicans had used parliamentary maneuvers to force a vote on right to work.

Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this article.

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