Could Wisconsin happen here? | St. Louis Public Radio

Could Wisconsin happen here?

Feb 24, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2011 - In Wisconsin, the governor and public employees are in a bitter standoff while Democratic state senators are holed up in Illinois and Republican state legislators cheer the governor on. The fight centers on the collective-bargaining rights allowed under the state and Wisconsin's major role in providing pensions and public-employee benefits.

Since protests began in Wisconsin, trouble has also started brewing in Indiana and Ohio. Could it also erupt in Missouri and Illinois?

It depends.

The situation in Missouri is much different than Wisconsin's. From a practical standpoint, Missouri does not allow collective-bargaining for public employees like teachers and firefighters. Another difference: Teachers, firefighters and police in Missouri have separate pension agreements with school districts and local governments that don't count on any financial contributions from the state government.

The other big difference between Missouri and Wisconsin? Missouri has a Democratic governor who has no desire to challenge the state's unions because they are likely to be key in Gov. Jay Nixon's quest for re-election in 2012.

As a result, labor and business leaders in Missouri don't see the prospect for the type of unrest that has packed Wisconsin's state Capitol for weeks. The one possible monkey wrench in the works is an escalating fight in Missouri's state Capitol over "right to work."

The Situation in Illinois

The differences are even more stark in Illinois, where the Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled legislature also have chosen not to target unions or public employees in their budget-cutting talks.

Illinois does allow collective bargaining for public employees, and the state government does kick in some money into the teachers' pension plan. But the state is behind in its allocated payments, which has prompted long-term concerns.

Still, teachers groups there are generally confident they won't won't see Wisconsin-style discord, citing the presence of a Democratic governor, Gov. Pat Quinn.

Robert Blade, vice president of the Illinois Education Association/NEA, said that members had been concerned that they would have been targeted if Republican Bill Brady had defeated Quinn last fall.

"Obviously, (what's happening in Wisconsin) is a concern," Blade said. "But we think it's less likely here."

In fact, Illinois has become a temporary safe-haven for Democratic legislators from Wisconsin and Indiana who have left their states to block legislative action on bills deemed anti-union. Illinois was selected because Quinn wasn't going to call out state police to hunt down the fleeing legislators.

Wisconsin and Indiana have Republican governors and Republican majorities in their legislatures. A number of Republican governors around the country are targeting public-employee unions, which are accused of aggravating the states' budget problems. The unions say their existence has little to do with the economic issues facing their states.

The Indiana battle, by the way, also is over a right-to-work measure.

Missouri Public Employees Lack Rights of Wisconsin's

Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, and others agree that Missouri wouldn't have a Wisconsin-style battle because the state currently doesn't offer the broad public employee collective-bargaining rights workers in Wisconsin and some other Midwestern states enjoy.

In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution -- which grants collective bargaining -- applies to public as well as private employees. That ruling, on paper, offers a general protection for the type of rights now being debated in Wisconsin and several other Midwestern states. But the Missouri General Assembly has yet to approve any sort of procedure for such bargaining.

The result, on a practical level, is that it's up to local governments or school districts to decide whether to engage in any collective bargaining involving public employees, such as teachers or firefighters.

The upshot, says Soutier, is that Missouri's public employees in effect "don't have the power to collectively bargain."

Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri National Education Association, said that some school districts -- such as several in the St. Louis area -- do voluntarily conduct talks with teachers groups over wages, benefits and working conditions. Others do not.

Guinther said that the key similarity in Missouri and Wisconsin is that many people "don't understand what collective bargaining does for a state," as far as promoting mutual respect and better working conditions.

Financially, there's also another difference with Wisconsin's public employees.

Missouri teachers and school districts jointly fund -- 50-50 -- the statewide teacher pension system, which does not involve state general-revenue money. So teacher pensions generally haven't been a matter for legislators to deal with.

As of Jan. 1, Missouri state workers have seen a difference in their pension payments and benefits. Last year, Missouri legislators -- at the behest of Nixon -- took action to curb the pensions and hike the contributions for state employees hired as of Jan. 1. Previously, state workers did not contribute to their pension systems.

Dan Mehan, chief executive for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, gives lots of credit to Nixon and the General Assembly because they "have balanced the budget without a tax increase."

The result, said Mehan, is that Missouri has no huge deficit crisis like that cited by governors in Wisconsin and some other states.

"You haven't seen the same approach (as in Wisconsin) because we haven't had to do the things some states have had to do," Mehan added.

The Looming Debate over 'Right to Work'

Still, labor-government peace in Missouri is hardly assured. The state General Assembly has a pending battle over right to work, a measure that would bar "closed-union'' shops in the state's private businesses. Now, all workers must pay union dues if a majority approve union representation.

"Right to work is one of those incendiary issues," said Mehan of the Missouri Chamber.

On that point, area union leaders agree. Soutier took note of the packed legislative hearings that already have taken place in Jefferson City when the state Senate's right-to-work proposal has come up.

If Republican legislators continue to press right to work, Soutier said, the political rancor in Missouri could heat up quickly.

Backers of a right-to-work law say it would make Missouri more business-friendly. Unions say it would drive down wages.

Wednesday, Mehan told the Beacon that the Missouri Chamber did not make right to work one of its key objectives this session because some businesses have no objection to current laws. On Thursday, though, the Chamber announced its support for the "right-to-work" legislation. "Our members believe that a right-to-work policy could open the door to businesses moving to Missouri -- as well as help keep vital companies in our state and encourage rehiring and new hiring," said Mehan in a release.

Soutier and other labor activists believe that Nixon would veto any right-to-work bill that gets through the legislature. "Gov. Nixon is strongly behind workers in this state,'' Soutier said.

In addition, while Republicans hold huge majorities in both chambers, it's unclear if the GOP has enough votes to override a veto. Several Republican senators, for example, have declared their opposition to "right to work."

An unsteady peace

Mehan is critical of the Wisconsin Democratic legislators' decisions to flee their state, and of the Wisconsin teachers' activism that temporarily closed schools.

But all sides agree that's also not likely to happen in Missouri. Aside from the lack of collective bargaining rights for teachers, Republicans hold such majorities in Missouri's state House and Senate that they can conduct business without any Democrats present.

A spokeswoman for Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said that the state also has tougher rules regarding absent senators. "According to Senate Rule 8, senators absent without excuse may be taken into custody wherever they may be found," she said. "Plus, the absent senator(s) would foot the expense for the effort to find and return them to the Senate."

In any case, Soutier warns that the mood in Missouri can quickly sour if the General Assembly presses ahead with efforts to pass right-to-work legislation.

He noted that Missouri currently is "an 'employment at will' state,'' which allows non-union workers to be fired for any reason.

If some legislators continue to press for "right to work,'' Soutier said, "maybe we'll put something on the ballot to cut the size of the legislature or their pay. Or ask voters, 'Should an employer have to have a reason to fire you?' "

"Workers are under attack everywhere and they are rising up," Soutier said. "They see what is going on."