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'Right to work' effort fails in Missouri House, will be top issue in 2016

Union supporters wore bright red/orange shirts that showed up in the gallery.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 12:40 a.m. Sept. 17 with legislative leaders' comments - Backers of “right to work” fell 13 votes short in the Missouri House, killing the most successful effort so far in the state to enact the law to curb union rights in the workplace.

The Missouri House voted 96-63 Wednesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the bill, which would have barred unions and employers from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees.

The House needed at least 109 votes, and leaders of both sides had privately expected the chamber to fall short. The vote kills the measure, a combined version of HB116 and HB569. As a result, the Senate didn't act.

House Speaker Todd Richardson said later that he'll work with the GOP caucus to see if a revised version of "right to work'' that would be veto-proof can be crafted during the next legislative session that begins in January.  Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, contended that he had the necessary 23 votes in the Senate for an override, if the measure had gotten through the House.

This year's battle marked the first time that a "right to work'' bill had passed the General Assembly. Missouri voters had rejected a ballot proposal in 1978. So far, 25 states have passed a "right to work" law.

Backers say their aim is to give workers more freedom and save their money, while critics say the effort is geared toward cutting wages and reducing labor's political clout.

Pandemonium erupted in the House’s public galleries, which had been packed with activists on both sides, right after the vote. The seats, and the Capitol’s halls, soon emptied.

Backers of “right to work’’ said the vote will fire up their efforts to get a Republican elected as governor in 2016.

Right to work could be centerpiece in 2016 election

All the major GOP candidates have pledged to back the measure. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the only major Democrat seeking the post, has been vocal in his opposition. Koster addressed labor activists at an anti-right to work event last weekend, while several GOP candidates addressed like-minded lawmakers at a gathering in the House gallery Wednesday morning.

Richardson observed later, "There hasn't been a state that's enacted 'right to work' without a Republican governor."

The visitors gallery in the House chamber emptied out quickly after the vote on right to work.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
The visitors gallery in the House chamber emptied out quickly after the vote on right to work.

The political power of the issue was evident when even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in: "...In Missouri, lawmakers said enough is enough.  And by doing that, they scored a victory for Missourians and workers everywhere."

 Four House Republicans did switch their “no’’ votes from last May, including three from the St. Louis area: Reps. Robert Cornejo of St. Peters, Randy Pietzman of Troy and Dan Shaul of Imperial. All three joined Jim Neely of Cameron in voting in favor of the override.

Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Berkeley, was the only Democrat voting in favor of “right to work.”

The vote came after almost two hours of debate. The chief sponsor, Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said it was needed to shift the employer-employee balance. He said the federal Wagner Act of 1935 had given unions and workers too much power. In Missouri, he said, the result has hurt the state's economic climate.

Opponents contended that the aim of "right to work" was to reduce wages and reduce workers' protections. Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, asserted, "Greed, greed, greed. This what this is about."

Reaction passionate on both sides

Missouri labor leaders were jubilant.

The statement by Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, was typical: "...Reducing wages, eliminating benefits, and working to take away collective bargaining rights are not how we value work in this country, but they are exactly what 'right to work' laws are designed to do. But brave Republicans and Democrats stood up today to show that they believe in the working men and women of Missouri and in the value of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Nixon declared in a statement that the vote "sent a clear message to the nation that Missouri will stand by its workers and oppose attempts by outside special interests to cut wages and weaken the middle-class. I look forward to working with leaders in the House and Senate on the bipartisan priorities that will truly strengthen our economy -- like creating jobs, balancing budgets, investing in our local schools and making college more affordable.”

Meanwhile, Dan Mehan, chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry made clear his disappointment. "...As a state that doesn’t support right-to-work protections, Missouri will continue to be overlooked for job creation and business expansion opportunities," he said.  "If we are going to change our economy and create jobs for the future, we need to start with passing right-to-work. This issue is not going away.”

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Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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