JOPLIN, Mo. —
Missouri could become the nation’s 23rd right-to-work state if some legislators get their way this spring.
Lawmakers last week debated a number of right-to-work measures that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and many union officials oppose.
One of those bills is sponsored by state Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin.
Stacey Salmon, business manager with the Western Missouri and Kansas Laborers’ District Council, characterized the right-to-work legislation as “an attack on unions and the middle class.”
“I think our local legislators want good-paying jobs for people here, but that’s not what they’ll get,” he said. “It will be a race to the bottom.”
But proponents of the legislation say it will bring jobs to the state, especially for the middle class — jobs that are going to other states now.
White said current Missouri laws are seen by those involved in economic development as the reason some manufacturers choose neighboring states such as Kansas or Oklahoma.
White’s bill specifies that no worker, to be hired or to keep a job, will be required to join a union or pay union dues. White said his bill “is a freedom-of-association issue.”
“Why should someone have to join a union and pay dues to be able to work? I don’t think that’s what this country’s about,” he said.
“Only 11.9 percent of the work force is union. I don’t think they can make the case that the other 88 percent can’t have a good job, or do a good job.”
In Missouri now, if a majority of workers in an operation vote to join a union, all of the workers in the operation are required to join the union. The right-to-work legislation would eliminate that requirement.
Though he favors moving Missouri into the “right-to-work” column of states, Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, does not think the measure will come to a head in this legislative session. Richard said he doubts any of the bills will advance to a vote when the Senate returns after spring break on Friday.
Senate President Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, favors right-to-work, Richard noted, but Democrats are opposed, he said, along with some Republican senators from urban areas.
“There’s just too many votes against out-state (senators),” he said. “I don’t think it stands a chance in the House, because leadership there doesn’t like it,” said Richard, who was House speaker before his election to the Senate.
Nixon, a Democrat, said he doesn’t think the change “would move the economy forward.”
“Gov. Nixon’s top priority has been to create and retain jobs in Missouri,” said Scott Holste, Nixon’s press secretary. “Right-to-work does not create jobs — in all the dealings he’s had with businesses to bring jobs to Missouri, right-to-work has not been an issue.”
Holste said the office would not speculate on the prospect of a veto since there is no final bill, but added: “The governor has made it clear that he opposes right-to-work.”
But Richard, who also was involved in statewide economic development efforts as chairman of the House Committee on Economic Development and Job Creation, disagrees. He said right-to-work factors in to costs of labor, which are issues that are examined by potential employers along with job training, work-force quality and infrastructure.
“I’ve always been told (right-to-work) makes the state more attractive, particularly to manufacturers,” he said.
Union official say work-force quality and training are enhanced by strong unions. Union workers are better trained, after union apprenticeships of two to three years, Salmon said.
“And that’s not tax dollars paying for it,” he said.
Union officials and their members are pushing back against the measure, lobbying in Jefferson City and organizing rallies in Kansas City and St. Louis recently. They also have pressed their case in other parts of the state, including stops in Joplin.
Mike Frommer, business agent with Local 2 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the right-to-work proposals “a political attack” designed to weaken unions.
“We have higher wages than some of our right-to-work neighbors,” he said. “I think you need to look at the auto plant that pulled out of Oklahoma. What did right-to-work do to keep that auto manufacturer in the state? It looks to me like nothing.”
General Motors closed an auto plant in Oklahoma City in 2006 that at one point employed more than 2,000 people.
“Why does business think it’s better?” Frommer asked. “The answer is obvious; so they can pay less.”
Those working on economic development projects view it differently, said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
He cited as an example meetings last year with 17 site consultants in New York, Chicago and Dallas.
“At one point we were asking how Missouri can be better positioned to be attractive to their clients. With eight of 17, their first response was that Missouri could become a right-to-work state,” he said.
O’Brian said companies looking for new locations “have a checklist and are looking to narrow the field. Right-to-work is one of the factors they use.”
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry also came out in support of efforts to make Missouri a right-to-work state.
“It is common knowledge that many site selectors and economic development consultants won’t even consider locating businesses in a state that is not right-to-work,” Daniel Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO, said in a statement.
But Mike Kelsay, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, doesn’t think right-to-work is a crucial issue with employers. Oklahoma became a right-to-work state in 2001, but that hasn’t been its magic bullet.
“Since then, manufacturing has declined in Oklahoma; they’ve had to double their state incentives to attract business,” Kelsay said.
He cited a survey in which manufacturers ranked right-to-work 14th in importance, behind such factors as highways, availability of skilled labor, state and local tax incentives, tax exemptions and construction costs.
The Missouri House of Representatives last week passed a proposal to amend the state’s Constitution to guarantee a secret ballot in workplace elections when organizing a union is at issue.