Missouri revisits ‘right to work’
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
JEFFERSON CITY • Two different pictures of labor unions emerged Tuesday at a state Senate hearing on whether Missouri should outlaw contracts that make union dues a condition of employment.
On one side: those who see unions as scaring away new employers and taking away workers' individual liberties.
On the other: those who say unions provide a ready supply of trained workers and have helped build the middle class.
Both sides inundated the Senate General Laws Committee with economic studies and philosophical arguments in a packed public hearing. The committee is considering a bill that would make Missouri the 23rd state to pass a "right to work" law.
The measure would bar employers and workers from negotiating contracts that include "union security" clauses. Such clauses require workers to pay union dues or an equivalent fee to cover collective bargaining costs.
After decades of dormancy, the bill gained momentum this year when the new Senate leader, President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, made it a priority. Mayer said he had seen communities in southeastern Missouri lose businesses to Arkansas and Tennessee, both right-to-work states.
"This bill does not prevent unions," she said. "It does not prevent employees from joining unions. It does prevent an employee from being forced to join a union."
All of Missouri's bordering states except Illinois and Kentucky have adopted right-to-work laws. Oklahoma was the last state to adopt a right-to-work law, in 2001. Ridgeway said all the neighboring right-to-work states had lower unemployment rates than Missouri.
The bill's opponents, who have dubbed the bill "right to work for less," said wages and benefits were lower in the right-to-work states. They stressed that unions invest in training that assures safety on construction projects.
Emily Martin, chief executive officer of Aschinger Electric Co. in Fenton, said her company chose to rely on union workers because that guaranteed her a highly skilled work force.
"I may only have you here four months, but I know the quality's going to be there," she said.
Union supporters objected to descriptions of Missouri's current rules as "forced" unionization.
Workers at companies with unions can opt out, paying only the fees that cover collective bargaining negotiations and administration of pension funds, said Ron Gladney, a lawyer for the Missouri State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Gladney, who is married to U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, acknowledged that Missourians had "diverse" views on unions.
"I get that some folks in the Bootheel are scared of unions," Gladney said. "I'm not aware of a major organizing effort in outstate Missouri in the last 30 years."
By the same token, he said, "St. Louis doesn't want Bootheel views forced down their throat."
Whether the bill would make Missouri more competitive in luring new jobs is the key question, said committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield. On that point, the bill's supporters got some ammunition from Mark M. Sweeney, a site selection consultant from Greenville, S.C.
Sweeney, who advises companies looking to locate new plants, said that 75 percent of the manufacturers he works with "explicitly express a strong interest in being in a right-to-work state." About half of them won't even consider states that don't fit that bill, he said.
The National Right to Work Committee's director of legislation, Greg Mourad, said that while wages may be lower in right-to-work states, family income is higher when those states' lower cost of living is taken into account.
Although the committee took no vote on the measure, it appears likely to clear that hurdle next week. Still to be decided: whether to place it on the statewide ballot, a route that would sidestep a probable veto by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nixon's labor department chief, Lawrence Rebman, testified that the administration opposed the bill.
Missourians overwhelmingly defeated a right-to-work law in 1978 after a bitterly fought campaign. Since then, union membership has declined by more than half.
Even so, Missouri defied a national trend last year: Union membership rose in Missouri to 9.9 percent of working Missourians from 9.4 percent in 2009, according to a report released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationwide, unionized workers fell to 11.9 percent of the work force, from 12.3 percent in 2009. For the first time, government employees accounted for more than half of the nation's union membership.
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