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Latest News - May 2015

May 14, 2015
Why Missouri unions see right-to-work as a threat
By: Jim Gallagher

If “right-to-work” becomes law in Missouri, some unions will lose lots of money and tens of thousands of workers will have a new choice: They can continue paying union dues, or not.

Other possible effects are the subject of a continuing argument. Will financially weakening unions make employers more willing to hire people in Missouri? Will weaker unions lead to lower wages?

The Missouri Legislature passed a right-to-work law and sent it Wednesday to Gov. Jay Nixon, who is expected to veto it. It passed without the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto, but the Missouri Chamber of Commerce plans a campaign of persuasion.

The bill would prohibit “union shop” and “agency shop” contracts. Those are contracts in which the employer agrees that all covered employees must pay dues or fees to the union, usually by paycheck deduction.

About 84,000 people in the St. Louis region belong to unions that are members of the St. Louis Labor Council. Council President Pat White estimates that less than half work under dues-required contracts. For the rest, payment is already optional.

Agency shop contracts cover workers at several major employers here, including Ameren, Boeing, Laclede Gas, phone companies and big grocery chains, White notes.

The bill would declare mandatory dues requirements “unlawful, null and void and of no legal effect.” But it exempts existing labor contracts temporarily. The prohibition would take effect when those contracts are renegotiated or extended.

The bill wouldn’t apply to federal workers and workers on “exclusive federal enclaves,” such as military bases. Workers under the National Railway Labor Act — mainly airline and railroad workers — are also exempt. Federal law preempts state rules for those workers.

The bill makes it a class C misdemeanor — punishable by 15 days in jail — to require people to pay dues. It requires prosecutors and the attorney general to investigate complaints.

If it passes, unions will have to persuade workers to keep paying. They have a mixed record on that. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) represents 6,000 Missouri state employees. Its contract with the state doesn’t require dues payment, and only about 1,000 voluntarily pay dues amounting to a bit over 1 percent of their wages.

White says other unions get voluntary payments from nearly all covered workers.

“No matter how hard you work, some folks are going to choose not to pay it,” White said.

It’s clear that many unions would collect less money. That will hurt unions’ ability to negotiate contracts and defend members, White said. That could lead to lower pay and more job injuries, if unions are less effective in pushing safety concerns, he says.

Unions are major suppliers of campaign contributions and volunteers. Union support goes mainly to Democrats, although Missouri unions have endorsed some Republican legislators.

“It potentially means we can’t support any political candidate in the way we’d like to,” said Bradley Harmon, president of Local 6355 of the CWA.

Right-to-work would be another blow to a suffering labor movement in Missouri. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 8.4 percent of Missouri workers were in unions last year, down from 15.5 percent in 1989. Membership numbered 214,000. Nationally, 11 percent of workers are union members.

Until recently, right-to-work was mainly a phenomenon of the South and rural West. However, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana have passed right-to-work laws in recent years.

States bordering Missouri are right-to-work, except for Illinois and Kentucky. Right-to-work states number 25.

The argument over right-to-work has become a war of polls and studies. Advocates point to studies showing faster job growth in right-to-work states. Opponents note that wages are lower there. In fact, it’s difficult to parse the effect of right-to-work laws from everything else influencing a state’s economy and business decisions.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce commissioned a Gallup poll of CEOs in Missouri and consultants who find sites for business expansion. It found that 54 percent of CEOs “strongly” agree that right-to-work would benefit the state, said Chamber President Dan Mehan. The site selectors estimated that “prospect flow” — businesses looking at Missouri as a possible location — would rise 60 percent if right-to-work became law.

Opponents point to 2011 studies by the liberal Economic Policy Institute asserting that wages are 3.2 percent lower in right-to-work states, and that workers there are less likely to have health insurance and pensions.

Right-to-work advocates say it’s unfair to force workers to pay an organization they don’t support.

Unions note that federal rules require unions to defend all workers covered by their contracts, whether or not they pay dues or join the union. “Free riders” benefit unfairly, the unions say.

Right-to-work advocates respond that unions are free to negotiate contracts that cover only their members, and leave nonmembers out. Unions rarely take that option.




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