Last week, as a sexting scandal overtook the Missouri House of Representatives, state legislators voted on one of the more contentious bills that had come before them this year: A right-to-work law that would prevent unions from collecting fees from workers they represent but who don’t want to pay. Such measures have been sweeping the Midwest, with Wisconsin recently becoming the 25th state in the country to pass one, boding ill for organized labor down the road.
The vote was chaotic, with Republicans breaking age-old protocols to end a Democratic filibuster as the end of the session approached. The bill passed, but not by enough to sustain an expected veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, which means the unions averted another setback. The deciding votes: A bloc of 24 Republicans who bucked their party’s leadership to vote against making Missouri right-to-work.
That’s rare, considering how closely unions have aligned themselves with Democrats over the years. And it’s a consequence of Missouri’s political geography at the moment, with moderate Republicans being elected in fast-growing exurban counties that might be socially conservative but whose residents are still largely members of trade unions. Places, for example, like Jefferson County, home to seven members of the anti-right-to-work GOP contingent.
“They’re playing to their constituents. They want to get reelected,” says Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
It’s certainly true that unions made themselves heard in those districts. State Rep. Kathie Conway, a Republican from St. Charles County, says she didn’t have strong feelings about right-to-work laws, but made up her mind after detecting strong pro-union sentiment even among her conservative electorate.
“As I talk with people in our district, a lot of the union members agree with GOP on issues of the second amendment, taxes, and right to life -- but this was a dividing issue for them,” Conway says. “They might be with you on lots of other issues, but if you try and mess with their livelihood, they would not be with you.”
But Republicans had affirmative reasons why they voted the way they did as well. Their case against right-to-work laws had three main points.
First: Unions can actually attract employers, because they provide the trained workforce that corporate leaders need to do business.
“The number one thing that Missouri is missing, that businesses are looking for, is workforce development,” said Rep. John McCaherty (R) during floor debate, citing a poll by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. “They were looking for trained individuals. You know what they’re looking for training in? Construction. Machinsts. Welders. Our unions are training people to do those jobs. So our answer to that poll is to do away with the people who are doing that work. That’s confusing to me.”
Although it’s declined over the years, Missouri still has a substantial auto manufacturing industry, as well as electricians, pipefitters, carpenters, and other trades with robust training systems that orient young people who may not have a college degree, but can learn to fix the plumbing.
The second argument the Republican lawmakers made has do with meddling in other peoples’ choices. There are plenty of non-union shops to work for if you’d rather avoid unions, says Rep. Shane Roden, and nobody’s forcing union members to stick with the representation they have.
“Any of these organizations, if they feel necessary to go from a closed shop to an open shop, the members can always vote to open that shop up,” says Roden. “That’s up to them. As a conservative, I don’t think we need to be basically sticking our noses into private individuals’ business. It’s a contractual agreement between employer and employee.”
Finally, conservatives argued that debates over right-to-work legislation -- as contentious as they are -- are a distraction from issues that really need attention, like taxes, education, and infrastructure.
“We have more problems in this state that need more attention than this by far,” said Rep. Ron Hicks, a former firefighter, during the floor debate. “How about we protect the jobs we already have, Instead of trying to get rid of them. How about we try to build our economy? Let's go back 10, 15 years ago. Small businesses booming, I didn't hear about right to work issue in this state. Why? Because there was enough to go around.”
And besides, Hicks pointed out, it’s not like unions are a huge threat these days, since they represent only 8.5 percent of the population in Missouri. “Come on. Why are we picking on em?” he asked. “Who’s the bully now?”
The right-to-work bill is by no means dead in Missouri, with a confluence of increasingly powerful Republicans from rural areas and interest from outside groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and National Right to Work Committee helping to push it forward. And if a Republican ever wins the Governor’s mansion, as is the case in many states with increasingly conservative legislatures, the unions’ battle is likely lost.
But for now, in Missouri, the conservative case against right-to-work laws has allowed the unions to fight another day.
Correction: This post originally said that three Republicans from Jefferson County voted against the right to work bill. In fact, seven who represent parts of Jefferson County did so.