Right To Work Ignites Heated Debate
Jefferson City, MO — “Right to Work” legislation is as controversial as advertised, and the proof was in the pudding during a House hearing for the Committee on Workforce Development and Workplace Safety on Wednesday, Jan 6.
The hearing focused on HB 77, known as the “Freedom to Work Act,” a bill that would make Missouri a Right to Work state. The legislation stipulates that no individual would be required to pay dues or become a member of a labor organization in order to gain employment. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison and co-sponsored by House Speaker Tim Jones.
Jones, as well as Minority leader Jacob Hummel, attended the hearing, which had to be broken into two parts due to the number of individuals testifying. Hummel has ex-officio status on all committees, which permits him to sit or speak at any committee hearing. Hummel informed the committee that morning he was going to be addressing Burlison. Hummel said he had to fight for his opportunity to speak.
“I told them I would be speaking this morning,” Hummel said. “But chairman [Rep. Bill Lant] told me I couldn’t. So I had to get the rule book and show him that I had the right to come and speak.”
Hummel grilled Burlison for several minutes, implying Burlison filed the legislation at the behest of others, and not for his own ideological reasons
“I’m just trying to figure out if your constituents asked for this bill, or if a company in your district asked for it, or if the Republican leadership asked for it,” Hummel said.
Burlison told Hummel the bill was his own doing and that his intention was to “give Missourians the right to be employed anywhere.” The language is similar to the “model” legislation on Right to Work designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Burlison denied ALEC’s model was the inspiration for his own legislation.
Supporters and detractors testified before the committee, though the crowd was largely comprised of union members who made the trip to Jefferson City to show their opposition to the bill.
Hummel argued that Missouri was “already a Right to Work state.” He and his Democratic colleagues did almost all of the talking. After more than one hour into the second meeting of the committee and testimony from both sides of the issue, the only Republican to speak aloud was Representative Ken Hampton.
Representatives Frame and Webber frequently contributed to the dialogue, at times in heated exchanges with the witnesses.
Webber debated a Missouri home care owner that referred to the 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative as “forced unionization.” The witness claimed that no vendors advocated for the unionization and that unions had become political machines, not entities for workers. Representatives Webber and Frame both harshly criticized the testimony. Frame called it a “lie.”
“I personally took calls from people while I was was working on that, employees to come and get involved in that piece of legislation,” Frame said. “Let’s try to keep the testimony honest.”
Webber told the audience he’d worked on the Prop 8 2008 campaign as well and that the testimony was “flatly untrue.” No Republican committee members responded to the charge.
“Nobody can force you to pay dues, or join a union,” Hummel said. “You already have the right to work anywhere, but if you want the benefits of the union, the benefits to collectively bargain, then you need to pay the dues and have that membership. This bill is just going to let people reap the benefits of a union without having to contribute.”
Both sides have argued that wages would decrease as a result of either passing the new legislation, or maintaining the status quo. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Missouri workers earn an annual mean wage of $40,500. In Kansas, where there is a Right to Work law, mean wages stand at $40,030 annually.
Burlison, who hails from Springfield, said he’s seen manufacturing companies leave the area for states that were more “business friendly,” and told The Missouri Times that his own family members were effected by this move
“I like to call this ‘Freedom to Work,’” Burlison told The Missouri Times. “Obviously, you want a job with benefits and with a good salary, but considering the alternative, sometimes it is better just to have a job at all.”
Burlison said employees in the state were required to pay union fees, typically known as “assessment fees,” even if they exercised their legally protected right not to join.
“I think everyone involved in this issue is pro-worker,” Burlison said. “Let’s say you’re a worker and you don’t want to be a union member. Maybe you want to negotiate on your own, maybe you don’t feel they are working for you, or whatever the reason is. You give up your union rights, but you still pay the fees, which are usually the same as union dues. That’s not pro-worker.”
Burlison said the largest employers preferred unions because it provided them an opportunity to “please a small number of people instead of pleasing all the workers.” Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, does not allow their employees to unionize.
“Some companies might find it advantageous not to have unions, but I think you’ll find that most of them like it, because all they have to do is negotiate with union reps, not their actual workers,” Burlison said.
Both sides appear to be gearing up for a major fight. Representatives from both sides of the debate, who are not on the committee, came in and out to hear testimony and show their support. More than 100 union members were in the hearing on Wednesday, while pro-Right to Work activists met Tuesday evening to strategize.
Speaker Jones offered unqualified support for Burlison and his legislation.
“Today’s hearing was proof of the importance of this legislation to those on both sides of the issue. HB 77 is in good hands though, knowing Rep. Burlison very clearly presented how the “Freedom to Work Act” will boost prosperity in Missouri and also protect the freedom of workers to join, or not join a union” –
Vicki Englund — who sits on committees for small business and economic development and is considered a leading voice on labor in the Capitol — was critical of the bill in a statement to The Missouri Times:
“The national discussion about right to work is not for Missouri. Missourians want good-paying jobs, not distractions. We all want to support our families and have pride in what we do everyday. You don’t get that from right to work. Period.”
One House member, who asked not to be identified, said the promise of a gubernatorial veto and divisions among the Republican caucus could kill the bill before it ever becomes law. Burlison has indicated he would file the bill again next session, should it fail.
Former state senator and current House member, Kevin Engler said he didn’t think the party had enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, and that compromise was the only solution to get it done.
“They don’t have the votes in the House for a veto override,” Engler said. “They should be focusing on something that will have some kind of bi-partisan support, that way at least something can get done.
He wasn’t the only person who was pessimistic about the future of the bill.
“I don’t think they have the votes, I think their membership is divided and I think the governor would veto it anyway,” said the member who asked not to be named while negotiations were still taking place. “You’ll see some crossover on this vote, some of their guys are going to vote against it; they’ve got union membership in their districts they can’t afford to alienate.”
Collin Reischman can be reached by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @CReischman