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Right-to-Work hearing shows labor issues looming large over 2014 session

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Right-to-Work legislation appears to be at the top of the agenda for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The House Committee on Workforce Development and Workplace Safety met today in its first hearing of the year. The only bill on the agenda was HB 1099, sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.

Burlison’s bill is called the “Freedom to Work Act,” and would prohibit unions from requiring workers to pay dues to a union as a condition of employments. Lawmakers sparred for hours in the hearing, which at times grew outright contentious.

Burlison says the bill does weaken unions and would make the state more competitive in attracting businesses. Detractors argue that Right-to-Work lowers wages, weakens unions and reduces employment.

Lt. Gov Peter Kinder
Lt. Gov Peter Kinder

“We should take the coercive power of unions away and give it to the individual,” Burlison said during the hearing. “Take for example the electrician whose personal politics differ from the union he is in. This makes it illegal for that union to fire that employee if he refuses to pay union dues.”

Democrats on the committee took a strong tone against the legislation.

“What is the magic part of this bill that makes you say we are going to drive growth?” Rep. Michael Frame, D-High Ridge said. “This is going to lower wages, a Republican lawmaker who supports this bill admitted it.”

Frame was referring to last week’s RTW rally held in the Capitol and attended by dozens of Republican lawmakers. At the rally, Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said RTW would lower the average wage of Missouri workers, but that it would increase the total number of jobs.

“If a company hires new employees under Right-to-Work, there are probably bringing someone in at an entry level, and those people aren’t going to be paid what the long-time union workers are making,” Burlison said. “So yes, the average wage might be going down, but there are now more people in the workforce, and an individual has the right to do whatever is in their self interest when it comes to work.”

Mike Louis, Secretary Treasurer of the Missouri AFLCIO, said that Burlison’s analysis was flawed, and that Right-to-Work legislation will not suddenly cause new employees to be hired.

“A business is going to hire people if they need to hire more people in order to get their product to the market,” Louis said. “This idea that Right-to-Work will let us hire more workers for less and reduce costs is just wrong. Businesses hire when there is a demand.

At the same rally last week, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder voiced his characteristically strong support for Right-to-Work, and said earlier today that he fully expects the bill to pass the senate.

Rep. Eric Burlison
Rep. Eric Burlison

“It’s what Missourians want and it’s what our businesses need,” Kinder said. “As lawmakers we are supposed to help the state prosper, and we can’t do that until we become the 25th Right-to-Work state.”

Witnesses at the hearing spoke both in favor and in opposition of the legislation, but the majority of the turnout consisted of labor leaders and union workers.

Some Democrats suggested that Republican leadership scheduled a technical session for today in order to limit the number of lawmakers that would be present for the hearing. But Diehl’s office strongly denied the allegation.

Alex Curchin, Chief of Staff to Diehl, said that his office was, in fact, “happy to give Right-to-Work the spotlight today.”

While Burlison says he wants his bill to get to the senate as soon as possible, some Republican lawmakers have told him they would rather wait until after the candidate filing deadline for 2014 election before voting on the issue on the floor. Doing so could make it harder for organized labor to commit campaign funds to Republicans in vulnerable seats that for RTW.

However, the speed at which Burlison’s bill is moving through the House legislative process might suggest that the bill will arrive on the House floor early in the session.

But Senate Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told The Missouri Times that he is in no rush to handle “House priorities” until legislative priorities for his fellow senators had been addressed.

“Historically we deal with Senate priorities which this year include things like school transfers,” Dempsey said. “And then we move to House priorities, I imagine we’ll stick to that this year and begin dealing with House bills in March or April.”