Timing of Missouri Right-to-Work Vote Up in the Air (1)

By Christopher Brown

Labor leaders in Missouri are objecting to an effort by lawmakers to change the date when voters will decide whether to repeal the state’s right-to-work law.

The law, which prohibits companies from requiring workers to join unions or pay dues as a condition of employment, was passed in 2017. It was put on hold after opponents collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue at the next general election.

The measure was to appear on the November ballot, but a move afoot in the state Capitol would put the question to a vote during the August primary instead. Voter turnout is generally lower during primary elections.

Repeal of right to work would be a significant blow to Gov. Eric Greitens (R) and Republican leaders in the legislature. They have made rewriting labor laws a central theme of the past two legislative sessions.

Trickery Alleged

“This is nothing more than deceit and trickery that is designed to confuse the voters,” Mike Louis, president of the AFL-CIO in Missouri, said. Lawmakers are “trying to have the vote take place at an election where the turnout is 50 percent less than in a general election. They just want the least amount of resistance they can find.”

And resistance is what they will get, Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council, told Bloomberg Law.

“We were able to get 310,000 people to sign petitions around the state, which was three times as many signatures as we needed,” he said. “No one’s ever been able to do that with a petition drive before.”

Rep. Holly Rehder (R), the sponsor of the bill to shift voting to August, said in a recent Facebook post that the purpose is to settle the issue more quickly and allow the state to reap the benefits of being a right-to-work state as soon as possible.

Ray McCarty, president and chief executive officer of pro-business Associated Industries of Missouri, said his organization sees right-to-work as crucial to Missouri’s attempt to compete with other states.

“For us the biggest benefit of right-to-work is its effect on economic development and recruiting companies to our state,” McCarty told Bloomberg Law. “That’s why we want this resolved as quickly as possible. We want to be able to advertise Missouri as a right-to-work state, the sooner the better.”

Senate Race Affected?

Rep. Ken Kendrick (D), the House minority whip, thinks the move to change the date reflects a desire by Republicans to influence the U.S. Senate race. Incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is likely going to face Josh Hawley (R), the Missouri attorney general, in November.

Kendrick’s theory presumes widespread voter support for rejecting the right-to-work law. He believes Republicans fear having Hawley face McCaskill on an Election Day when voter turnout will be boosted by the emotions surrounding right to work.

Hawley’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg Law.

Governor’s Trial Could Be Diversion

Opinion is mixed on the chances that the date-change bill will pass in the remaining two weeks of the Missouri legislative session.

McCarty sees possible trouble ahead for the measure, given the lack of time and the possibility that the Legislature’s attention will be diverted by the controversies surrounding Greitens.

The governor is set to be tried in May on felony invasion-of-privacy charges related to a sex scandal as well as a felony computer-tampering charge related to his campaign’s fund-raising efforts. A state House committee has also been investigating Greitens.

“If this measure doesn’t get out of the House by the end of the week, that could make it difficult for the bill to make it through,” McCarty said May 2. “Not impossible, but very dicey.” The legislative session ends May 18.

Otto Fajen, legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association, told Bloomberg Law that the bill still has a “solid chance” of being passed.

“We’ve been picking up signals that this is a top priority item for Republican leadership, that they really want to get this election moved,” he said. “And they may be willing to push it through.”

H.C.R. 102 has yet to appear on the House calendar, which establishes the order in which bills will be debated. A spokeswoman for Speaker Todd Richardson (R) told Bloomberg Law that no decision has been made as to when it will appear.