JEFFERSON CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment requiring secret ballots in union elections received first-round approval Monday in the Missouri House.
The measure resembles proposals being pushed by pro-business groups in 12 other states in response to a bill pending in Congress that would make it easier for employees to form unions.
House members split mainly along party lines Monday in an 83-74 vote advancing the proposed constitutional amendment to final House consideration. Republicans Doug Funderburk of St. Peters and Ryan Silvey of Kansas City joined Democrats in voting against the measure.
If the legislation clears both the House and Senate, voters would be asked on a future statewide ballot if the Missouri Constitution should be amended to guarantee the right of individuals to vote by secret ballot in elections for public office, initiatives and unionization.
Rep. Mike Cunningham, the sponsor, said his goal was protecting elections, not going after unions.
"This is not anti-union or pro-business," said Cunningham, R-Rogersville. "It's about the cornerstone of our democracy."
But House Democrats, many of whom are union members, called the proposed amendment a shadow effort to "bust" labor unions and lined up to criticize the measure. They argued that unions have improved working conditions and boosted wages.
"We're right, they're wrong," said Rep. Michael Frame, D-Eureka. "We have the truth, they have a bunch of lies." According to his official biography, Frame is employed by Service Employees International Union Local-1.
The Employee Free Choice Act pending in Congress would allow a majority of employees at a company to organize by signing cards, a change from current practice that allows employers to mandate secret ballot elections.
It also would boost penalties for retaliation against workers seeking to organize and call for arbitration if management and the union cannot agree on a first contract.
A coalition of business groups called Save Our Secret Ballot is seeking state constitutional amendments to require secret ballot union election in Missouri and a dozen other states.
Missouri House Republicans argued Monday that all elections in the state should be conducted by secret ballot because it's the best way to guarantee that they are conducted fairly. They questioned why those seeking to organize workplaces would be unwilling to put those decisions up for a vote by secret ballot.
The U.S. House passed a measure similar to this year's Employee Free Choice Act in 2007, but it did not overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Unions contend the federal law is needed to prevent employers from retaliating against those who seek to organize. Business groups counter that a secret ballot is needed to prevent union intimidation to sign cards.