JEFFERSON CITY — Although a coalition of state business organizations kept it off their agenda for the 2011 legislative session, a measure termed "right to work" by supporters has been put on the fast track in Missouri's Senate.
The measure would prohibit any contract that forced an employee to pay service fees to a union representing other workers at the company.
The bill would prohibit agreements between unions and employers that make membership or payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.
Supporters say the state's current law puts Missouri at a disadvantage with neighboring states, including Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee, which prohibit union service fee requirements.
Opponents, however, argue that without the service fee requirements, nonunion workers enjoy the benefits of contracts negotiated by organized labor without helping pay the cost.
"I think we need right to work," said Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown. "It is something that if you look at other states where it is, the industries look to move to those states."
With Tennessee being the exception, all of Missouri's bordering states with right-to-work measures have higher employment rates. Tennessee, however, added jobs in 2010, whereas Missouri lost jobs, according to information from the Census Bureau cited by the sponsor of the Senate bill — Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville.
"Every one of those right-to-work states picked up population and has a lower unemployment rate than the non-right-to-work states," Ridgeway said. "We have got to turn this situation around for the approximately 10 percent of Missourians who want to work but can't find jobs."
Ridgeway said 50 percent of manufacturing jobs seeking site locations and expansion specifically request locations in right-to-work states. She said more employment opportunities will come to Missouri if it enacts the measure.
"The worst thing about this is Missouri will never even know those jobs exist because we are not privy to the information," Ridgeway said. "The announcement for relocation will be made before we even know it exists."
Opposition comes from the left as many Democratic lawmakers argue right to work will take away the protection labor unions provide to employees and will make Missouri a less specialized state.
"Anybody can swing a hammer. Just because you can swing a hammer doesn't make you a carpenter. Just because you can screw in a light bulb doesn't make you an electrician," said Rep. Sylvester Taylor, D-St. Louis County.
Ridgeway responded to this statement by citing statistics that show only 11 percent of Missouri's workforce comes from union employment and nonunion workers still have a level of excellency that is parallel with other workers in the state.
"If (Taylor) is willing to contend that 89 percent of Missouri's workforce is not specialized and not trained, then that is going to be a really high burden of proof that I think he would have to overcome," Ridgeway said.
Taylor contends that the legislature has "bigger fish to fry" and should be focusing on finding and creating jobs in the state. Taylor also argues that Missouri's bordering states are dealing with the same issues of unemployment despite right to work.
"If you can show me how us signing right to work is going to bring jobs and lessen the budget then I'm all for it. But it's not," Taylor said. "That is just some R-versus-D rhetoric. It is not going to do anything for the people who are unemployed and are honestly looking for work."
Taylor said he comes from a long line of union workers, with his father, mother, brother and wife, all members.
"It is kind of something that is near and dear to me. So luckily, by happenstance, I happen to be here to protect their interests," Taylor said.