JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri government's labor relations remain subdued as other states battle with unions.
Missouri's public-sector union leaders say one reason is the relative weakness of unions compared to other states across the Midwest.
Bradley Harmon, the president of Communications Workers of America Local 6355, said Missouri's state employees are the lowest-paid state workers in the nation, making 26 percent less than the national average. Harmon said the reason public unions in Missouri lag behind is because unions have not had a voice in government for much of their history.
"I think the biggest factor is our collective bargaining rights are only four years old," Harmon said.
"We have the least-paid, most overworked, underappreciated public employees in this country," said Herb Johnson, the secretary-treasurer for Missouri's AFL-CIO. "These are people who do all the work the agencies of government need done, and they receive no thanks for that at all."
In recent years, state workers have seen efforts to eliminate paid state holidays, cutbacks in state health care and reductions in state-financed retirement benefits for state workers. Johnson said the inability of public labor unions to collectively bargain has not been conducive to negotiating benefits.
"We don't really have collective bargaining," Johnson said. "There has never been any enabling legislation to outline how it will be done in the state. We continue to have the current statute, which talks about meet and confer. This means we get together and talk, but you don't hear anything about it."
Public-sector unions in Missouri were granted collective bargaining rights after a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that teachers and other public employees have a constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining with their government employers. Public employees are allowed collective bargaining but have no provisions to strike.
Harmon said the inability to strike is another reason the public sector is weak in Missouri.
Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, defended the state law that prohibits strikes by government workers.
She said the dynamics of a public-sector union are fundamentally different than a private-sector union because people do not have other outlets if a government facility does not operate.
"If Ford automobile workers go on strike, then fine, you don't buy a Ford that day," Ridgeway said. "But if a teacher goes on strike, then what are you supposed to do? You only have one store to shop at, which is at the government store."
Johnson said a strike is something that public-employee unions have never really fought for.
"I think everyone knows that it is kind of a last resort; even when you can have it, it is not something you want to do," he said.
Instead, Johnson said labor unions favor arbitration for dispute resolutions.
The labor landscape in Missouri has had several changes in recent history. The role of unions with government workers became a major issue in 2001.
In that year, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden signed an executive order that allowed a union to collect service fees from non-union employees in an agency that had voted to have a union represent the agency's workers.
Holden's order came under fierce attack by Republican legislators.
In 2005, on his first day as the new Republican governor, Matt Blunt rescinded the executive order.
Two years later the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that teachers and other public employees have a constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining with their government employers. The court's 5-2 ruling overturned a 1947 Supreme Court decision that applied collective bargaining to private-sector employees only.
In a written statement to the Associated Press in May 2007, Blunt said, "This is yet another example of judicial activism, where a court's action oversteps the bounds of prudent constitutional interpretation." The Associated Press also reported that Blunt called the decision "terrible" and "reckless."
According to a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the number of Missouri workers belonging to unions was 244,000. About 10 percent of all of Missouri workers are unionized, but only 4 percent in the public sector. Among the public-sector labor unions in Missouri are the American Federation of Teachers, Communication Workers of America and American Federation of Government Employees.