JEFFERSON CITY — A standing-room-only crowd spilled into Capitol hallways Wednesday to watch a Missouri House committee hearing on a bill that would bar payment of union dues as a condition of employment and make Missouri the nation's 25th "right-to-work" state.
Union members sat silently as the House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee debated the issue that attracted attention from legislative leaders of both parties.
Minority Leader Jake Hummel, an electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, participated in the hearing. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder watched the testimony, along with House Speaker Tim Jones, who is a co-sponsor of the bill but said in December it would be hard to pass right-to-work legislation without support from the governor's office.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon opposes a right-to-work law, but lawmakers could avoid his opposition because the legislation would be submitted to voters instead of the governor.
This past December, the Republican-led Michigan Legislature approved right-to-work measures that quickly were signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. The legislation prompted thousands of protesters to converge to the Michigan Capitol. And earlier in 2011, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a law abolishing nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public-sector employee unions. Thousands of pro-union protesters gathered at the Wisconsin Capitol, including some who camped inside the building.
"If unions provide services, they will have no problems getting members," Jared Rodriguez said during Wednesday's hearing in Jefferson City. He is the president of the Michigan Alliance for Business Growth and worked to pass Michigan's law.
Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said his right-to-work legislation would strengthen Missouri's economic competiveness and ultimately strengthen unions. Under current law, people working at union jobs don't have to join the union but must pay dues and fees for the organization's core functions, such as collective bargaining. Federal law also requires that unions represent all people in a bargaining unit — even those who choose not to become a union member.
Democrats on the Missouri House committee said the bill would allow "freeloaders," who would benefit from union representation but not pay for those services. Union representatives said the legislation seeks to weaken the workforce and decimate the middle class.
"This legislation is about dividing and fracturing unity," said Brian Kelley, who is the chairman of the Missouri legislative board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. He added: "Can you imagine if Missouri passed right-not-to-pay-taxes legislation?"
Other right-to-work supporters said the measure promotes individual freedom, by allowing people to choose if they want to pay union dues. But David Cook, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, said that argument is "disingenuous" because workers already can choose not to be a union member.
Part of the argument Wednesday focused on whether right-to-work policies would boost Missouri's economy.
Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, said three companies that he did not name chose not locate in his western Missouri district because the state does not have a right-to-work law.
Democrats argued there could be a wide variety of other economic factors that could cause a company to look elsewhere, including transportation infrastructure.
"They can't narrow it down to right-to-work," said Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, who cited warmer weather in southern right-to-work states as a reason jobs could move there.
The committee did not vote on Burlison's measure Wednesday.