JEFFERSON CITY — House Republican leaders wasted no time pursuing their agenda Monday, using the first legislative hearing of the year to introduce a labor measure that Democratic leaders denounced as an attempt at "union busting."
The legislation that supporters describe as a "right to work" measure would prohibit labor contracts from requiring that all employees pay union fees, regardless of whether workers are union members. Under current law, unions are allowed to levy fees against workers who are not union members but who work under a collective bargaining agreement that allows such fees.
"This is a necessary bill if Missouri wishes to re-gain competitive standing with the states around us," said the proposal's sponsor, Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.
The bill also has the backing of House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, who controls which bills get referred to committees and placed on the House debate calendar.
At a hearing of the House Workforce Development and Workplace Safety Committee, supporters argued that Missouri needs the law to compete for manufacturing and other jobs.
But that notion was countered by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
"The men and women of organized labor are not our enemies, they are our allies," Slay, a Democrat, said.
Both Jones and Slay point to Missouri's unsuccessful attempt to get a new Boeing airplane assembly plant. Although Missouri was in the running, Boeing ultimately decided to produce the 777X plane in the Seattle area after union machinists who already work on Boeing's commercial planes accepted the company's latest contract proposal.
Jones said that's one reason for Missouri to adopt a "right to work" law. But Slay said Missouri's current labor laws didn't influence Boeing's decision.
Slay was joined Monday in his opposition to the legislation by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who said the measure was about "union busting." A representative for Kansas City Mayor Sly James also spoke against the legislation.
If Burlison's measure passes, Missouri would become the 25th state to adopt "right to work" policies. Michigan and Indiana were the most recent states to do so.
Jones and Burlison rallied with about 100 activists in support of "right to work" before the legislative session began last week. The House is moving quickly to pass the measure, but Senate Republican leaders aren't as enthusiastic about the bill's passage this year.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has said he will veto the measure if it passes the legislature.
Under Burlison's plan, paying union fees could not be a condition of employment except for railroad and federal workers. It also would not impact collective bargaining agreements in place before the measure's passage.
Burlison argued the measure would make unions stronger by forcing them to better represent their members' interests if they know workers have the option of opting out.
"An individual is able to make an intelligent decision to serve what's in their best interest," Burlison said.
Opponents say the legislation would simply encourage what one Democratic committee member called "free riding": When a worker opts out of a union while still reaping the benefits of collective bargaining.
"No one is forced to join a union, but people are forced to recoup the costs of defending them," said Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City.
The committee did not take a vote on the legislation Monday.