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Legislative committee hears two more bills that could diminish unions

Monday, February 3, 2014 | 10:53 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Almost like a drum beat, Missouri legislators heard the third bill in three weeks that could dampen labor unions' power.

On Monday afternoon, the Workforce Development and Workforce Safety Committee entertained House Bill 1617, which would require certain labor unions to ask members to collect dues and make political contributions, and HB 1594, which would allow volunteer labor on public works projects.

Dubbed the "paycheck protection" bill by supporters, House Bill 1617 would make public employee union members to provide a yearly written authorization to continue their membership and require unions to ask for consent from its members to make political contributions.

Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, who sponsored the bill, left out "first responders," including nurses, EMTs and law enforcement for simplicity, she said.

Those in favor of the bill said the measure would make it easier for people to stop supporting union activities that they disagree with, such as political endorsements.

Those testifying against the bill said that it was politically targeted. Because unions give more money to Democratic campaigns, the bill would cut off an important source of their funding.

The bill resembles Senate Bill 29, which passed both houses of the general assembly in 2013 and was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Jay Atkins, of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said that although his organization represents no public unions, the opt-in system is better for people who may not understand how, or even that they are able to, opt-out of union dues.

Those at the hearing agreed that 8 to 9 percent of the Missouri workforce is unionized. Nearly half of that, or about 3 to 5 percent of Missouri's total workforce, consists of public employees, said Clark Brown, a lobbyist with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

Brown opposed several terms of the bill. Public employment is an "open shop" environment, which means that workers are not required to join a union if there is one, he said. If union members wish to stop paying dues, which for SEIU are around $37 to $43 a month, they can at any time.

By having the opt-in to the union option instead of the opt-out alternative, he noted, the bill creates a new financial strain on unions, which would have to hire people to collect the written statements.

Volunteering

The committee also heard proposed legislation that would allow communities to accept volunteer labor on public projects. Although local organizations often volunteer for free, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Charlie Davis, R-Webb City, said that volunteering became an issue after a constituent inquired whether the prevailing wage extended to the construction of a local park.

The prevailing wage creates a minimum compensation rate for public projects in order to keep non-union contractors from driving wages down, according to the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Davis said that the bill could affect how communities recover after natural disasters. His district borders Joplin, where a destructive tornado struck in 2011. Davis estimated the area received 150,000 volunteers, including union workers, to help with the cleanup.

As Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, noted, many communities have likely benefited from such volunteer work.

However, some committee members worried that the bill would skirt the prevailing wage law for other projects. Rep. Michael Frame D-Eureka, wanted to know why there was no emergency stipulation written into the bill.

Frame also sought clarification on the different types of labor volunteers could provide. Planting flowers, for example, is not covered under the current prevailing wage law, and he wanted to make sure the bill would still protect construction and maintenance.

After testimony, committee chairman Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, called an executive session to move the bill to the House floor. Reps. Karla May, D-St. Louis, Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, and Frame voted against the measure. Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, voted in favor.

Prevailing wage hearing

Last week, the committee heard a proposal to change how the prevailing wage is calculated.

Sponsored by Rep. Warren Love, R-Osceola, HB 1306 would base the rate on the locality and by the type of work. 

The law would exempt Cass, Clay, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Lincoln, St. Charles, St. Louis County and St. Louis City. This would allow them to continue using the current method of considering wages influenced by labor negotiations.

The prevailing wage bill would also change the official definitions of "construction" and "maintenance," which would affect compensation.

Love said that high wages inhibit growth and public projects. For example, he said, if the cost of labor to build a school is set, then the school can only be so big.

"Let's cut to the chase," Frame said, questioning Love until he admitted that the bill would lower wages.

Love countered that it would help counties spend their money more wisely.

Frame argued that the current law was good but that contractors were underreporting what they pay their workers. If they reported more accurately, the prevailing wage would adjust to a level that better represented where they lived. 

The current prevailing wage in Boone County by job can be viewed on the Department of Labor and Industrial Relation's website.


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