Right-to-work Divides Missouri Workforce

Jennifer Somers, Photo editor

According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 28 states have passed right-to-work legislation, including Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas and Michigan. As of Feb. 6, Missouri is the newest addition to the list.

The right-to-work bill, also referred to as Senate Bill 19 (SB 19), became law upon receiving the signature of approval from Gov. Eric Greitens, whose 2016 gubernatorial campaign focused on improving Missouri’s “job climate.” The bill states that “employers are barred from requiring employees to become, remain or refrain from becoming a member of a labor organization or pay dues or other charges required of labor organization members as a condition of payment.”

Also specified in the bill, any employer that violates this law will be guilty of a class C misdemeanor, and any employee subject to this treatment will be entitled to “injunctive relief and other damages.”

Though SB 19 goes into effect on Aug. 28, it will not apply to preexisting agreements between an employer and a labor organization until the contract is renewed, extended or amended.

Proponents of right-to-work see its potential to draw in businesses to Missouri and praise the bill for securing the right of workers to decide whether or not to join or pay dues to a union.

Sue Henderson, the president of the ECC chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), deems the concept of right-to-work being free choice for workers a bit of a misnomer.

“Right-to-work is really trying to break down the effectiveness of unions in the workplace,” Henderson said. “For someone that doesn’t want to join a union, not having to pay a fee sounds reasonable, but that also means the union still has to represent and bargain for those employees without financial support. It ends up weakening the union.”

This loss of control could have a negative impact on workers.

An in-depth report published by the Economic Policy Institute in 2015 found that when labor unions are strong, compensation increases for even workers not covered by union contracts because nonunion employers face the competitive pressure to match union standards. Similarly, when unions are weakened by right-to-work legislation, all of a state’s workers feel the impact.

The report reiterated these claims by stating that wages in right-to-work states are 3.1 percent lower than those in non-right-to-work states.

Even though the right-to-work legislation was a prompt for many to vote Republican for state elections, the division among proponents and opponents of this issue goes far beyond party lines.

“The two sides of the argument are deeply rooted in culture and generational experience,” Executive Director of the ECC Center for Workforce Development Mardy Leathers said. “You have those who can say ‘my parents and grandparents were a member of this union, and now I’m a member, too.’ Then, you have those that haven’t been raised in that environment—haven’t been in a union—and don’t understand the benefits.”

Washington, Mo. native Jordan Williams, whose father works for JF Edwards Construction Company and has been a member of Local Union No. 2, an affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for almost 20 years, recognizes the importance of labor organizations for her family and believes right-to-work is wrong for Missouri.

“[As a result of right-to-work legislation,] union members will no longer have the same health insurance or benefits they receive now,” Williams said. “It will affect the healthcare provided for their kids.”

Though some labor unions like the ECC NEA, where membership isn’t obligatory for employment, won’t directly be affected by Missouri becoming a right-to-work state, the adjacent bills on the agenda of the Missouri Senate could cause a great change.

SB 21 would require labor organizations to annually acquire written consent from its members to deduct fees and dues from their paychecks. SB 210 would force unions to go through the recertification process every year.

“[If passed,] The ECC faculty would have to have a collective vote on whether or not they would like to continue having the union represent them,” Henderson said. “You could have one bad year, and everyone could decide they don’t want the union anymore.”

Despite the declining number of union members—the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a drop from 15.5 percent of Missouri workers in unions in 1989 to 8.4 percent in 2014—the influence of labor unions is still prominent.

“Having the union here on campus allows us a voice at the table,” Henderson said. “When decisions are made, like how budget cuts will impact us, we can be a part of that conversation.”

With a stark divide between proponents and opponents of the labor organization legislation, it is difficult for some to imagine a solution in which both sides can be somewhat satisfied.

For someone like Leathers, who oversees the non-credit programs at ECC that work with companies to find employees and provide them with the knowledge and training they need to succeed in the workforce, even taking a solid position on the complicated right-to-work argument is difficult.

“In my job, I work with both individuals and companies,” Leathers said. “At the Center for Workforce Development, we act as the mediator for that relationship. It’s hard to choose a side when we have respect on both sides.”

Only the future of Missouri’s workforce and economy will be the deciding factor on whether or not right-to-work is considered a wise or unwise move for Missourians, both for companies and their employees.

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