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Prop. A debate heats up

Prop. A debate heats up

July 1st, 2018 by Philip Joens in Local News

In just more than five weeks, Missouri voters will decide if Missouri is a right-to-work state.

At its simplest, right to work means unions can represent workers, but employees can opt out of paying union dues.

Critics of right to work said the law would cripple unions by allowing employees to opt out of paying dues while still benefiting from the union's efforts.

Proponents of right to work said it will attract businesses to Missouri and help grow the state's economy.

The Missouri General Assembly passed Senate Bill 19, a right-to-work bill, in 2017. As campaigns for and against the measure heat up, little remains known about the long-term impact of right to work because the sides find themselves disagreeing about almost everything.

Since former Gov. Eric Greitens called for a right-to-work law in his first State of the State Address in January 2017, the idea has loomed over labor groups throughout the state. Senate Bill 19 blew through the Legislature, and Greitens signed it in February 2017.

As of now, the sides agree on when the election will be held, what voting yes or no to affirm or reject the law will do, and little else.

"I cannot think of any areas where we agree with those opposed to right to work," said Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, a Jefferson City trade group representing businesses and manufacturers around the state.

After Greitens signed the law last year, union groups scrambled to gather enough signatures to put the law up for a public vote through a little-used referendum process, delaying its implementation. Now, Missourians will decide its fate Aug. 7.

Missouri Proposition A asks voters if they want to adopt last year's bill as is or reject it. A "yes" vote means the right-to-work law goes into effect, while a "no" vote means it does not. If more than 50 percent vote "no," Senate Bill 19 would be repealed.

Right-to-work supporters, like McCarty, see it as a tool that will help attract businesses and provide a shot in the arm to the state's economy that could prolong a nine-year period of economic growth. Groups like AIM and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry argue that without right-to-work laws, many businesses won't look at Missouri.

"For some businesses, right to work is a must to be considered," McCarty said.

Last year, unions represented 8.7 percent of workers statewide, or 226,000 of 2.6 million employed Missourians. Union participation in 2017 declined about 1 percent, or 36,000 workers, from 2016 levels. Participation in unions statewide peaked in 1989, when 15.5 percent of the workforce had union memberships.

Those opposed to right to work see the law as another tactic by politicians to do the bidding of big business.

Erin Schrimpf, a spokeswoman for the union-backed group We Are Missouri, which leads the No on Proposition A campaign, shot down the notion that right to work improves states' economies. Schrimpf said companies consider many factors when deciding where to locate, like whether they can recruit a workforce and what lifestyles employees will live.

"I don't think right to work is a compelling factor," Schrimpf said.

Missouri Chamber President Dan Mehan, acknowledged companies look at many factors, including right to work, when deciding where to locate. Mehan pointed to Bureau of Economic Analysis data which showed that between 2005-15 right-to-work states saw an 8.6 percent increase in job growth, compared to a 5 percent increase in non-right-to-work states.

"There's never a silver bullet, but right to work is an important factor," Mehan said.

Federal law already allows employees to decline to join unions. Right to work goes further and allows them to avoid paying dues to unions. Union representatives said this weakens unions by allowing all employees to receive benefits that labor unions negotiate without contributing to the cost of those negotiations and services provided.

In March, state Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the only way to save unions from declining membership will be through right to work because unions will need to prove to members they provide valuable services.

McCarty agreed with this sentiment, saying unions provide valuable benefits to employees like pensions and insurance benefits. Businesses need thriving unions, McCarty said, because of training programs and apprenticeship programs they provide to members.

"Unions that provide those training opportunities are still going to be very strong with right to work," he said. "The unions that are left will be stronger."

Like McCarty, Mehan said unions will need to provide more value to their members if Missouri becomes a right-to-work state. Mehan pointed to results from Indiana after it enacted its right-to-work law in 2012.

From 2015-16, Indiana workers represented by unions grew by 5 percent from 319,000 to 335,000. During the same time, unionized workers in Illinois, a non-right-to-work state, fell by 4 percent from 892,000 to 856,000.

Danny Homan serves as president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents state and county employees in Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. He compared right to work to a country club opening its golf course for free. If the country club made golf free, everybody would use the course, but nobody would pay greens fees, which ultimately would lead to the death of the country club, Homan said.

"There's not a single labor union that wants to bankrupt a company," Homan said. "What they want out of this relationship is to be able to earn a decent living and have dignity and respect."

Maybe more than anything, both sides disagree on what effect right to work will have on wages. Nationwide, 27 other states have right-to-work laws. Right-to-work proponents and opponents usually point to nearby states where data remaind mixed. Studies tend to differ depending on the viewpoints of the authors and the groups that paid for them.

In the Midwest, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana crafted right-to-work laws after 2012. A 2017 study by non-partisan think tank the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that in those states, wages sat 8 percent lower than in Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio, which remain non-right-to-work states. The median wage also sat 5.9 percent lower in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana than in Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio.

Union membership sat at 11.5 percent in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana, compared to 13.7 percent in Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio, the group found. The study noted other factors like cost of living in urban areas, educational attainment and industry of employment could play a role in the findings.

Between 2005-15, wages in right-to-work and non-right-to-work states grew at the same rate of 7.7 percent, according to BEA data.

A 2015 study prepared by Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder for the conservative Wisconsin Research Policy Institute said right-to-work laws added six percentage points to the growth of states from 1983-2013. Vedder's study also found states that experience a small drop in union participation — up to about a 3 percent drop — still experience strong economic growth after right-to-work laws take effect.

A handful of studies put right-to-work theories to the test. A 2011 study conducted by Stanford University professor Hayagreeva Rao found that on borders shared between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states Walmart is more likely to put stores in the right-to-work state because other regulations, like limits on the sizes of the stores, are likely more generous to businesses in right-to-work states.

"Walmart is unlikely to believe the community will be anti-business because legislators and voters have already revealed they are pro-business," Rao's study found.

Union groups that raised signatures to hold the referendum told voters the measure would be placed on November's general election ballot. On the second-to-last day of this year's legislative session, the General Assembly threw pro-union groups a curveball when it approved a bill that moved Proposition A from the general election ballot to August's primary ballot.

Groups that oppose Proposition A saw this as a move designed to suppress voter turnout and ram the measure through.

"It was frustrating that we didn't have an election date until the last week of session," Schrimpf said.

Since then, both campaigns have flown into overdrive.

Unions recently began an aggressive door-to-door campaign in Kansas City and St. Louis to encourage residents to vote against the measure. Groups leading the push to approve Proposition A are relying more on traditional tactics like television advertising.

Mehan acknowledged more Republican voters generally vote during primary elections. The date change forced everything to happen much more quickly, Mehan said.

McCarty suggested the Legislature moved the election to give economic leaders more time to market the state as a place to do business if voters approve Proposition A.

Voter turnout may be lower during the primary, but the election will be unaffected, McCarty said, because both sides will turn out the same proportion of the electorate as they would in November.

"Both sides are organizing impressive get-out-the-vote campaigns," he said. "I don't think it will have any impact on the election."