A battle between labor and business interests is heating up after a judge threw out language in a document being used to collect signatures for a public vote.
After Governor Eric Greitens signed a right to work bill into law in January, unions got busy crafting a plan to get the law placed before a public vote.
In Missouri, citizens have the power to repeal legislation though veto referendums. Labor groups submitted paperwork for such a process to the Secretary of State’s office earlier in the year.
The Secretary of State then wrote a summary to capsulize the intention of the referendum, which had to be cleared by other departments, including the state auditor and attorney general. After Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft ultimately approved the referendum for circulation as a ballot initiative, the unions began collecting signatures.
A lawsuit challenging the wording of the summary was filed in April. Attorneys representing two Kansas City police officers and a nurse from Liberty claimed it’s language contained “embarrassing” grammatical errors and was unfair and inadequate.
Late last Thursday, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green agreed, ruling the right-to-work summary could be confusing to voters. Green rewrote to summary in a way he called “fair, sufficient, and informative to voters”.
AFL-CIO Missouri President Mike Louis called the judge’s decision another hurdle for unions, but not an unexpected turn of events.
“We know who is funding the lawyers that come in here from out of state, that know nothing about Missouri or Missourians” said Louis. “They’re funded by the Koch Brothers, by Americans for Prosperity, the National Right to Work foundation.”
Jeremy Cady with Americans for Prosperity for Missouri said his organization was not funding the effort to block the ballot initiative, and stated that it was not a party to the lawsuit. He did offer support for the new law and the court process now unfolding.
“The right to work law is an important law” said Cady. “It is something that Americans for Prosperity has worked on for several of the past years. And we believe that residents should understand what they are signing.”
Americans for Prosperity worked closely with Republicans, who dominate the state legislature, to pass a right to work bill in 2015.
They were heavily involved in the failed effort to override then Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of the measure that year. Cady acknowledges the organization also lent significant backing to this year’s successful attempt to get the legislation passed into law.
The AFL-CIO’s Louis noted Judge Green had given instructions to Secretary of State Ashcroft, but said Ashcroft hadn’t gotten back with the unions with any instructions to change wording on any documents being used in the collection of signatures.
In his ruling, Judge Green instructed Secretary Ashcroft to “immediately certify the corrected summary statement as part of the official ballot title”.
Louis, who was named on court documents as a defendant in the lawsuit, said the unions are appealing the ruling. He also dismissed, at least for now, any notion that Republicans, who control almost all statewide elected offices and the legislature, could be conspiring to block the ballot initiative in the courts.
“There’s a certain degree of integrity there that I certainly hope that is followed. And I would surely be disappointed if we had to be concerned with shenanigans based on party politics.”
The unions are continuing to collect signatures for the ballot measure in its current form.
Secretary Ashcroft released a statement Friday, saying his office was considering its next move. “Although we are disheartened with the court’s ruling, we are carefully considering our legal strategy” said Ashcroft. “We remain committed to protecting the right of individuals to collect signatures while ensuring compliance with the referendum process required by the Missouri Constitution.”