A showdown between labor and business interests heads to a Missouri appeals court Wednesday. After Governor Eric Greitens signed a right to work bill into law in January, unions quickly began drafting a plan to get the law placed before a public vote.
Citizens have the ability to repeal legislation in Missouri through veto referendums. Organized labor, working through the AFL-CIO, submitted paperwork for such a process to the Secretary of State’s office earlier in the year.
Secretary Jay Ashcroft 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 Ashcroft ultimately approved the referendum for circulation as a ballot initiative, 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 its language contained “embarrassing” grammatical errors and was unfair and inadequate.
On June 22nd, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green agreed, ruling the right-to-work summary could be confusing to voters. Green rewrote the summary in a way he called “fair, sufficient, and informative to voters”.
In his ruling, Green instructed Secretary Ashcroft to “immediately certify the corrected summary statement as part of the official ballot title”. Instead, Ashcroft appealed Green’s decision, with the AFL-CIO joining in.
Republican state lawmakers, along with groups such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, have launched an informal campaign to defend the right to work law.
Senator Caleb Rowden of Columbia is among the GOP members who have offered to speak out. He doesn’t think the law needs to go before voters because their views are already represented by the lawmakers they elected.
“When you vote for individuals, you vote for the policies that they represent” said Rowden. “I think we set a dangerous precedent when every time the legislature does something that maybe a somewhat small, but vocal group from in the state, and a lot form out of state, decide they want to change that, I think that’s a pretty dangerous road to go down.”
Republicans rocketed a right to work bill through the legislature this year, knowing a like-minded GOP governor would quickly sign it into law. They’d been frustrated in previous attempts when Democratic heads of state, notably Jay Nixon in 2015, vetoed their legislation.
Rowden says supporters of right to work are taking protective measures to promote the law should it go before voters. “I think the point of what we’re doing is, if the opposition gets the signatures and it goes on the ballot, we want to make sure that people know why it’s good public policy.”
A three judge panel at the Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City will hear arguments Wednesday afternoon. AFL-CIO Missouri President Mike Louis thinks the lower court judge turned the voting process upside-down in his rewrite of the summary.
“Judge Green changed it in such a way that he changed how you would vote, which is going to confuse the voters” Louis said. “They have to vote yes, to tell the government no.”
Lawsuits over language in ballot measures is not unusual in Missouri. In this case, Louis thinks changes made by the judge could be premeditated to confound voters.
“Judge Green and the people who came from out of state, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the National Right to Work Committee lawyers who came here to argue the case, purposely submitted their side of the story in an attempt to confuse voters.”
Workers who are collecting signatures for the ballot referendum must have copies of the full text of the measure and the summary attached to signature pages. The summaries presented to people being asked to sign the petitions include the same language originally approved by Secretary of State Ashcroft.
To change the wording, he would have to sign off on the rewrite from circuit court Judge Green. Ashcroft, a Republican, would be unlikely to approve the rewrite as he’s appealing to have it thrown out.
Louis says some union opponents have tried to interfere with the signature gathering process. “We’ve had some attempts by people to confuse voters and try to process a sign-off sheet that wasn’t the real thing, to trick people into believing that they had already signed, and they hadn’t.”
Despite any shenanigans Louis suspects from the opposing side, he claims the unions are meeting their goals for signatures collected and are on target to meet the required totals by the August 28th deadline.
To satisfy those totals, the unions must have their petitions signed by five percent of legal voters in the last governor’s election in any six of the eight congressional districts in Missouri. The actual number of signatures required is in the range of 100,000, depending on which districts are chosen.
Rowden, the Senate Republican, says lawmakers and groups supporting the right to work law want to inform the public of their commitment to it. “What we are attempting to do is make sure that folks know the benefits of right to work, and that it’s pro worker, pro economic development policy, that a vast majority of people in Jefferson City support.”
The right to work law is set to go into effect August 28th, the same day the unions must have their signatures gathered and submitted to the Secretary of State’s office. If enough of the signatures collected are deemed valid, the law will be delayed until the public vote is held on the ballot referendum in 2018.