The Missouri House is expected to take another look at a controversial piece of legislation seen by its critics as a ploy by businesses and conservatives to weaken labor unions.
The bill, which is referred to as a “paycheck protection” measure by supporters, would put restrictions on public sector labor organizations’ ability to collect dues. Opponents of the legislation refer to it as “paycheck deception”.
The proposal passed quickly out of committee and should hit the chamber floor before long.
The measure would prevent public sector unions from drawing dues and fees from employees’ paychecks without prior annual written consent. It would also prohibit those groups from using worker dues on political contributions without previous permission of the union member.
The bill would further require the unions to keep thorough transparent records of how they’re spending union dues for five years.
The House Economic Development Committee held a hearing on the measure Wednesday, which drew a lively, and at times heated debate. Both sides seemed to agree that the true intention of the bill is to make it easier for workers to leave unions, even though an option to do so already exists.
Natasha Pickens of the Communications Workers of America in St. Louis said the bill is an insult to public sector workers who know they can opt out of union membership and the dues they require.
“What is it about people like me, Missouri public workers, that makes you think that I need protection from myself,” said Pickens. “What is it about people like me that makes the sponsor of this legislation believe that we don’t know what to do if we want to stop paying union dues through payroll authorization.”
Pickens said lawmakers should focus on boosting worker pay instead of trying to weaken unions. Missouri has the lowest paid public employees in the country.
Republican committee member Travis Fitzwater of Holts Summit had a heated exchange with AFL-CIO President Mike Louis in which he seemed to say that union managers are ineffective at their jobs.
“We’ve been 50th out of 50 for a long time, and your associations are supposed to be coming up here and advocating,” said Fitzwater. “And you’ve had the environment that you like, but we’re still 50th out of 50. So, maybe we need to make some changes. That’s my thought, thank you.”
Otto Fagen with the Missouri National Education Association said the bill would be incompatible with existing rules specifying how to opt out of union membership.
“We think that it’s unnecessary,” said Fagen. “We think that it conflicts and is inferior to, frankly from our perspective, the existing law that’s been on the books, unchanged, passed almost unanimously and signed into law by Governor Bond in 1983.” (Republican Kit Bond served two separate four-year terms as governor, 1973-1977 and 1981-1985).
Law enforcement, firefighters and first responders are included in this year’s bill, like they were last year. Those groups’ unions were exempt from a 2016 version of the legislation.
Some of the union representatives said the requirement for worker consent to draw dues and fees from their paychecks would a massive change from the way all other deductions are made from their wages. Republican Representative Jared Taylor of Nixa, disagreed. He said union dues, under the measure, would betreated similar to deductions employees can change, or opt in and out of.
“It allows members to choose whether or not they want to be part of the union on an annual basis, like we do with other deductions, be it health care or 401k’s,” said Taylor.
Tim Kratz of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District said he’d testified against the measure all three years it’s been proposed. He expressed strong displeasure for what he thinks is a legislative assault on unions and workers.
“I don’t know how much more we can say,” said Kratz. “This just seems to me to be another continued attack by this body on labor, and on the people of the state of Missouri.”
Both Democratic committee member Doug Beck of St. Louis, who is a union pipefitter, and Kratz questioned wording in the bill that they thought would spill over to impact the operations of private sector unions. Taylor, who is sponsoring the measure for the second year in a row, said he would work to clean up any language that had unintended consequences.
The committee’s chair person, Republican Representative Holly Rehder of Sikeston, announced at the beginning of the hearing that she planned to hold a vote on the measure. But the panel’s two-hour window to hold a gathering was used up by testimony, mostly by unions and pro-labor groups who oppose the bill.
The two organizations that spoke in favor of the measure were the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Missouri Rising, the state chapter of a national conservative think tank.
Last year’s bill passed in the House but failed to clear the Senate after a substitute measure was offered on that chamber’s floor. The original measure passed through the legislature, but was vetoed by then Democratic Governor Jay Nixon.