JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Republicans and Democrats both claimed victory Wednesday after the Missouri House narrowly endorsed legislation that would prohibit labor contracts from requiring workers to pay union fees as a job condition.
House members voted 78-68 in favor of giving the bill first-round approval, which requires only a simple majority of voting members. But the right-to-work measure fell four votes shy of the 82 that would be needed to advance legislation to the Senate on a subsequent vote.
The indecisive vote leaves an uncertain road ahead for the legislation. Sponsoring Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said Republicans are close to mustering the necessary votes to send the bill to the Senate and called Wednesday's vote "historic."
"This is an enormous victory for working Missourians," said House Speaker Tim Jones in a written statement.
But Democrats, who were joined by nineteen GOP House members in voting against the bill, said Wednesday's vote showed that right to work would not advance this year.
"Today, a bipartisan coalition of legislators rejected Right to Work, marking a victory for Missouri working families and a setback for the out-of-state ideologues and special interests trying to attack them," Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said in a written statement after the vote.
Twenty-four other states have enacted right-to-work laws, most recently Michigan and Indiana in 2012. Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected the policy in 1978.
In Missouri, 219,000 workers were members of a union last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An additional 45,000 workers were not union members but worked in jobs covered by a labor contract. Missouri is in the middle of the pack when it comes to union membership, with 21 states currently having a lower percentage of members. Almost 9 percent of Missouri's labor force is unionized.
Republican supporters said the measure would help Missouri compete for jobs. They argued the state is missing out on opportunities because its neighbors, except Illinois and Kentucky, have enacted right-to-work polices.
Burlison also made the argument that the legislation would make the unions stronger by making them compete for membership with other organizations. Missouri unions lost 5,000 members between 2012 and 2013, according to national labor statistics.
"Workers in our state deserve a right to choose what's in their best interest," he said. "Unions should fight for their members and earn their support."
Democrats rebutted the claim that unions would benefit and said right to work would force unions to cope with "free riders," who reap the rewards of a union contract without paying fees to support collective bargaining.
Under current law, unions are allowed to levy fees against workers who are not union members but who work under an agreement that allows such fees. The bill would prevent employees who are not union members from being fired for refusing to pay such fees.
Right to work is a top priority for state Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and House Speaker Tim Jones. But Nixon and other Democrats have vigorously opposed it and accused the GOP of catering to out-of-state interests.
House Democrats were critical of a letter sent to House Republicans by Grover Norquist, the president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist wrote that Missouri risks being left behind economically if the legislation doesn't pass.
"Instead of looking for ways to actually create jobs we are spending our time lowering the wages of people who work in Missouri," said House Minority Leader Rep. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, and a union member.
Nixon's opposition led Republicans to add a referendum clause onto the measure that would send the issue to the Missouri ballot in August. There were discussions among Republicans on what phrasing would garner enough support with voters.
The language included in Burlison's original measure would have asked whether the state should "prohibit employers from requiring" all workers to pay union dues. An amendment adopted by the House Wednesday changed that to ask whether Missouri should "guarantee all people the freedom to work without being required" to pay union fees.
Right to Work is HB1770