Since Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones announced his intention to push for Right-to-Work legislation during this session of the General Assembly, opinion letters and columns supporting the effort have been arriving at the News-Leader.
Most of them are from out-of-state organizations that claim to simply care about national economic policy.
They claim that states with Right-to-Work laws get more jobs at better pay. So, they conclude, Missouri would do well to hop on board and join that train.
But we all know that statistics can be manipulated to support whatever outcome one prefers. That is the case with Right-to-Work arguments.
It is hard to tell where the truth is in all those numbers — from both sides of the argument.
It is not hard to figure out, however, who would benefit from these efforts. The answer is Republican politicians, who believe that unions provide too much support to Democrats, and their own bankrolling supporters — business interests hoping to wrest away even the dwindling power held by unions.
While the state is finally coming out of the last recession, middle-class and working-class Missourians are looking to the legislature to take steps to help their bottom lines — not the bottom lines of any political parties or donors.
Right to Work is not the way to get that done.
Unions are not holding this state, its businesses or its employees hostage. With only about 9 percent of Missouri employees affiliated with a union, and with laws that already side with businesses in union contracts, unions are not responsible for impeding the state’s economic growth.
But unions can provide a positive impact on the quality of work done in our state and the wages paid to those who provide that labor.
One area where this is easily seen is the building trades. In fact, the Builders’ Association, which represents more than 900 commercial building companies in Missouri, both union and non-union, testified before the House Workforce Development & Workplace Safety Committee in opposition to Right-to-Work efforts.
One of the association’s arguments — echoed by local union and contracting representatives — is about training programs offered to workers through labor unions. Trained and safety-certified workers make sure that the construction done in Missouri is high quality.
And those skilled workers are, in turn, paid a good wage and provided health care insurance and retirement programs.
Without unions — the goal of Right to Work — Missouri would lose the benefits of that training, insurance and retirement savings.
“In Right to Work, we lose that because the competition is for low wages,” Springfield contractor Jim Carson said.
Derick Barnes with the Laborers Local Union No. 663 in Clever pointed out that low wages mean a lower tax base. “It’s a ripple effect.”
The state is also likely to lose the workers who provide that high-quality construction. They will move on to other states where they can continue to enjoy union benefits, and they will take their skills, training and money with them.
In return, Missouri would have to turn to an untrained, underpaid workforce. We cannot expect the same quality work from them.
Randy Ganz, president of DeWitt & Associates in Springfield, said it has been a challenge to find qualified workers since the recession. “If we don’t pay a good, solid wage … how are we going to keep a good workforce base in Missouri?”
Companies that want to maintain their high standards, including those doing government work that requires those standards, will struggle to find qualified workers — especially without union training available. Without the unions’ apprentice and journeyman programs, private businesses would have to pay for that training. With an untrained workforce, those businesses would also have to ramp up supervision by employees who get paid substantially more than those workers.
Jones has indicated that he prefers the Right-to-Work question to go to the voters. While Missouri voters resoundingly defeated a similar effort in 1978, dwindling union membership and the state’s ever more red complexion make a renewed run past the electorate a more pleasing proposition for the speaker. It also means that our Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon cannot use his veto pen to stop it.
The influence and importance of labor unions has changed dramatically over the century and a half that they have been a force in the United States. Market forces and political shifting winds have contributed to much of that change.
Right to Work should not be used to push one side of those economic influences out of Missouri.
read this editorial on the News-Leader’s website here