Missouri’s proposed right-to-work law drew a less than enthusiastic reception at a recent luncheon from some businessmen and politicians in St. Charles who one might think were amenable to it.
The discussion, which took place at a Greater St. Charles County Chamber of Commerce meeting at Pio’s Restaurant in St. Charles on Nov. 3, is one of many expected to take place in coming months as the issue moves toward a possible November 2018 statewide vote that will decide if the law already passed and signed by the government becomes a reality. The law prohibits unions and employers from requiring all union workers to pay dues.
The state’s labor unions were able to gather enough signatures to stall Missouri’s right-to-work law from going into effect in August after state legislators approved legislation that Gov. Eric Greitens proposed. State voters may decide in a November 2018 referendum whether to keep or kill the law and possibly another constitutional amendment enshrining the right of collective bargaining.
With the law in limbo, the stage is being set for a heated debate and expensive election campaign pitting right-to-work supporters, who see it as a way of boosting employment and state economies, against opponents, who say it will result in lower pay, cuts in benefits, increased workplace safety issues and diminished middle class life.
On Nov. 3, chamber members and local business and government officials heard from both opponents and supporters. But some local attendees may need more convincing as far as support for right-to-work goes.
St. Charles County Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] remains unconvinced. For now, he’s opposed. Having workers opt out of being represented by a union affects his business, he said.
“The government is interfering with my business, they’re telling me how to operate my business,” Brazil said. “I don’t like government interference like that. I think it’s too much government overreach.
Brazil said he has been involved with construction all of his life, beginning as a union carpenter and operating a company with 35 union employees at one time. He said he was able to choose from a pool of trained and talented employees. “It works,” he said of the current system.
A member of the county’s Republican Party’s central committee for a decade and the county’s committee chairman for six years, Brazil said, “It’s not a Republican or Democratic thing, it’s an economic and a right to operate your business as you choose. And the way it’s been, it seems to be working.
“I also agree that in Texas a backhoe operator makes $12 an hour and here they make $30. They can raise their family, they can go to stores, and they can go to restaurants. My wife and I also own a restaurant with 52 employees and those people need to work and people need to go there to buy stuff.”
Brazil said he doesn’t “get this whole thing saying that it’s going to create better wages because all the nonunion companies base their wages on the union companies. So it’s good for everybody.”
The issue, he said, “also puts Republicans in a bad spot, especially if we got a senate race next year.” And he predicted there will be “blue dog Democrats” [conservative Democrats] that may arise.
St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano said the county doesn’t have the unemployment issues that other areas have around the state. He said major construction projects, such as seven major projects at Premier 370 Business Park, have union jobs and the county’s new justice center is being built by union workers and brought in under budget.
“I got the feeling in this room there are not too many people in favor of right-to-work [legislation],” Pagano said. “I’m not. My whole family went out and got signatures to have this put on the ballot.
“It’s not a secret. Joe’s right, it’s not a party thing, there is a lot of good quality jobs here, quality that supports this lifestyle that we have in St. Charles County. I’m kind of disappointed that the state says we have a statewide problem; that we have to bring in more jobs, more business. I don’t think that’s the answer in St. Peters and St. Charles County.”
Pagano said it was “totally wrong to blame the unions” for slow economic growth.
“Personally I have to say, about other states, I don’t care about them,” Pagano said.
But state officials hope to emulate what they see happening in right-to-work states such as Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, said Matt Panik, vice president of government affairs at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jefferson City. Panik told the audience that the economies in Midwestern right-to-work states have seen improvements.
A federal study of data from 2005 to 2015 indicated that the gross national product [GNP] in right-to-work states was around 15 percent compared to close to 12 percent for non-right-to-work states. Job growth is north of 8 percent for right-to-work states compared to 5 percent for non-right-to-work states. Wage growth for both has been about 7.7 percent.
“The point is we’re behind and we need to do something to help kick-start that,” Panik said.
Panik said being a right-to-work state has become an important issue when being considered for the location of a new business or manufacturing plant.
“It’s not always not going to be on the lists, it’s not always going to be No. 1, but we don’t even know the opportunities we might be missing out on,” he said. I think right to work is just another tool in the toolbox,” he said. “It’s shown to help grow economies across the Midwest.”
Panik said right to work should be called something like “worker freedom.” It’s not inherently anti-union but gives workers a voluntary choice, he said.
“In a way, we are backing them both, we are letting the worker and the employer completely own that relationship and decide what they want to do. Anyone in a union can stay in a union under right to work,” he said.
But Tim Wies, the owner of TJ Wies Contracting, a commercial wall and ceiling contractor headquartered in Lake Saint Louis, who along with Panik was a featured speaker at the lunch, questioned the impact of right to work on the local economy. Though he said he could only talk about the construction industry. Wies noted that Greitens had said when he was elected that he wanted to bring good-paying jobs with benefits to the state.
“We got it [already] in my industry,” Wies said.
Wies chooses to work with union labor. The union also provides his company with a human resources department to handle pensions, vacations and provide a training center. His 300 employees earn an average of $60,000 to $70,000 a year, with good health care, pension and the ability to retire. “They’re solidly middle class; they’ve got purchasing power,” he said.
Wies noted that St. Charles County has larger influx of union tradesmen. “Their spending helps drive the St. Charles County economy,” he said. “They’re going to restaurants; they’re buying cars and they’re buying jewelry.”
Wies said a Ford dealer told him that union members account for 14 percent of his sales annually. “The big thing is that these guys are buying a new F-150 [truck] every three years as opposed to coming in and buying a used vehicle every seven years,” he said. “I don’t think the conservative way is totally accurate because you’ve got a solid middle class and any economy needs a solid thriving middle class to keep growing.”
Wies said he doesn’t have a crystal ball but other contractors in other parts of the country, particularly in southeastern states, have a very different business model with perhaps 90 percent of their workforce being Hispanic and as many as half of those being undocumented aliens. That creates low pay and poor degrading conditions that could happen here, he said. “It won’t take 20 years for Missouri to get to that point.”
Already, contractors are having a hard time getting young people into the trades. Parents often want their children to go to college.
“For some reason, it’s not an honorable profession to build things anymore,” Wies said. “But we’re still going to have to build things and we’re going to have to find people [who can do this work].”
Workers in what Wies calls an “underground economy” become part of a “nasty system” that traps them because they are undocumented.
Wies said he has been supportive of a free market economy and small government. But the construction industry is particularly ripe with opportunities for lowered wages and an unfair situation where people are taken advantage of because they are not citizens.
He said there is a need for some checks and balances. “You can’t have a total free market economy because a total free market economy will turn into anarchy,” he said.