KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Federal law prohibits unions from requiring workers to belong. But in most states, workers in union shops can be required to pay some fees, because the union is obligated to represent them in collective bargaining. In the 1950s, states began passing "right-to-work" legislation (the term is controversial), which means workers didn't have to pay dues or fees to the union. Twenty-two states now have these laws, including Kansas. Many are in the Deep South and the West.
In 1978, Missouri voters turned down a referendum to become right-to-work. But in this year's legislative session, State Senator LuAnn Ridgeway, who represents Clay County, has sponsored a right-to-work bill, Senate Bill 1. She says it will encourage companies to relocate here, and bring jobs with them.
All of Missouri's bordering states except for Illinois and Kentucky are right-to-work. Oklahoma was the most recent state to pass similar legislation in 2001.
Supporters say that there is less unemployment in right-to-work states, but it's not clear whether passing the law would actually attract new jobs. Oklahoma has lost 30,000 jobs since 2001, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. Both sides agree that wages, on average, are lower in right-to-work states, although supporters of the legislation say that cost of living is lower in those states, too, so families actually have more purchasing power.
Judy Ancel, of UMKC's Institute for Labor Studies, says that unions must bargain on behalf of all workers whether or not the workers pay fees to support the representation. But she says without the fees, unions will have fewer resources and less bargaining power, which will result in lower wages and worse working conditions.
About a dozen other states are considering similar legislation this year. But whether it's part of a national campaign against organized labor, or an attempt to attract jobs in a down economy, right-to-work was not on the list of legislative priorities identified by Missouri businesses this year. And though Senate leadership prioritized the bill, House Speaker Steven Tilley says he's in no hurry to move ahead on it, because there's no clear consensus on the legislation among business leaders or lawmakers.