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Missouri State capitol
FILE PHOTO -- The Missouri state capitol building in Jefferson City.

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri could better compete for new auto plants and other industries if workers had more say over whether to participate in labor unions, Republican senators argued Monday.

The senators pitched a "right-to-work" bill, which would outlaw employment contracts that make union dues or fees a condition of employment. Pointing to surrounding states, they said that six of the eight have adopted right-to-work laws, and those six all boast lower unemployment rates than Missouri.

"We're getting our clock cleaned not only as a state but as a nation," said Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield. "We're losing our industrial base. This (bill) alone is not going to fix it, but it is a tool in the toolbox."

But after debating the bill for about three hours, with packed galleries of pro-union spectators looking on, the Senate shelved it without a vote. Whether it will ever reach a vote was unclear.

Republicans, who control the Senate 26-8, are split on the issue. Some such as Jim Lembke of Lemay and Kevin Engler of Farmington have voiced opposition to the bill. With a divided GOP, it could be hard to end a filibuster by cutting off debate, a maneuver that is rarely used in the Senate anyway.

Democrats led the opposition, saying that prospective employers place more importance on factors such as energy costs, access to highways and tax subsidies. They said Missouri falls short in the competition for auto manufacturers because it can't offer up-front cash incentives as some states do.

Right-to-work is "a grand distraction," said Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, warning that he would talk "ad nauseam" if necessary to stall the bill.

Unions adamantly oppose the bill, saying it would hurt wages and working conditions, and let workers take advantage of the benefits of union contracts without paying their "fair share" of negotiating costs.

The issue has been on the back burner for decades, since state voters defeated a right-to-work initiative in 1978. It resurfaced because of the efforts of Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

Mayer said businesses need flexibility to make their operations more efficient.

But the No. 2 Senate leader, Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, opposes the bill. Other policies are more apt to produce jobs, said Dempsey, who noted that his supporters include many pro-union conservatives.

Dempsey, who controls the Senate debate agenda, said the bill won't come up again this week. After next week's spring break, it will have to compete for floor time with priorities such as congressional redistricting, abortion, the state budget and possibly tax credits, he said.

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