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Cole County Circuit Courthouse

The Cole County Circuit Courthouse in Jefferson City.

A Cole County circuit court judge ruled Thursday that the language of a ballot initiative seeking to overturn Missouri's "right to work" law is unfair and insufficient.

The controversial new law bans union dues as a condition of employment, a long-sought change by Missouri Republicans who argue it will create jobs and lure businesses to the Show-Me State. 

Unions like the Missouri AFL-CIO, however, say the law is anti-worker and have turned to the voter referendum process to overturn it. 

The AFL-CIO hopes to put the law in front of voters for an up-and-down vote, a seldom-used tactic that will require them to collect an estimated 90,000 signatures before the new law takes effect on Aug. 28.

Supporters of the labor reform, backed by the National Right to Work Foundation, have sought to scuttle the union's efforts in the courts. They argue the initiatives are riddled with grammatical errors and could confuse voters who don't realize they're overturning an existing law.

The ruling calls into question signatures collected for the initiative so far. With the August deadline looming, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis vowed to challenge the decision, saying the union would continue to collect signatures during the appeal process.

"Tens of thousands of Missourians have signed a petition to place this issue on the ballot and exercise their right to a citizen's veto," Louis said in a statement. "The referendum process exists in Missouri law to make sure citizens have the final say."

In April, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft defended the petition his office approved, accusing the lawsuit's backers of "playing politics with the right of the people to exercise their constitutional right."

Among other concerns over grammar and word choice, Judge Daniel Green said in his ruling Thursday that the summary language of the referendum was misleading, as it asked voters if they wanted to "adopt" the law, when it's already been passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Eric Greitens.

Green rewrote the summary language of the petition to read:

Shall the people of the state of Missouri reject Senate Bill 19 (“Right to Work”), enacted in 2017, which: (1) prohibits as a condition of employment membership in, or payments of dues or fees in full or in part to, a labor organization (union); (2) makes any agreement or activity violating its provisions illegal and ineffective; and (3) allows legal remedies for anyone injured as a result of violations or threats of violations of its provisions?

Missouri's labor unions contend voters should have a chance to weigh in on "right to work," after Democrats tried unsuccessfully to send the issue before voters during the legislative session.

But the GOP-led Legislature has argued that voters spoke loud and clear when they elected Greitens, who campaigned for governor with the promise that he would help make Missouri the 28th "right to work" state.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect judge listed.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.