JEFFERSON CITY • One business priority touted by Republican leadership has been slow to move out of the Missouri House this session.

“Right-to-work” legislation has stalled, partly because of divisions in the Republican Party and concerns the issue could endanger Republicans in swing districts.

But House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, remains committed to the effort. The issue, which has stalled in previous legislative sessions, could come up for debate as early as this week.

Right to work, as supporters call it, would bar employers from requiring employees to pay fees to a union as part of a contract agreement with a labor organization. Currently, workers at a “closed shop” employer can opt out of paying dues for union membership, but they must pay fees for the collective bargaining and other representation services provided by the union, according to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

On the same day hundreds of union members gathered at the state Capitol to rally against right to work and other union-targeted legislation last week, Jones said on a conservative talk radio show that getting right to work onto the House floor for debate would be a “heavy lift.”

“I’ll absolutely admit that,” Jones told radio host Dana Loesch. “Many Republicans are being — whatever you want to say, intimidated, persuaded, threatened, to vote no.”

The only Republican to speak at the pro-union rally on the Capitol steps — though not the only one present — told the crowd that she and others were working “very quietly and very patiently” to convince Republicans to oppose right to work by educating them.

“There’s more and more of us on the Republican side who realize that labor is not the enemy,” Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, said.

Former House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Republican hired by the AFL-CIO, is one of several well-known lobbyists opposing right-to-work legislation.

“One argument that works very well with conservatives is, why is government getting involved in a contractual agreement between an employer and employees?” Tilley said. “Republicans want less government, not more.”

The arguments surrounding right to work center on economic issues and fairness. Supporters point to greater job growth in the states, mostly in the South, with right-to-work laws. Opponents counter that these states also have lower wages.

An overview of published research on the issue in 2012 by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service emphasized the major problem with simply citing differences between right-to-work and states that don’t have such laws: It’s difficult to measure what portion of the difference is due to other pro-business policies, which are concentrated in right-to-work states, or other factors.

Rep. Jeff Grisamore, R-Lee’s Summit, said he finds merits to both sides. He agrees that there seems to be greater economic growth in right-to-work states, but also points out that Boeing Co. seriously considered Missouri as a manufacturing home for its new 777X plane despite its union presence. Grisamore said he was undecided.

“I’d probably rather not have to be put in a position to have to vote on it, or I’d vote no if they have enough votes to pass it,” Grisamore said.

The Interfaith Council of Greater St. Louis, including the archbishop of St. Louis, announced its opposition to right to work on Friday, saying it weakens the ability of workers to collectively bargain and is contrary to principles of economic justice.

Some Republicans also oppose right to work, particularly in districts with a strong union presence. Rep. Chris Molendorp, R-Belton, said he doesn’t think the economic arguments for right to work have much merit and union members should not be vilified. He hosts a weekly breakfast with other pro-union Republicans.

“It feels like a litmus test vote, like a Republican purity vote,” Molendorp said.

At least 20 Republicans oppose right to work in the House, said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who’s one of them. To finally pass a bill, a measure must have 82 votes. If more than 26 Republicans decide not to vote for the right-to-work measure and all Democratic members vote no, it would not succeed.

Rep. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, agreed with Engler’s number but said it can be difficult to judge because some opponents are less vocal than he’s willing to be.

The bill on the issue most likely to emerge would put right to work on the Aug. 5 primary ballot for a statewide vote. That would bypass Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s likely veto of legislation. Jones said last week there were not enough votes to override a veto on the issue and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told reporters earlier in the session that putting it on the ballot was the only way to get it into law.

A few Republicans who oppose right to work are concerned about the effect of having it on the August primary ballot, but more said the issue could lose the party seats in the November general election.

In 1978, Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected a right-to-work ballot measure. Since then, four states have adopted right-to-work laws, bringing the total to 24. The percentage of the workforce represented by unions has declined in Missouri since that vote.

Filing for the 2014 races ended Tuesday, and the uncertainty over who would be running may have been one reason for the Legislature’s delay on the issue. Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, is chairman of the Workforce Development and Workplace Safety committee. He said that, once filing closed, it was more a question of “when, instead of if” the House would vote on the bill.

Grisamore, Engler, Wieland and Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, all said that having right to work on the August ballot may still cause Republicans to lose some seats in the November election.

“I think that if it’s on the ballot it’ll drive people out to vote, and we might see some Republicans in marginal districts not come back,” Hinson said.

But Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, sponsor of the measure putting the matter on the August ballot, said right to work hasn’t hurt Republicans in other states.

“When you look at Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan — that has not affected it. The people who voted for it have been able to get elected again and again,” Burlison said.

Even if the House passes the measure, its chances in the Senate are murky. The likelihood of a Democratic filibuster and the lack of interest shown by Senate Republican leaders make passage there difficult.

“We may have a bloodbath over here and it dies in the Senate — so what’s the point?” Grisamore asked.

One measure that may serve as a substitute is a proposal to require public employee unions to get annual written authorization to automatically deduct dues from a public worker’s paycheck. Nixon vetoed the measure last year, but the bill on the House calendar would bypass him and put it on the ballot.

Jones said last week and before the Legislature’s spring break that he still wanted to move forward with right to work.

“It is not union-busting. We just say, how about unions get to compete with nonunion shops as well on an equal footing. That creates more job growth, more prosperity, more opportunity, more wages for all,” Jones said.

The bill is HB 1770.

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Marie French is a reporter in the Jefferson City bureau. You can follow her on Twitter @mre545.