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Missouri’s race for governor this year is among the most watched in the country, drawing massive money and rapt attention from national business and labor interests.

The reason for the attention isn’t a mystery: If Republican nominee Eric Greitens is elected on Nov. 8, Missouri will almost certainly, almost immediately become America’s 27th “right-to-work” state. If he isn’t, it probably won’t.

“For organized labor, it is make-or-break,” said state Rep. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, a vocal opponent of right-to-work legislation. “If we don’t get (Democratic nominee) Chris Koster elected, Missouri will very quickly be a right-to-work state.”

Daniel P. Mehan, president and chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a key driver of the right-to-work movement here, agreed. “The country is watching.”

Core of labor’s strength

Right to work is shorthand for laws that forbid union contracts from requiring that employees pay union dues as a condition of employment. For generations, such requirements have formed a core of the labor movement’s strength, ensuring that once a business is unionized, all present and future employees will help fund that union.

Business groups and many Republicans say right-to-work laws protect just that: the right of a prospective employee to accept a job without the condition of supporting a union. They claim that eliminating the requirement makes unions more accountable to their members and makes running a business more efficient and profitable, thus making the business climate here more attractive. They point to data showing that right-to-work states tend to have lower unemployment rates.

“Right to work would be a game-changer for the state of Missouri,” said Mehan, of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It mitigates an obstacle to employers who are deciding whether to come to Missouri. It would put out a shingle saying we’re open for business.”

Labor leaders and many Democrats say unions need the union fee requirements to ensure that businesses don’t peel away union membership with enticements or threats to individual workers. They deride the whole right-to-work movement as a thinly veiled union-busting tactic, one that attacks the very structure of collective bargaining. They often call it “right to work for less,” citing data showing that wages in right-to-work states tend to be lower than in other states.

“The first thing that happens with right to work is that wages go down” because of the weakened bargaining power of unions, argued the Rev. Jeffrey Lindgren of the Faith Labor Alliance of St. Louis. “Right to work, its basic purpose seems to be to make it harder for workers to organize and ask for a living wage.”

Unpredictable race

The gubernatorial showdown between Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and author, and Koster, Missouri’s attorney general, comes within a perfect storm of political timing that makes the race both unpredictable and, in terms of the right-to-work issue, crucial.

The Republican-controlled Legislature last year passed a right-to-work bill, but it was unable to muster the votes to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.

Nixon is leaving office in January because of term limits. So Democrats have to give up the incumbency advantage going into an election that will determine whether they keep in place the last line of defense against right-to-work measures.

“There’s no doubt at all” that Greitens would sign a Republican-passed right-to-work bill into law, Hummel said. “I take him at his word … (And) certainly some of his funders have put all their eggs in that basket.”

In fact, national entities on both sides of the right-to-work debate have jumped heavily into Missouri’s gubernatorial contest, with an eye on making — or preventing — the state from joining the 26 other states that have put right-to-work laws on their books.

On Aug. 3, one day after the primary election and the official start of the general election campaign, Koster received $100,000 from International Union of Operating Engineers in Washington. It was the first of a string of big national labor donations in the weeks after the election, including $80,000 on Aug. 17 from the Ironworkers Political Education Fund and $500,000 last week from the national office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“Missouri has the most important governor’s race in the country going on right now” because of the right-to-work issue, Richard Trumka, national president of the AFL-CIO, told St. Louis Public Radio before the primary.

Greitens, meanwhile, took in multiple five- and six-figure donations from business interests in the days after the primary — in addition to a $1 million donation from the Republican Governors Association, which has been focused on getting right-to-work legislation passed in the 24 states where it still isn’t law.

In all, Koster has received almost one-third of his total $17 million in campaign funds this election cycle from labor, records show. That’s some $5.3 million in labor-connected money, almost half of it from outside Missouri.

Greitens hasn’t seen as high a percentage in money tied to right-to-work, because key business-focused donors who give in support of that issue — including behemoth Missouri contributors Rex Sinquefield and David Humphreys — were supporting other Republicans in the GOP primary. But the millions they alone put into that primary makes it a good bet more will flow before the general election.

The issue may help explain why, even as Koster managed to collect endorsements from traditionally Republican-leaning law enforcement and agriculture organizations — a coup for a Democrat who is trying to appeal to moderates — the state’s top business organization stuck firmly with precedent to back the Republican.

Greitens “has the right policy positions to collaborate with Missouri’s General Assembly toward improving Missouri’s business climate,” the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry wrote in its strong Aug. 19 endorsement, which focuses heavily on right-to-work.

Veto-proof?

If Koster wins, that isn’t a guaranteed victory for labor on the right-to-work issue in the way that a Greitens win would be a guaranteed victory for business. The Legislature will undoubtedly still have a Republican majority, and re-passage of a measure, this time with a veto-proof majority, is theoretically possible.

“I don’t think it’s a make-or-break election for that issue,” said state Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, a top right-to-work proponent.

But others, including some right-to-work supporters, say there’s little chance of getting the roughly dozen new House supporters they would need to go around a Gov. Koster. “We just don’t have it in the House,” said Mehan.

Missouri’s election is unusual in that Koster, the Democrat, is a former Republican, and Greitens, the Republican, is a former Democrat. Neither tends to tout the ideological fervor of the bases of their parties.

But when asked last week about right to work, their campaigns issued the expected responses.

“I’m opposed to using government regulations to lower the wages of Missourians,” Koster said in a written statement. “Eric’s desire to roll back collective bargaining rights in Missouri is inconsistent with the goal of building a strong middle class.”

Greitens’ campaign issued a statement declaring that “Eric absolutely believes right-to-work is a necessary step to create good-paying jobs, and he will sign it as governor.”

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

This post has been updated to correct the date of the general election.

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