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Right to work petitions

Boxes containing some of the more than 300,000 signatures needed to block Missouri's new right to work law from going into effect sit on carts in the Secretary of State's office in Jefferson City on Aug. 18, 2017.

JEFFERSON CITY • In the span of several hours Friday, Missouri lawmakers approved two different measures that some worry could undermine a referendum on the state’s “right-to-work” law.

Around 5:30 a.m., after an overnight Democrat-led filibuster, the Senate endorsed moving the referendum from the November general election ballot to the August primary ballot, when turnout is lower. At noon, the House endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment that would make Missouri a right-to-work state.

“This will ensure once and for all, enshrining in our Constitution, you have the ability to choose what you belong to,” said the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville.

Voters would have to approve the amendment, but it’s unclear if it would appear on the August or November ballots. Either way, Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said the proposal would undercut the referendum.

“Now you’re trying to undermine democracy,” she told Brattin on the House floor.

In the Senate, supporters said moving the referendum to August will result in a quicker resolution of the long-running debate over the anti-union measure.

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said companies looking to bring businesses to Missouri are awaiting a decision. “I think it is imperative that we get this question answered sooner than later,” he said.

The vote came after an overnight filibuster by Democrats, who argued the more than 300,000 people who signed a petition to put the question on the ballot thought the referendum would come during the general election, rather than the primary, when fewer people typically go to the polls.

The Legislature sent the pro-business measure to Gov. Eric Greitens’ desk last year. He signed it and hailed the change as a way to boost job creation in Missouri.

Under the new law, workers cannot be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or to pay dues to a labor union.

“Workers ought to have the freedom to choose,” Schatz said.

But state labor organizations collected 310,567 signatures of people calling for a referendum asking voters if they wanted the law, arguing that right to work lowers wages, benefits and workplace safety.

Opponents of moving the date, including Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis, said in the 26 similar referenda dating to 1914, the Legislature did not move any of them to the primary election.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT

Brattin introduced the proposed constitutional amendment in January. But it wasn’t touched until Monday, when it was referred to committee, the first step in getting legislation debated. On Wednesday, two House committees approved it. Usually, it can take weeks or months for separate committees to approve legislation.

On Tuesday, A New Missouri, a dark money group affiliated with Gov. Eric Greitens, gave Freedom to Work, a PAC that’s pushed for right-to-work legislation, $500,000, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, said that looked “rotten.”

“Somebody got paid half a million dollars to move this through committee, is what it looks like,” he said. “This wasn’t going anywhere until someone got paid half a million bucks.”

Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, pushed back on the comment, saying lots of out-of-state money had been spent on the issue.

“There’s more than $500,000 that went to Prop A,” the right-to-work referendum, he said.

Sen. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, who is secretary of the AFL-CIO, said making Missouri a right-to-work state will result in lower wages.

“I worry that what we’re actually doing is making sure that workers are going to earn less,” Hummel said.

He added that the maneuver is designed to lower the number of voters weighing in on the issue.

“We don’t want to have 2 million Missourians vote on this. We only want a million to vote,” Hummel said.

A similar measure, House Concurrent Resolution 102, is pending in the House.

The Senate legislation is Senate Concurrent Resolution 49.

The House legislation is House Joint Resolution 79.

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