Republicans say it’s a simple change, from opting out to opting in.
But by making it more difficult for public employee unions to collect dues, GOP lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri could weaken a chief political nemesis.
If organized labor is dealt that blow this year, the stage could be set in subsequent years in Missouri to push for a right-to-work law — the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation.
“This is part of a step-by-step process to diminish the power of labor organizations,” said Missouri Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat.
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In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces need not pay unions for the cost of being represented.
The push in Missouri for what supporters call “paycheck protection” — and detractors call “paycheck deception” — is considered by many to be a lot like right-to-work light.
Members of public employee unions — teachers, state workers — would be prohibited from even voluntarily having dues deducted directly from their paychecks. Additionally, unions would need written permission from their members annually to use any dues for political purposes.
Committees in the Missouri Senate have held two hearings on the measure. A scaled-down version that continues to permit payroll deduction went before a House Committee on Wednesday. Neither version of the bill covers private-sector unions, and each exempts unions representing first responders.
The Kansas House could send a bill to the Senate as early as today banning public employee unions from using automatic paycheck deductions for political activities. Similar efforts died in recent years in the Senate, but the election of many new conservative Republicans last fall increases its chances.
In Missouri, critics of the legislation point out that unlike private sector unions, membership in a public employee union is already voluntary. Workers can quit a union at any time.
Union leadership, they contend, shouldn’t be required to spend resources to constantly hound their membership for money when corporate boards need not pester shareholders to OK specifics on spending.
Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, hinted at partisan motivations shortly before the legislative session began.
“Money is extremely important to the labor unions,” Jones said. “They are the biggest opponents to us on that level. Democrats in this state rely on that money, which is forced from hard-working (Missourians).”
Paycheck protection would get at many of the same goals as right-to-work, an issue unlikely to win enough support to pass the Missouri legislature this year, Jones said. It would also drain resources from groups that support Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and others who stand in the way of right-to-work.
In Kansas, a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist told lawmakers last week, “I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions.”
The lobbyist, Eric Stafford, later moderated his tone when talking to The Associated Press.
Supporters of the measure insist the true aim of the bill is to prevent teachers and other government workers from being forced to contribute to political activities they don’t support.
“We’re protecting the rights of all those who do not want to pay dues and protecting the rights of all those who feel pressure” to pay, said Kansas Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican. “It is important that we stand up today to protect the individual’s rights.”
Critics say that reasoning is just a smokescreen to hide the true intentions of the bill.
“The bottom line is this is about politics,” said Jeff Mazur, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 72. “It’s about stacking the deck and being able to push back against those in the state who work on behalf of low-paid, middle-class workers in favor of people who are on top of the economic pyramid.”
Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said unions should be no different from other member organizations that have to prove their worth to members every year.
“From a public employee standpoint, they should be allowed to say whether a union is really doing a good job for them,” McCarty said.
Mazur balked at the notion that the debate is about employee choice.
“Employees have a choice now,” he said. “It’s a completely voluntary system.”
Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison, a Springfield Republican, conceded that public employees in Missouri can opt out of a union if they so choose. But many don’t know they have that choice, he said.
Last election cycle in Missouri, public employee unions gave nearly $300,000 to Nixon’s re-election campaign, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics. But it wasn’t just Democrats that benefited from public union spending.
For example, GOP state Sens. Dan Brown of Rolla, David Pearce of Warrensburg, Kurt Schaefer of Columbia and Ryan Silvey of Kansas City all received money from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union also supported several Republicans in the state House.
During testimony on his bill in Missouri, Burlison said studies confirm that in states that have passed paycheck protection laws, public-employee union donations to candidates sharply declined. A 2006 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found donations fell by nearly 50 percent.
The Kansas National Education Association political action committee contributed tens of thousands of dollars to moderate Republican candidates during last year’s elections. All told, the group spent more than $500,000 during last year’s elections.
The KNEA called the Kansas bill “overtly and embarrassingly political payback.” The group characterized the legislation as an attempt to silence the voice of teachers opposing a change to the state’s constitution in response to a court order demanding a dramatic increase to education funding.
Kleeb said the bill didn’t mute anyone’s speech. Rather, he said, employees can still write a check for political activities independent of automated deductions.