JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- With scores of union supporters watching in disapproval from the galleries, some Republican senators laid out their case Monday for legislation that would prohibit private-sector employees from being required to pay union fees.
The Republican senators asserted Missouri is missing out on an untold number of jobs because companies prefer to locate in states with so-called "right to work" laws such as the one they are proposing. Democrats countered that jobs were going elsewhere because other states were offering more lucrative incentives.
Monday's long-awaited Senate debate amounted to an opening argument for what could be a lengthy discussion with an uncertain resolution. The Senate quit after three hours Monday without voting on the bill. Senate Democrats -- aided by several majority party Republicans -- have vowed to block the legislation. Some Republicans are trying to rally enough support to cut off a filibuster.
The chamber's split opinion is exemplified by its leaders. The right-to-work legislation is a priority for Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, who decides which bills are brought up for debate, said Monday night that he is opposed to the legislation and won't return to it before legislators begin a spring break this Friday.
Union issues also consumed much of the House's attention Monday. That chamber gave initial approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require union elections to be conducted by secret ballot -- a backlash against congressional proposals that would require companies to recognize and bargain with unions after more than half of the companies' eligible work force has signed union cards. Companies currently can require that secret-ballot elections be held. The House measure needs another vote before moving to the Senate.
Republican governors and legislators in several states have attempted this year to scale back union powers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, recently signed a law abolishing nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public-sector employee unions after Republican lawmakers overcame a walkout by Democratic senators. Thousands of pro-union protesters gathered at the Wisconsin Capitol, some of them camping out inside the building and pounding drums.
The scene at the Missouri Capitol was comparatively calm Monday. Union members and supporters generally sat silently in the Senate's upper galleries, occasionally groaning at comments made by Republican senators.
Dan Silvers, who traveled to the Capitol from the town of Matthews, in southeast Missouri, said he feared what the bill's passage would mean for unions and the workers in them.
"They'll lose their ability to negotiate and some of the chapters might even have to start over," said Silvers, 72, who said he was a member of United Steelworkers.
Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, sought to persuade people during her opening remarks that unions still would have strong collective bargaining powers under her legislation -- even if they could no longer collect fees from non-union members in the bargaining unit that they represent.
Ridgeway and Mayer, R-Dexter, both cited Missouri's 9.4 percent unemployment rate, comparing it to lower jobless rates in some neighboring states that have right-to-work laws.
"We have had now, for a number of years, problem after problem after problem trying to make Missouri a more attractive state in which to have jobs," said Ridgeway, later adding: "We clearly have to do something different."
Bill supporters repeatedly cited testimony given during a Senate committee meeting last month by Mark Sweeney, a business-site-location consultant from South Carolina, who said about half his clients' manufacturing projects would not come to a state such as Missouri that is not a right-to-work state.
Democratic senators noted that site-location firms place qualities such as good infrastructure near the top of the preferred list, and that some states with right-to-work laws also have high unemployment. They also claimed that bill supporters were glazing over some of the key reasons why major manufacturers have chosen to locate in other states.
"The main argument they're leaving out is all the ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching from all the hundreds of millions of dollars they have had to give out to get these companies to locate there," said Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence.
Slightly fewer than half the states currently have right-to-work laws, though bills have been introduced in 13 states this year, according to the National Right to Work Committee.
Even if Missouri's bill were to clear the Senate, its fate would remain uncertain. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has expressed opposition to the legislation. And House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, has said that right-to-work legislation is not a priority for the House.
Associated Press writers Chris Blank and Wes Duplantier contributed to this report.
Union bill is SB1.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)