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Prop A debate heads down the stretch

Both sides throw around economic statistics to make their case

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Nearly 18 months after a Missouri right-to-work bill was signed into law, voters are about to have their say.

Senate Bill 19, which appears on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot as Proposition A, was signed into law in February 2017 but never went into effect after enough signatures were collected to put the issue before voters as a veto referendum.

If approved, Prop A would make Missouri the 28th state in the country to have a law mandating that employees be given a choice in regards to union membership at unionized employers.

In other words, those working for a union shop could opt out of the union and its dues but maintain their jobs.

We Are Missouri, a union-backed group, has been a vocal opponent of the right-to-work law. The group helped organize the petition drive that gathered more than 310,000 signatures from across the state to put SB 19 before voters.

“Proposition A, for us, is a vote on what kind of Missouri, what kind of economy we want – especially as Missouri’s working families,” said Crystal Mahaney, southwest Missouri communication director for We Are Missouri.

The group claims passage of the ballot measure would lead to lower wages.

Citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2016, We Are Missouri points to states with right-to-work laws reporting a median household income of $54,859, compared with $63,599 for those in the rest of the country. That’s a 14 percent difference.

Supporters of Prop A counter that worker pay is actually higher in right-to-work states. The National Right to Work Committee points to U.S. Commerce Department data showing the average disposable income per capita in right-to-work states in 2017 was $42,857, nearly $2,250 higher than the average for forced-unionism states.

Attracting companies
Statistical disagreements on the potential impact on wages in Missouri has been central to the ongoing debate, said Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, a Jefferson City-based trade group that represents around 400 businesses and manufacturers statewide.

AIM lobbied for the right-to-work bill when it was in the legislature, he said, as well as getting it moved to August from its original position on the November ballot.

Through some of his past work representing the Missouri Economic Development Council, a statewide organization of economic development professionals, McCarty said he interacted with numerous site selectors hired by companies planning expansions or relocations. He said those interactions taught him companies tend to make right-to-work states a top search criteria. As a right-to-work state, McCarty thinks Missouri would improve its chances of moving to the next round of reviews by those companies. Other considerations are workforce, taxes, land costs, and transportation infrastructure.

“We don’t need to answer any of those questions until we get past that right-to-work question for those companies that make that its top criteria,” he said.

Mahaney argues that right-to-work laws are not a high priority for relocating or expanding companies.

“Whenever they’re deciding where to set up shop and bring in jobs or factories, the things that they do want are a skilled workforce, an educated workforce and they want a quality transportation infrastructure,” she said. “Laws like Proposition A are not at the top of that.”

Job and wage concerns
The two sides also are in stark contrast regarding job prospects.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which supports Prop A, notes in a July 18 newsletter that the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported private-sector employment increases of 27 percent in right-to-work states between 2001 and 2016. In that same time period, private-sector employment in other states increased by 15 percent. Data cited by the state chamber originally was published in May 2018 by Dr. Jeffrey A. Eisenach, with National Economic Research Associates Inc., a New York-based consulting firm.

However, a report released in July by Janelle Jones and Heidi Shierholz, with the Economic Policy Institute, says right to work is just one of hundreds of factors affecting a state’s economic growth. Washington, D.C.-based EPI calls itself an independent, nonprofit think tank. According to the report, there is no casual pattern of right-to-work states having better or worse employment indicators over other states, contrary to claims on both sides of the debate in Missouri. EPI has taken a position against right-to-work laws.

The EPI report also points to Missouri’s unemployment level, which topped out at 9.5 percent in 2010 during the recession but dropped to 3.8 percent by the end of 2017 – effectively bringing down its rate 5.7 percentage points without a right-to-work law. Jones and Shierholz concluded in the report that there is no body of evidence showing right-to-work laws have a significant impact on employment growth.

In an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data 2010-17, the report said workers in neighboring right-to-work states make less than Missourians. When broken down by gender, the median hourly wage for males in Missouri is $19.16 and $17.55 for those in neighboring right-to-work states. For females, Missouri’s median hourly wage is $15.28 compared with $14.75 in neighboring right-to-work states.

Mahaney, from We Are Missouri, fears passage of Prop A would force workers to accept lower wages.

“I’d rather see us invest in education and infrastructure and not do things that sort of cut Missouri off at the knees,” she said.

Unionization trends
Union membership in Missouri has been on the decline.

Last year, there were 226,000 union members, or 8.7 percent of the state’s wage and salary workers, down from 9.7 percent in 2016, according to the BLS. However, Missouri’s union membership percentage in the four years prior, 2012-15, stayed in a range of 8.4-8.9 percent.

Oklahoma is the most recent neighboring state to approve right-to-work laws. It passed in 2001 and actually increased union membership the year after, reaching a recent peak of 9 percent in 2002. Union membership has fluctuated greatly since, and in 2017, Oklahoma had 84,000 union members, or 5.5 percent of the workforce.

Other states, such as Arkansas and Kansas, enacted right-to-work laws in the 1940s and ’50s.

Nationally, workers who were members of unions in 2017 remained steady at 10.7 percent of the workforce.

Michigan more recently approved right to work, and in 2013, the year after, union membership recorded an uptick to 633,000 members. According to the BLS, there were 658,000 union members in Michigan last year.

AIM’s McCarty stressed the ballot measure is not intended to end Missouri unions. He said the issue puts more responsibility on unions to provide benefits to its members and justify the dues it charges.

“If a union is providing you value, then you’ll want to be a member of the union,” he said, adding AIM constantly has to prove its worth to its membership. “It’s not so outrageous, I don’t think, to ask the unions to do the same thing.”

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