By Celeste Bott
Gov. Eric Greitens signed "right-to-work" legislation into law on Monday, fulfilling a campaign promise that has been cheered by Republicans and the state's business community.
It was a busy day for the governor, whose victory lap took him to an abandoned warehouse in Springfield, Mo. -- "a far too familiar sight for many towns across Missouri," according to a release from the governor's office -- and to Poplar Bluff, where he held ceremonial signings.
At each event, he was flanked by lawmakers who have been biding time for a GOP governor willing to sign the pro-business measure, which prohibits labor unions from collecting dues as a condition of employment.
"This hasn't been an easy fight," Greitens said.
Eventually, he rounded back to his office at the Missouri Capitol, where supporters crowded around his desk and applauded as he hailed the bill as a "simple and straightforward measure."
"If (workers) choose not to join, they can't be forced out of their job," he said.
Greitens, like the legislators who cheered him Monday, is hopeful that the change will lure business to Missouri and keep the state competitive with 27 other states that have adopted similar laws.
But for the state's unions, the signing is an event they had previously been able to delay. Greitens' predecessor, Gov. Jay Nixon, blocked similar efforts with his veto pen and argued, along with fellow Democrats, that the measure was a political ploy to weaken Missouri labor.
Experts take issue with both arguments, saying the bill won't necessarily serve as a job creator nor a death sentence for unions, but debate around the issue has always been inherently political.
Businesses and their organizations, which typically donate to Republicans, support the legislation. Unions, who more typically back Democrats, contend the inability to collect dues keeps them from bargaining for important rights and benefits for their workers and curbs their political influence.
In particular, they take issue with Joplin roofing magnate David Humphreys, a Republican megadonor who in the 2016 election poured millions into the campaigns of those supportive of right to work, including Greitens.
Democrats in the Legislature were unsuccessful in attempts to amend the bill to address some of their concerns. Now, unions are making one last-ditch effort to block the law by voter referendum.
On Monday afternoon, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis and Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel filed a petition with the secretary of state's office that would to put right to work on the ballot.
Louis has previously filed petitions that would invalidate the law after it takes effect, but this petition is different -- it's a seldom-used tool that allows citizens to block legislation approved by lawmakers and the governor before it goes into effect.
Louis and Chapel would need the support of 5 percent of voters from two-thirds of Missouri's congressional districts by Aug. 28 -- the day the right-to-work law is to take effect.
If they're successful, they will essentially force the issue to go before voters, and the law can't take effect unless a majority of voters approve it in 2018.
"This referendum will guarantee that employers in Missouri can decide for themselves how to run their businesses and reach agreements with their employees without government intervention," said Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis.
Greitens, at his final event of the day, acknowledged the opposition that last week descended on the Capitol and his office with pleas for him not to sign the measure.
"I understand there will be people who don't agree with us on this issue. I respect the thoughtful disagreement on issues," Greitens said.
"Right to work doesn't eliminate unions. It makes them more responsible and accountable to their members on the front lines," he added.
But as Greitens and Republican leaders enjoy their victory, union members remain fearful that the new policy will lower wages, benefits and workplace safety for the state's middle class.
"By passing so-called 'right to work,' Gov. Greitens and other politicians in Jefferson City chose millionaire CEOs and out-of-state corporate special interests over Missouri's working families," said Al Bond of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.
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