Protestors hold a Missouri AFL-CIO banner during a recent demonstration outside the state capital in Jefferson City.

Missouri has been battered by anti-labor legislation in recent months. That didn’t stop the IBEW and its allies from fighting off an attempt to repeal the state’s prevailing wage statute.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who was elected last November and has pushed for a series of bills that harm working families, including the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law.
Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by West Texas A&M University

On May 12, the state Senate let a bill passed by the House die that would have done away with prevailing wage, even though the Senate has a Republican supermajority. That seemed unlikely earlier in the session, when a right-to-work law was passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Eric Greitens.

To do so, the IBEW and other trade unions turned to their signatory contractors, who took the lead in a public campaign and testified before House and Senate committees against the legislation. Even some nonunion contractors spoke out against it.

They also worked with the IBEW and the Missouri AFL-CIO to lobby Republican legislators, particularly in central Missouri. Workers and contractors there had a higher interest in maintaining prevailing wage laws because of the large number of public projects in Jefferson City, the state capital; and in Columbia, home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus.

“It made a huge difference with the [National Electrical Contractors Association] making phone calls to those elected Republican officials in which they had influence and saying ‘Hey, we don’t want this’,” said state Sen. Jake Hummel, a member of St. Louis Local 1. “It will hurt my bottom line and it is governmental overreach. We need to make sure Missouri workers are working on this project instead of out-of-state interests.”

Tim Green, the director of political, public and community relations for the Electrical Connection – the partnership between NECA and Local 1 in eastern Missouri -- said it made sense for business leaders to be the public face fighting the legislation because of the Legislature’s disdain for unions.

“We kept organized labor out of the discussion and had the contractor associations take the lead in articulating our position and educating legislators on the validity of these laws,” said Green, a Local 1 member.

Prevailing wage laws were enacted in Missouri in 1959 and they require contractors doing business with state and local government to pay their workers at pre-determined levels. Because these projects receive public money, the belief has been businesses should pay workers at a rate that allows them to raise the standard of living for themselves and their families.

Missouri State Sen. Jake Hummel, a member of St. Louis Local 1, speaks at a news conference with his colleagues. Hummel has been a leader in pushing back against anti-working family legislation.
Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by Progress Missouri.

They also protect local contractors because they discourage bids from cut-rate companies outside the state that do little to contribute to its tax base.

Such laws were largely non-controversial in most parts of the country until far-right groups began targeting them as a way of punishing unions and working families. One study showed the wages of union construction workers fell 2-4 percent in states following repeal. Twenty states do not have them, according to the Department of Labor, but that figure will rise when Kentucky’s repeal takes effect this year. It joined Indiana and West Virginia as states that have repealed prevailing wage laws since 2015.

“If we lose prevailing wage, it would first affect our contractors in the bidding process,” Jefferson City Local 257 Business Manager Don Bruemmer said. “If they aren’t awarded jobs, our people are laid off. It would slow down our apprenticeship programs and our ability to take new members in.

“Throughout the history of Local 257, we’ve kind of set the construction rates for electrical work in central Missouri because of prevailing wage,” Bruemmer said. “It’s leveled the bidding process for our contractors. It would really concern me to lose that.”

The fight is far from over. Greitens said he won’t bring the issue up during an ongoing special session, but some business groups almost certainly will push for legislation again when a new regular session begins next January.

Hummel said about one-third of the Senate favors no change in the law and another one-third favors outright repeal.

“The hardest thing we’re going to have to do is reach out to that one-third of the Missouri Senate that doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

The IBEW and other Missouri unions also are collecting signatures to put an initiative on the ballot next year that would challenge the right-to-work law. Missouri residents can force a referendum on any law passed by the state Legislature if supporters get signatures from 5 percent of the voters in at least two-thirds of the state’s eight congressional districts.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported voters seeking to challenge the right-to-work law must gather about 90,000 signatures by Aug. 28, the day it is to take effect. Hummel and Bruemmer are optimistic that goal will be reached. Local 1 is training members on how to collect signatures. Local 257 is opening its doors to the public June 3 and asking them to sign the petition.

“I am in full signature gathering mode,” Bruemmer said.