JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Opponents forced the suspension Friday of a new Missouri law banning mandatory union fees after delivering dozens of boxes containing what they say are more than 300,000 signed petitions demanding it be put to a public vote.
More than 1,000 people hoping to block the right-to-work law rallied at the Capitol and marched to the Secretary of State's Office to hand off signatures.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's spokeswoman Maura Browning said that means "essentially the rule is suspended now." If enough of the signatures are valid, it will be up to voters to decide whether to ditch the law or keep it in place.
"This is our living," said Tamara Maxwell, a union member who works at Kansas City's Ford assembly plant and was among those rallying in Jefferson City. "We should be in control of that, not one person just signing it away."
Gov. Eric Greitens and other GOP supporters have touted right-to-work as a way to keep Missouri competitive in the fight to bring jobs and business to the state and argue it gives workers a choice on whether to join unions. The Republican governor signed right-to-work into law in February, and it was set to take effect Aug. 28.
"We passed Right-to-Work to give workers a choice to join a union," Sikeston Republican Rep. Holly Rehder said in a Friday statement. "Union bosses are afraid of giving workers the freedom to decide if a union is right for the worker and are intent on maintaining their power to force workers to unionize in Missouri."
A coalition of union members and other opponents argue the policy would hurt labor organizations and could mean lower wages. It says it gathered more than 300,000 signed petitions to put it to a public vote. More than 100,000 valid signatures are needed to put the measure on the ballot.
Browning said unless it's later determined that signature gatherers fell short of that mark the law will remain blocked until a public vote occurs. According to the Missouri Constitution, that will occur in November 2018 unless the Republican-led Legislature orders a special election.
Browning said the secretary of state's office next will send the signed petitions to local election authorities, where staffers will check and certify signatures. Ashcroft's office gave local officials until Nov. 1 to check signatures, she said.
State Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican, said in a statement Friday that it's now up to the courts to determine "whether many of the signatures they've submitted are even valid." But Browning said because right-to-work opponents gathered roughly triple the number of needed signatures, staff at Ashcroft's office "anticipate that there will be enough."
Efforts to ban mandatory union fees in Missouri have been divisive for years. Although the policy generally is opposed by Democrats and supported by Republicans, some GOP lawmakers who represent areas with strong union membership have voted against the measure in past years.
Even with enough Republican lawmakers in both the state House and Senate to override vetoes by former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, supporters of right-to-work still failed to pass it into law. That changed when Greitens took office.
Unions and other opponents now are hoping voters will repeal the law. There's also an effort to adopt a constitutional amendment protecting workplace contracts requiring all employees to pay fees covering the costs of union representation, which would have the same effect of ending the law.
According to Browning, there have been 26 public votes on laws in Missouri but only six since 1926. Voters only approved two.