Missouri court strikes down public labor union restrictions

DAVID A. LIEB
Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a 2018 state law that could have made it harder for some public-sector unions to organize and collect dues, overturning a past priority of the Republican-led Legislature. 

The high court said the law violated equal protections rights guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution by carving out public safety unions such as those for police and firefighters from the new restrictions imposed on unions for teachers and other public employees. The court said the entire law had to be invalidated, because the exemptions were woven throughout it. 

"There is no rational basis for protecting public safety employees from most — if not all — of the new provisions," Judge Mary Russell wrote for the majority in a 5-2 decision. 

The Missouri law had been on hold since St. Louis County Circuit Judge Joseph Walsh blocked it from being enforced in March 2019. 

It required unions representing public employees to hold recertification elections every three years and get annual written authorization to deduct fees from workers' paychecks. Decisions to form unions and permission to deduct dues typically have no expiration date. 

The stricken state law also required support from a majority of workers covered by a collective bargaining to form a union, as opposed to a majority of those voting — a higher standard that union attorneys said would make it difficult to form and continue a local union. Other provisions of the law limited the items up for negotiation in contacts and allowed public bodies to reject or change negotiated agreements. 

"If the law had gone into effect, the results would have been catastrophic for teachers and janitors and a whole slew of other employees in the public sector who enjoy all of the benefits of unionization and collective bargaining," said Jason Walta, deputy general counsel for the National Education Association, who argued the case before the Missouri Supreme Court. 

A spokesman for Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office defended the law, declined to comment about the ruling.

Lawmakers exempted unions representing law enforcement officers, firefighters, ambulance personnel, registered nurses, physicians and Department of Corrections employees from the additional requirements and restrictions. 

A 2011 Wisconsin law that spawned large protests at that state capitol also imposed new restrictions on public sector unions while exempting public safety personnel. That carve out was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2013.

But the Missouri Supreme Court said its state's law gave "preferential treatment to some labor organizations over others" by applying the exemption to unions that "wholly or primarily" represent public safety employees. That meant a bargaining unit of firefighters who aligned themselves with a union that primarily represents truck drivers, for example, could have been subject to the law's provisions while firefighters who aligned with a traditional public safety union would have been exempt. 

Judge W. Brent Powell wrote in a dissenting opinion that he would have upheld Missouri's law because there are rational reasons to treat public safety unions differently than other public employee unions. Among other things, Powell noted that public safety employees tend to have lower turnover rates and higher union membership rates than other public sector employees.