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Missouri Supreme Court Rejects GOP-Backed Law Targeting Public Sector Unions

Steps lead up to the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Tony Webster
Steps lead up to the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Missouri.

The court ruled the "paycheck protection" law, which was approved in 2018 and contained exceptions for police and other public safety unions, was unconstitutional.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling Tuesday and struck down a 2018 law that sought to impose new restrictions on collective bargaining for public sector unions while exempting public safety unions from the requirements.

In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that the bill violated public employees’ constitutional right to receive equal protection under the law. The unconstitutional provisions permeated throughout the bill and could not be severed — resulting in the bill being declared null and void in its entirety.

House Bill 1413, sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, was signed into law in 2018 and imposed a slew of new restrictions on public labor unions, including annual authorization for fees to be withheld from an employee’s earnings to pay dues, three-year recertifications and absolute-majority votes.

However, public safety unions, like those representing emergency medical personnel and law enforcement, would be exempt from those new requirements under the bill.

Seven unions, which represented groups like Missouri teachers, bus drivers, plant workers and some law enforcement officers and firefighters, sued and argued that the bill’s burdens were not just “severe, they are discriminatory,” and violated rights guaranteed under the Missouri Constitution.

The law, which supporters described as a “paycheck protection” law, had previously been blocked from going into effect by a circuit court,which ruled it violated public employees’ right to bargain collectively “through representatives of their own choosing.” The state had appealed the ruling, which was upheld Tuesday.

“The end result of exempting public safety labor organizations in HB 1413 is a myriad of requirements on all other labor organizations,” the opinion written by Justice Mary R. Russell read.

What’s more, the framework of the bill would add pressure for employees to join a union exempt from the requirements the bill imposed, unions suing the state argued, further taking away their freedom of choice.

Attorneys for the state had argued it was necessary to exempt public safety employees, in part, because of the critical nature of their work, which “greatly increases the risks of any disruption or lack of continuity in such services, justifying differential treatment.”

However, the court’s ruling Tuesday noted that a union composed of 51% public safety employees versus 49% would be similar in nature — but treated differently under the law.

“Instead, the only effect (and, therefore, the only evident purpose) of the exemption for public safety labor organizations is to give preferential treatment to some labor organizations over others for some reason other than those employees they represent,” the decision read.

Justices W. Brent Powell and Zel M. Fischer were the lone voices in dissent, and argued that differentiating between the two groups is justified — citing a combination of lower turnover and higher union participation among public safety unions — and therefore did not violate the equal protection provision and invalidate the law.

“This Court’s role is not to determine whether the solution raised by the legislature is perfectly suited to the problem it purports to solve;” Powell wrote in the dissenting opinion, “rather, as long as the reason for distinguishing between public safety and non-public safety unions is plausible, there exists a rational basis for treating these labor organizations differently under the law.”

Taylor, the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday afternoon he preferred to read the court’s ruling before commenting on the law being struck down.

Meanwhile, groups who had challenged the law celebrated its defeat.

Phil Murray, the president of the Missouri National Education Association, said in a statement that Tuesday’s ruling affirmed public sector workers’ constitutional right “to participate in their union free of politically motivated interference.”

“Missouri educators and public employees are some of the lowest paid in the country,” Murray said. “It is time to stop the politically motivated attacks and get to work on providing the resources students, educators, and Missouri’s public employees need.”

Carmen Hill, a nurse in St. Louis Public Schools, said in a statement that as a school nurse, her union helps her advocate for the health and safety of students, who are “at the center of every decision I make.”

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