JEFFERSON CITY - Labor leaders in Missouri are pushing to make the state a battle ground on one of the most effective tools for businesses to break union strikes - hiring replacement workers.
The labor union bill is sponsored by Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles. It would prohibit a business from hiring permanent workers to replace striking workers.
Passage of the bill would set the stage for a major national legal case about the power of states to regulate business-labor relations.
The federal National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gives employers the right replace striking workers permanently.
While several labor-law experts say that federal law may block the state from barring replacement workers, Missouri labor leaders say it's not that clear. They want to challenge that conclusion.
But they concede regret at not having changed the federal NLRA law when they had the chance.
"For two years, we had enough Democrats in Congress, and a Democratic president, we should have done this then," Duke McVey, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO.
"We should have gone after this years ago,...but instead we worked on the Equal Rights amendment," he said. "You might see some other states trying to pass legislation like this."
Ironically, when the ERA was alive, McVey himself was criticized by some pro-labor legislators for putting too much emphasis on the ERA which had been backed by the national AFL-CIO.
The striker replacement issue has permeated all levels of government. President Clinton issued an executive order in March that prohibited the federal government from contracting companies that hire permanent replacements for more than $100,000 of work.
But a federal court of appeals struck it down in a recent decision this year. "No state of federal governmental entity can alter the delicate balance of bargaining and economic power that the NLRA establishes, whatever his or it's purpose may be," Judge Laurence Silberman wrote.
Since the validity of the bill is in question, some question the motivation of the bill's sponsor.
"There's some show boating going on, or why else would someone try to pass a law that is so irrational?" asked Jo Frappier, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
The bill's sponsor, House, got more than $28,000 in campaign contributions since the beginning of 1994 from unions, according to his campaign reports House submitted to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
"I am very proud of the union support I have," House said.
House says workers need the legislation, because it will level the playing field between the employers and employees.
Workers don't have enough leverage when negotiating strikes because employers can threaten them with being replaced by "scabs."
"The threat is always out there. That's an unfair advantage for the employee. There's no recourse and you're at the mercy of the employer. They will threaten you," said Gene Rey, of the United Steel Workers of America, District #1.
In 1986, Rey had to advise striking steel workers in New Madrid to go back to work because the company they worked for threatened to permanently replace them, he said.
But business leaders like Frappier argue that the bill would upset the balance, established by the NLRA, between workers and employers. "This is an aggressive attack on business. This would be putting business at a real disadvantage," he said.
"Two other states, that I know of, have tried to pass striker replacement bills, and they were both declared unconstitutional," Frappier said.
House said that 24 states have some form of striker replacement laws, but he did not say which states have laws or what the laws mandate.
"An employer has the right to ignore the striking workers. That severely undermines any negotiating leverage of the workers," House said.
Striker replacement laws have been a hot issue for unions for since the early 80's.
"This all started with Reagan and the air traffic controller strike," AFL-CIO Leader McVey said. "He replaced them and that was the quickest way of settling. So, pretty soon, there was no bargaining."
"We've had fifteen years of no regard for workers just because the government wants to break the unions," McVey said.