On Wednesday, February 4, a Missouri House of Representatives committee passed a so-called “right to work” bill for the building trades, sponsored by state Rep. Courtney Curtis – a black Democrat representing part of North St. Louis County, including Ferguson. All of the bill’s supporters were Republicans in the 8-4 vote.
In his testimony before the Workforce Standards and Development Committee, Curtis argued that the bill is about equality. He said inequality and discrimination within the construction unions is not new.
“It works for some, but it does not work for me,” he said. “And it doesn’t work for the people I’m fighting for.”
The unions’ “practices of legal discrimination,” he said, have recently manifested in St. Louis-area legislation that require bidders on government contracts of $25,000 or more to maintain or participate in a Department of Labor-approved apprentice program. Union contractors are often the only ones that meet that requirement, making city contracts “anticompetitive for minority contractors,” he said. And those apprentice programs also have low minority participation, he said.
In 2012, St. Louis County passed such legislation, and St. Louis city is currently trying to follow suit.
He said that is why he has proposed the bill, which prohibits employers in the construction industry “from requiring certain persons to become members of a labor organization as a condition or continuation of employment.”
After Curtis’ testimony, state Rep. Clem Smith, a pro-union Democrat who also represents parts of North St. Louis County, engaged him in a heated debate.
“Organized labor is not perfect,” said Smith, who voted against the bill and is a labor union member. “You are trying to impact the whole system,” though he only has an issue with a certain aspect of the unions.
Curtis replied, “I have the same issue that you should have.”
Many people, including several African-American labor union members, testified in opposition of the bill, saying that this was not the way to increase minority inclusion in the construction industry.
Demetrious Johnson, a former NFL player, testified against the bill on behalf of a 14-week program of unpaid training. It is designed to carve out more opportunities for minorities in the painting industry. His foundation is a partner in the program, along with Mayor Francis Slay and the IUPAT Painters District Council 58.
One program participant testified, “The program has given me all the things I need. I was selling drugs and locked up. I feel it will lessen crime.”
However, in Curtis’ opening statement, he called pre-apprentice programs a “farce” because minorities often don’t make it past the apprentice level.
Yaphett El-Amin, executive director of the minority business advocacy group MOKAN, attended the hearing but did not get to testify. She said their membership is half union-based and half non-union-based companies, so they simply wanted to provide information. Listening to the testimonies, she noted that many people acknowledged the lack of inclusiveness in the building trades. But they didn’t think the right-to-work bill was the answer.
“My question is: then what is?” she said. “The bill has pulled a curtain back and exposed the ugliness of what’s in the house. We have to focus on cleaning up our own house.”
El-Amin said she wanted to speak on the day-to-day challenges that minority companies face inside of unions when they do get union jobs. St. Louis is trailing on a nationwide level the number of minority and females in the workforce, she said.
The bill will now move through a few more committees before it makes it to the floor, Curtis said, hopefully in March.
“I’m not anti-labor; I’m anti-inequality practices by the building trades,” Curtis said. “I’m fighting for true change.”