Republican Gov. Eric Greitens faced the first major battle of his political career when he helped Missouri become the nation's 28th right to work state on Monday.
Greitens, a Navy SEAL, had never held elected office before his 2016 election, but he was prepared for the opposition that right to work inspired. The Republican-controlled legislature had passed legislation barring coercive union dues in 2015 but did not have the votes to overcome the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
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"We knew we had tremendous pushback from Democrats, our political opponents, and powerful union bosses. They spent millions attacking me and my service to veterans during the election because we made our agenda clear," Greitens told the Washington Free Beacon.
Greitens said he made the legislation, which no longer allows companies to make union membership a condition of employment, a top priority in his first 100 days in the hope it would attract investment to the state. He sees the law as fulfilling a promise he made on the campaign trail.
"We need more quality, high-paying jobs, and by passing right to work we sent a clear message that Missouri is open for business," Greitens said. "We know that our political opponents will do everything they can to stop our pro-jobs agenda, but the people of Missouri need and want quality jobs."
The fight may not be over. Immediately after Greitens signed the legislation, the Missouri chapters of the AFL-CIO and NAACP filed paperwork to put right to work on the 2018 ballot. The two groups will have until August to gather about 100,000 petition signatures to qualify for the referendum.
"It is time to stop the attacks on working men and women in Missouri. It is time to stand together and fight. United we are strong," the union said on its website.
Greitens is not concerned with the threat of a referendum. He said voters were well aware of his stance on right to work when they elected him by nearly a six-point margin, winning all but four counties. He is confident that by "communicating right to work" and its benefits, Missouri voters will embrace the law.
"I'm thinking about Missouri families, especially union families, that will benefit from this. Right to work just says that every worker has choice and can’t be forced out of a job if they decide not to join," he said. "I'm confident we will continue to win."
Missouri is the second state to adopt right to work in 2017. Kentucky Republicans wasted no time in passing the law after taking control of the state legislature for the first time in nearly a century. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed the bill into law on Jan. 7.
Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, said many state legislatures fear falling behind right to work states when competing for jobs. Seven of Missouri's eight neighbors, including Kentucky, are right to work states.
"As the ranks of Right to Work states continue to grow, states without protections for employees against forced union dues risk being left behind," Semmens said. "Not only is protecting worker free choice popular, but we know that many companies looking to invest in new facilities won’t even consider states that don’t have Right to Work on the books."
The legislation could soon spread to another state, as New Hampshire's state senate passed a right-to-work bill in January. The state's House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, will hold a hearing on the bill on Wednesday. Newly elected GOP Gov. Chris Sununu has pledged to sign the bill if it passes.