The vote of 92 to 66 with two lawmakers voting present, marks an advance for supporters of right-to-work after a similar measure last year had failed to get a constitutional majority of 82 lawmakers in favour and Republican leaders dropped it. House Speaker John Diehl said in a statement the bill would get final approval Thursday.
The measure still faces an uphill climb to become law. It must pass the Senate and then would go to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who repeated on Wednesday his opposition.
Bill sponsor Republican Rep. Eric Burlison said workers should not be forced to pay fees to an organization they do not agree with. He said states with right-to-work were seeing greater job growth and higher wages when adjusted for cost of living.
"There is no job security better than having an employer down the road who's hiring in the same industry you work in," Burlison said.
Opponents called the bill politically motivated and said right-to-work will lower wages, reduce benefits for workers and make workplaces less safe.
"This is a right-to-work for less and you were hired by the people to ensure that they can feed their families and pay their bills," said Democratic Rep. Karla May.
Twenty-four states have right to work laws in place. Two states, Indiana and Michigan, passed the legislation in 2012. All of Missouri's neighbouring states are right-to-work except for Illinois and Kentucky, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The new Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, has said he wants to allow individual communities or counties in the state to opt for right-to-work, and some counties in western Kentucky have voted to make it illegal for employers to require their workers to join a labour union.
A 2012 review by the Congressional Research Service found that unionization rates are lower, job growth higher and wages lower in right-to-work states. But the review said it was impossible to determine if those outcomes were directly tied to right-to-work laws instead of other policies or preferences.
Right-to-work bars unions from collecting fees from non-members when the labour group has negotiated with an employer for such provisions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individuals can opt-out of membership dues but the union may still collect fees for services such as negotiating the contract covering members and non-members.
Mike Louis, Missouri AFL-CIO president, said he was heartened that the vote of 92 in favour fell short of 109 votes that would be needed to override a veto. Twenty-two Republicans voted against the bill.
Jay Atkins, the top lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which supports the bill, called it a great first step and said there was still time to sway more lawmakers before an expected veto by Nixon.
"If the current trend is any indication there's no reason to think this can't be done," he said of the possibility of overriding Nixon's veto.
Nixon told reporters Wednesday he's not seen a right-to-work bill he would sign.
"I don't think it would help the economy at all," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said last year that sending right-to-work to the ballot and bypassing Nixon was the only way for it to become law. Earlier this session, Dempsey said his position hasn't changed but that the Senate will consider any measure passed by the House.
The House also gave initial approval Wednesday to a right-to-work measure specifically for the construction industry, after a black Democrat said the building trades unions have failed minority workers and businesses.
Rep. Courtney Curtis said unions, specifically those representing workers in the building trades such as carpenters, electricians and brick layers, fail to include minorities and women, stopping them from getting a chance to work on big development projects in the St. Louis area.
Follow Marie French on Twitter at https://twitter.com/m_jfrenchSuggest a correction