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Missouri Is Labor’s Biggest State Election Battleground

August 25, 2016 

President Mike Louis

By Steven Wishnia

ST. Louis, MO – .Two thin lines have prevented Missouri from becoming the 27th state to outlaw the union shop: the thin blue line of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen, and the thin red line of the 20 Republican state legislators who narrowly sustained that veto last year.

This year’s election, in which Democrat Chris Koster is vying with Republican Eric Greitens to succeed Nixon, is “the number-one gubernatorial race” for the AFL-CIO, says state federation President Mike Louis.

“If we lose the governorship, obviously we’ll be ‘right-to-work’ by the end of January,” says Billy Moffett, Missouri state campaign leader for the Communications Workers of America.

Greitens, a political newcomer and former Navy SEAL, says he’ll “fight to improve Missouri’s job climate with ‘Right to Work’ legislation.” Koster, now the state’s attorney general, vows to “stop paycheck deception and so-called ‘right to work’ legislation,” which he says would reduce a typical Missouri worker’s pay by more than $1,500 a year.

Republicans have controlled the state legislature since the 2002 election—the year term limits went into effect—and now have majorities of more than two-thirds in both the Senate and House. “Missouri’s messed up because of term limits,” says Tom George, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1 in St. Louis.

This year, GOP legislators introduced eight bills to repeal or weaken the state’s prevailing-wage laws. Both houses passed legislation to require public-sector unions to get written permission from members every year before they could collect dues—called “paycheck protection” by supporters and “paycheck deception” by foes—but the Senate vote to override Nixon’s veto fell one vote short of the two-thirds needed.

The governor’s office is “the roadblock for all the anti-worker legislation coming through,” says Mark Dalton, assistant political director for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.

The national AFL-CIO has tabbed Missouri as one of its six “Tier I” states, along with the presidential battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada. As of the Aug. 2 primary, labor groups had contributed more than $4 million to Koster’s campaign.

Missouri’s unions are campaigning mainly among their members. “We work mostly labor-to-labor,” says Moffett. “We’re all trying to educate our members,” says George—not just about who they should vote for, but why it’s important. Those ideas reach members most effectively, says Louis, when they hear them from a fellow union member.

The Carpenters, on the other hand, are doing “everything we can,” says Dalton, to reach both members and “working families across the state—whether they’re union or not.”

The CWA, says Moffett, is canvassing, handing out flyers, and phone-banking for Koster, and its political-action committee has given him more than $250,000 since the primary. The political calculus, he explains, is that for the Democrat to win, unions need to get out enough votes to make up slightly more than a quarter of his total.

That means organized labor has to punch above its weight. Missouri has about 230,000 union members, 8.8% of the workforce. They’re strongest in construction, the public sector, and manufacturing. The Carpenters, with 15,000 to 17,000 members, are one of the largest.

“We’re having to put a lot of effort in to offset the millions put in by two individual donors,” says Dalton. He is referring to Missouri’s two “little Koch brothers,” Rex Sinquefield, a retired stock speculator from St. Louis, and David Humphries, owner of a building-supply company in the southwestern city of Joplin. Since the state repealed limits on campaign contributions in 2008, they have poured tens of millions of dollars into far-right and anti-labor campaigns. In one week in May, Sinquefield put $6.8 million into three PACs, including the Missouri Club for Growth. In July, Greitens received $1.975 million from a PAC with no identifiable backers called SEALS for Truth.

Humphreys’ main agenda is attacking organized labor. In the last year, he and his family have put about $2.75 million into a PAC called the Committee for Accountable Government, most of which went to finance primary challenges to Republican legislators who voted to sustain Nixon’s veto of the “right to work” bill. He succeeded in defeating three. In the Kansas City suburbs, state Rep. Nick King lost by 44 votes to a challenger who’d received $75,000 from Humphreys, and Rep. Sheila Solon fell to one who’d gotten $35,000. Rep. Anne Zerr, who ran for a vacant state Senate seat in the St. Louis suburbs with labor support, lost to a right-to-work supporter by 385 votes, with Humphreys pumping in more than $400,000.

He has also given $50,000 to Rep. Courtney Curtis, a Democrat from the St. Louis suburbs who supported the “paycheck protection” bill.

Missouri is sharply divided politically. St. Louis and Kansas City are heavily Democratic, and the rural areas are solidly Republican. The St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs are the swing areas, along with the smaller cities of Springfield, St. Joseph, and Columbia, site of the University of Missouri.

Most of the legislature’s pro-labor Republicans come from those suburbs. The AFL-CIO is backing the two who cast the deciding votes to sustain Nixon’s veto of “paycheck deception”: State Sens. Gary Romine, from the southwest edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area, and Ryan Silvey, from Kansas City’s northern suburbs. Silvey’s district includes Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant, notes Billy Moffett, “so I’d hope he’d be pro-labor.”

Humphreys has contributed to Silvey’s longshot Democratic challenger, Ranen Bechthold—even though Bechthold supports a $15 minimum wage, publicly funded “Universal Childcare for working moms,” and “making unions stronger.”

“Organized labor does not strictly support Republicans or Democrats,” says Louis. “We support politicians who support working families.” Chris Koster, elected to the state Senate as a Republican in 2004, switched to the Democrats in 2007, saying “Republican moderates are all but extinct” and that he had irreconcilable differences with the GOP’s positions on labor issues and stem-cell research. He remains more conservative than the typical Democrat on abortion and gun control.

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