The past few weeks have produced a mixed bag of results for Missouri labor unions hoping to expand their influence as they seek to repair years of declining membership and organize workers.
First came the Missouri Supreme Court decision overturning a 60-year-old precedent against collective bargaining by public employees. The court ruled that the state constitution's protection of unions doesn't exclude government workers, as the high court decided in 1947. And the court ruled that once a public entity signs a labor contract, it must honor the agreement.
But just last week, the U.S. Senate blocked debate on a measure to make it easier for a union to gain recognition as the bargaining agent for a group of employees. The measure would have eliminated the requirement for secret-ballot elections in the workplace when more than half of the employees sign union cards.
The U.S. House had passed the bill in March, and it was labor's top priority for Congressional action.
Labor leaders in Southeast Missouri are mixed in their reaction to the events. Most agree that labor unions have lost ground in recent years both locally and statewide as a result of traditional industries shutting their doors and the difficulty of organizing workers in the service jobs that replaced them.
"We are out to organize because we do not have near the market share we used to have," said Rick McGuire, business manager for the Laborers' International Union Local 1104. "When my father retired as a union laborer, it seemed like most of the big construction projects were done by union companies. We are still doing well, but change is the word. Our biggest goal is to get our message out that we are good for the community."
Union members are likely to earn significantly more money and have substantially better benefits than non-unionized workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those same figures show that union membership has declined as a share of the work force from 20 percent in 1983 to 12 percent in 2006.
To stem that decline, several major unions, including the Laborers and the Teamsters, quit the AFL-CIO in 2005 and formed Change to Win, a coalition designed to work more forcefully for labor organization.
"We took a long look at ourselves and where we were 20 or 30 years ago and decided we need to make some changes," McGuire said. "We are excited about it."
The most likely place to find unionized workers in Southeast Missouri is on a construction site. While nationally almost 42 percent of local government workers belong to a union, only Cape Girardeau firefighters are organized among Cape Girardeau city employees. And the firefighters have been unable to persuade city leaders to write a contract.
Each year, city leaders "meet and confer" with the union, the Cape Girardeau Association of Firefighters Local 1084, said fire Capt. Dean Lynn, the union president. The union works up a list of issues important to the rank and file, Lynn said, and present them to the city.
The reply comes a few months later, he said. "They look at everyone's list, and they decide what are the most wanted things for the employees," Lynn said. "Then they look at their wish list, and they will tell us what we are going to get, and there is really not much room for negotiation after that."
The lack of a contract means the union had no recourse except an appeal to public opinion when the city changed the rate at which new firefighters accrue paid time off. That effort, which included packing the Cape Girardeau City Council chamber during a recent meeting, yielded no results.
But under the court ruling, if the accrual rate had been part of a contract, the city could not have changed it without the union's consent or until the contract expired.
Southeast Missouri is home to a different kind of union, unaffiliated with either the AFL-CIO or Change to Win. The Craftsman Independent Union, founded by Fred Kelley in 1983, has never been involved in a strike, walk-out or work slowdown. The independent union is designed to work with employers by eliminating strict rules dictating which job a worker can and cannot do, Kelley said.
Traditional unions "have really slipped over the years," Kelley said. "The reason they have slipped is the way they have been run. It was time for a change, it has worked and we have grown every year we have been in business."
The union boasts 600 members throughout the region, he said.
Kelley disagrees with other union leaders over the card-check proposal defeated in the Senate. He opposes it -- "everyone should have a secret ballot vote," he said -- while more traditional unions see it as a way to gain back footing lost in recent decades.
The card-check proposal means workers can sign up for unions and organize, then present employers with a decision, said Hugh McVey, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO. "If 50 percent want a union, they should have a union," he said. "You shouldn't give a company time to pressure and coerce employees against a union."
Businesses oppose the card-check, said John Mehner, president and CEO of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. Instead of employer pressure and coercion, he said employees might sign the cards reluctantly because of peer pressure, but show their true feelings when the time comes for a secret ballot.
"I don't think we need to take away the secret ballot in anything," Mehner said.
That doesn't mean the Cape Girardeau chamber is anti-union, Mehner said. "One of our executive partners is the carpenters local," he said.
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