JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Swathes of orange and yellow stood alongside patches of red and green and almost every other color of the rainbow in front of the Capitol building Wednesday afternoon.
Each color of shirt represented a different union; the teamsters and the carpenters, the electricians and sprinkler installers, the iron workers and the welders; all of them covering the grass outside the Capitol steps – hundreds of union members in Jefferson City for one of the largest lobby days of the year from any single interest group.
“We had over 2,000 registered,” said state Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, the organizer of the annual event. “We had at least 700 from the western side of the state, and that’s just in the buses.”
Walsh, herself the president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades, said that this event was an opportunity to make the Capitol pay attention to laborers, unions and their members during a time that organized labor has been under siege by the General Assembly.
“When I came into this building in 2003, it was the first time a right-to-work bill grew legs, and it saddens me that we’re still fighting this fight,” she said. “There are so many other more important things we could be doing, like the expansion of Medicaid, taking care of the more vulnerable citizens of this state. But no, we waste our time, on silly legislation.
“It takes more than the rich people to run this state, and if there’s no middle class, there’s no Missouri.”
The Democratic leaders of both the House and the Senate agreed with Walsh.
“I think it’s extremely important to have people show up like this, to send a message to our colleagues in the Capitol that these issues are important to them,” Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, said.
For House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the people who participated in organized labor represented some of the best aspects of the state.
“Look who’s here,” he said, gesturing out towards the crowd. “These are not captains of industry, these are not people that are going to ever get rich. These are people that are trying to feed their families, get their kids through school, and retire with a little bit of dignity. When you talk about Missouri values, this is what we’re talking about.”
Walsh not only organized the event, but she spoke to the crowd as well, along with a myriad of other statewide elected Democratic officials and as well as representatives and senators. On the sidelines, some of the legislators with out a D next to their names who voted in opposition to the right-to-work bill last session also came to show their support. All of the speakers offered a message of unity.
— Lauren Arthur (@RepLaurenArthur) March 30, 2016
“Today, we stand as one, to make our voices heard,” Walsh said. “One simple message: No more. No more legislation aimed at eliminating our ability to organize. No more legislation aimed at restricting our right to elect our representation. No more legislation aimed at reducing job place safety. And no more legislation aimed at reducing our wages.”
Walsh also introduced Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke about his own time in a union. He talked about the shovel he had been given as a gift from his co-workers after seven years of working in construction before he returned to law school. That shovel has literally stayed with him.
“It has been in every office I’ve ever had when, and it’s in the governor’s office here because I want to remember why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Nixon said. “So hard-working people who get up and compete on a competitive site know they’ve got somebody in the executive position leading our state that respects work, supports their excellence and will always be unwavering in providing opportunities for you to get to work.”
Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Chris Koster and State Auditor Nicole Galloway noted that a concentrated effort by certain groups had turned the fight against labor, a message that resonated with the crowd.
“Under their guise of economic freedom, special interest groups are lobbying this building to pit working men and women against one another in an effort to drive down wages in our stat,” Koster said. “The fact that we have to come to Jefferson City and rally here on this lawn, year after year, for good wages, for 6 million Missourians is proof that there is something that is terribly broken inside that state Capitol.”
“Too many folks in this building don’t care about you,” Galloway said. “They are focused on new ways to discriminate, new ways to cut salaries, and new ways to divide us. None of this is new. It’s the same tired story. ‘Economic prosperity will come if we can only pay employees less.’ That’s false.”
Nixon also decried attempts by the General Assembly to pass laws like the prevailing wage, right-to-work and, most recently, paycheck protection/deception.
“This is not about public employees doing paperwork,” he said of the measure. “This is just another attempt to erode the hard-fought rights that form the foundation of the American middle class.”
Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander said that about 4 million more people in the state supported candidates who were opposed to paycheck protection than were in favor of it.
“So when the majority in the Capitol tells you they can do what they want because it’s the will of the majority, tell them to count the votes,” he said. “Only in the gerrymandered fantasy land that is the Missouri state Capitol is passing paycheck deception a priority.”
While those debates will likely continue to occur on the floor of both chambers for years to come, for Walsh, the tangible benefits of labor could be evidenced on the face of the Capitol itself. Construction has blocked the entrance of the Capitol, and though some see it as an inconvenience, Walsh sees it as another reason to support unions.
“This job you see here, it will get done on time, and it will probably get done ahead of time, and it’s all union made,” Walsh said. “These are things that will restore the building to its grandeur and we’ll know that it’s done right. We know they have strong apprenticeships behind them, and they have the education and the tools to make this building what it should be.”
Nixon however best summarized the stance of Democrats in the state.
“Missouri is strong because we’re union… and we’re going to stay that way,” Nixon said.