JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The organized labor movement in Missouri has withstood a battering over the last two years and emerged victorious. Legislation that would make right-to-work and paycheck protection did not have the votes necessary to override vetoes from Gov. Jay Nixon, and unions and their traditional Democratic allies celebrated these wins in the face of a Republican supermajority.
However, these wins do not merely come from Democrats. Both the left-side-of-the-aisle party and labor know that they owe a lot to the Republicans who have opposed leadership within their own party and stood their ground on labor issues.
After the Senate sustained the governor’s veto on paycheck protection, the de facto labor leader in the Senate, Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, made it a point to thank the two senators on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, and Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, who voted “no” on the override motion.
“Sometimes it’s a little harder for them than it is us,” she said after midnight on the last Friday of session. “When you have to go up against your own caucus, it’s pretty tough.”
But for many of those legislators that conviction comes from both their own family members who have held union jobs or large parts of their constituency having a vested interest in unions.
Romine has family members work as electricians, operating engineers, air traffic controllers, and other jobs with unions.
“I have firsthand experience for what labor has done to raise the standard of living for my family,” he said.
Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-DeSoto, concurs. She notes that her district, a confluence of Jefferson, Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois Counties, may have one of the largest labor-heavy workforces in the state. Her constituents tell her that people rely on unions for higher-paying jobs that provide a living wage. While Gannon admits that she has received funding from organized labor, it both pales in comparison to what opponents have spent against her and does not serve as her primary motivator.
“I have voted to support unions on every union bill since I entered the legislature four years ago,” Gannon said. “I don’t support unions for what they give to me. I supported unions before I even became a legislator.”
In Southeast Missouri, standing behind labor comes naturally for members of either party. A high concentration of other Republican representatives that have supported labor causes in the past come from that area. Romine believes that stems from the long history of labor work at Mississippi Lime in Ste. Genevieve, the high number of workers who commuted to the Chrysler plant in Fenton, retirees from when unions had a larger presence in the workforce.
Still, a fair number of suburban Kansas City and St. Charles County Republicans have also voted against right-to-work, prevailing wage and paycheck protection legislation in the past.
Yet, many of those same people that support unions in Southeast Missouri also support what are traditionally socially conservative agendas. Romine believes those voter who have interests that conflict with both parties’ platforms puts them in a tough position.
“We’ve got God-fearing conservatives, who believe in marriage between man and a woman, Second Amendment rights, fiscally responsible, pro-life, all the things that we conservatives really want to support and these folks feel like they don’t have a place to go,” he said.
Basically, if a pro-labor and pro-life person votes Republican, they could actively be voting for someone who could impact their livelihood. On the other hand, if they vote for Democrats, that oftentimes means voting for a socially liberal person that does not share some of their principles. Romine believes this could have serious implications on Republican viability within the state in the future.
“We’re losing a lot of voters that are very conservative in so many ways, but their livelihood depends on union jobs,” he said.
Even for Gannon, that conflict seems to emerge. She said she would support the Republican candidate for governor, whoever it might be, but that it would be difficult because a Republican governor likely means all of those anti-union measures would pass. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Catherine Hanaway, Eric Greitens and John Brunner have all stated their support for Right-to-Work.
Also at play is the continuing campaign against pro-labor Republicans, largely backed by David and Debra Humphreys. Gannon admitted if she lived in another part of the state, like in Bolivar or Joplin, she may think differently on issues like Right-to-Work, but that her difference of opinion did not justify the animosity that has emerged within the party after key labor votes.
“I get so upset with people getting angry at those of us that support unions. I don’t understand it.” she said. “What if Bolivar had a huge Chrysler plant in the middle of town?”
“We have put ourselves in the position where the labor groups are leery about supporting to endorsing Republican candidates,” he said. “We just don’t want to reject labor because labor’s always given to Democrats. That’s kind of the attitude that I’ve seen way too much.”
Romine would like to see the Republican caucus take a step back on labor issues and re-evaluate the merits of unions and why people see a benefit in that system. With the Republican convention coming up this weekend, he would ideally like to see changes made to the platform there that are more inclusive to the Republicans that support labor.
For those legislators that have faced the onslaught, most of them have only one choice: stay on the same track.
“I just put my head down and I keep marching,” Gannon said. “I just do what I have to do.”