Purple Power

In less than four years, Grant Williams has turned a weak union local into one of Missouri's most potent political forces. So why's he placing all his bets on One-Term Bob?

The ballroom of the Sheraton in Clayton is packed. Nursing-home aides, psychiatrists, probation officers, social workers, janitors -- members of the Service Employees International Union from all over the Midwest -- are here for what is, in effect, an early campaign rally for the beleaguered chief executive of a cash-strapped state.

Andy Stern, international president of the 1.5 million-member-strong SEIU, steps to the microphone and pumps the 200 union activists who've gathered to hear from Missouri Governor Bob Holden.

"Is SEIU in the house?" he demands. "Is Missouri in the house?"

Jennifer Silverberg
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.
Kevin P. Madden, Labor Tribune
Williams was arrested in March 2002 for disturbing the peace during a campaign appearance by President George W. Bush for Jim Talent.

The crowd erupts, and Stern launches into a short but effusive tribute to a politician some pundits already dismiss as "One-Term Bob."

"Sometimes when you are in a state, you don't appreciate what you have," Stern says. "And for those of us around the country, we appreciate your governor so much. We're here today to hear from the great governor of Missouri, someone I guarantee we are going to do everything in our power to get back for one more term."

Stern's ready to relinquish the podium, but it's not Holden he beckons. "Let me introduce that hardworking, hard-fighting, hard-charging guy who's returned to Missouri to help lead our political efforts, the president of Local 2000 ... Grant Williams!"

A tall, wiry, youthful guy in khakis steps up to the microphone. Swap his purple union T-shirt for a button-down Oxford and a stethoscope, and the blond-haired, blue-eyed man could easily pass for a doc making the rounds at Barnes.

But when the 43-year-old union leader opens his mouth on this sunny day in late April, no words of comfort or reassurance roll from his lips: Williams is here to deliver a blistering attack on Missouri's Republican Party. For the first time in 55 years, the GOP controls both houses of the Missouri General Assembly -- and Williams doesn't like it.

"Those of you that live in Missouri know this, but we don't have your garden-variety type of Republican Party here. We have the party of John Ashcroft," Williams says. "This is a mean party. They thought Newt Gingrich was a liberal," he says.

The Republicans, Williams asserts, want to strip away state workers' right to bargain collectively. The Republicans, he claims, want to remove 80,000 children from state health coverage. But someone's standing in their way: "This governor will veto that and fight that," Williams says. "He stands and fights with us." SEIU, Williams promises, will return the favor.

The union's well-oiled political machine already has sent Missourians throughout the Midwest, traveling to Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan to help its political candidates win. "We've built a 'purple machine,'" Williams tells the crowd at the Sheraton. "Missouri's [contributed] a lot of people, so we've got some chips to collect, Governor. We're gonna collect some of those chips to help you out."

With that, Williams gets union folks back on their feet. They chant: "Go, Bob, go! Go, Bob, go! Go, Bob, go!"

It's the governor's turn. Holden delivers a short and dry speech, complaining about his budget woes -- problems he says the Republicans don't want to solve. It's a characteristically lackluster speech for the charisma-challenged governor -- nothing like the firebrand speeches that preceded his.

If Holden's going to win re-election next year, Williams' purple machine will have to work hard, not only keeping the ascendant Republicans at bay but convincing other ambitious Democrats, such as state Auditor Claire McCaskill, to leave their governor alone.

The stakes -- at least for the SEIU -- are high. Four years ago, the international union identified Missouri as a key battleground, ripe for organizing. A swing state, Missouri is capable of producing polar opposites such as Ashcroft and Holden's popular predecessor, the late Mel Carnahan.

To tip the scale in labor's favor, SEIU poured $250,000 into the Missouri State Democratic Committee for the 2000 gubernatorial election. It put together its own version of a smart bomb: a sophisticated telephone-call center with 24 -- soon to be 48 -- phone lines, allowing it to send out a prerecorded message to 2,000 phones an hour. The phone bank makes organizing and mobilizing members easier, and it's a tool that political hacks covet.

Money and technology were only part of the equation. When Stern sent Williams back to town, SEIU showed it was serious about shaking up the state. An organizing hotshot and native St. Louisan, Williams has energized the union, helping raise labor's profile in Jefferson City. It's not only the Republican leadership that felt the heat; Williams has also tormented a wide range of corporate executives, including the leadership of the state's nursing-home association.

Though many Democratic leaders and party faithful describe Williams and his purple machine as "dynamic," one former staffer prefers the term "ruthless." And though some community activists welcome the union's talented staff, fat coffers and media savvy, others complain that SEIU is too divisive: that Williams' in-your-face style just pisses people off.

Yet no one denies that he's delivered. Capitalizing on Holden's 2001 executive order giving state employees the right to bargain collectively, Williams grabbed 2,500 new members, more than doubling Local 2000's size and making it one of the fastest-growing union locals in Missouri. And this session, politicians acknowledge, the union played a key role in pushing through a pay raise for state workers, as well as nursing-home-reform legislation.

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