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?

For Williams, it's only a beginning: His purple machine's just getting started.

When he arrived back in St. Louis in 1999, Williams' first task was performing mouth-to-mouth on a union gasping its last breath, suffocating under a blanket of corruption while being strangled by job loss.

Schoolchildren protest budget cuts at the state capitol as part of a coalition that included SEIU.
Jennifer Silverberg
Schoolchildren protest budget cuts at the state capitol as part of a coalition that included SEIU.
State mental-health workers and Williams protest budget cuts outside a Department of Mental Health building on Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
State mental-health workers and Williams protest budget cuts outside a Department of Mental Health building on Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis.

That union -- the International Leather Goods, Plastics, Novelty and Service Workers -- was once made up mostly of shoe-industry workers. At its peak, in the 1950s, it had 50,000 members. By the 1990s, that number had dwindled to 5,000 as factories closed and jobs moved. To make matters worse, union president Andrew McKenzie was named in a twelve-count 1997 federal indictment, accused of obstruction of justice and embezzlement, among other charges. Marlyn Miser, an employee of the union's welfare-benefit plan, was also indicted. (In January 1998, both signed plea agreements: McKenzie pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice; Miser pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement.)

Before McKenzie was forced out, he loosely affiliated his union with the SEIU. After he was gone, a bitter power struggle ensued between the members over who should succeed him. Stern, the international president, stepped in and forced the local into trusteeship. In documents filed in July 1999 with the U.S. Department of Labor, Stern said he acted to take control in order to "correct corruption or financial malpractice [and] restore democratic procedures."

Stern tapped Williams, then SEIU's Midwest regional director, as trustee of the union local, which was known as Local 1001 at the time. The two men had been familiar with each other for several years, since when Stern was SEIU director of organizing and Williams was leading the union's efforts in the Deep South. Their bond tightened after SEIU president John Sweeney was elected head of the AFL-CIO in 1995. When Stern ran for Sweeney's old job against Richard Cordtz, the SEIU secretary-treasurer and touted favorite, Williams was in Stern's corner. It was a smart move: Stern won, and Williams' star climbed higher.

When he was tapped to run Local 1001, Williams says, he "went in with both eyes open: I knew it would be a lot of 'Drain the swamp.'" His first move was to fire a handful of staff employees. Then he arranged a membership swap with SEIU Local 50, with the blessing of the international union. Janitors and factory workers went with Local 50; nursing-home workers came into 1001. Don Rudd, Local 50 president, acknowledges that he was unhappy with the change. "We wanted to keep the members we had; we didn't really want this transfer," Rudd says. "But since it's happened, we've accepted it." Rudd says he and Williams have made peace, and he recently nominated Williams for a vice presidential slot on the St. Louis Labor Council.

In July 2001, Williams folded Local 1001 into a new organization, and Local 2000 was born, with Williams as its president. A year later, Williams joined the international union's executive board. For the two union jobs, he is paid $87,000 a year.

The international, which also infused the local with grants and equipment, then designated the local the home for its Missouri telephone-call center -- a resource that's been pressed into service by such political allies of the union as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and former Senator Jean Carnahan (D-Missouri). Much of organized labor's political efforts have accumulated rust in recent years, but that's not the case with SEIU. Todd Patterson, a government consultant and political strategist, says, "Not only have they harnessed technology to make old proven techniques new, they have also put a fresh face on what it means to have labor involvement in your race."

While the purple machine was beginning to flex its political muscle, it also sent organizers into the field, stretching its arms -- bulging with the international's cash grants and talent -- east into Illinois and west to Jefferson City.

When Williams arrived in St. Louis, the local he took over had 2,000 members. Today it's grown to more than 5,000 -- a 150 percent increase, making it one of the fastest-growing union locals in Missouri. But the growth hasn't been smooth or controversy-free.

Exhibit A is the bitter fight to organize St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis, Illinois, an effort Williams concedes has been "one of the most bitter struggles" he's seen in his 21 years of organizing.

St. Mary's physicians, nurses, aides, housekeeping and janitors voted to organize in October 2000. At least five employees were fired because of their pro-union activities, Williams says. Six months after the union was certified, it had still failed to negotiate a contract. Tempers flared, and the union set up pickets outside the hospital.

On April 26, 2001, St. Mary's executives received a letter that raised the level of acrimony. The letter, titled "Strike," threatened two top hospital administrators: "Strike 1 ... 4 o'clock. Head nigger truck blows up ... Strike 2 ... 4:30. His red-haired bitch car blows. Bargain fair or strike 3 you are out ... SEIU." The letter included license-plate numbers for the CEO and another hospital administrator.

Hospital lawyer Andy Martone reacted angrily, denouncing SEIU for its "history of strong-arm tactics." St. Mary's, he vowed, "will not be intimidated."

Williams denied and continues to deny that his union had anything to do with the letter. "Clearly it was nobody that had the union's organizational interests in mind, because it clearly was a dark cloud over the union," he says.

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