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?

SEIU offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the letter-writer and hired a private investigator to look into the matter. The FBI and the East St. Louis Police Department also investigated. But no one was ever charged.

The union and St. Mary's eventually came to an agreement. All five employees who lost their jobs filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. One lost his case, two settled and a fourth is working for the union as an organizer in Los Angeles. The fifth fired employee's labor-board case is still pending, but Williams is hopeful she'll get her job back.

St. Mary's has been one of Williams' most difficult campaigns. Though the results have been mixed, organizing public-sector employees has been far easier, thanks to Holden's executive order.

Governor Bob Holden, flanked by union members, marches to a Clayton rally after an April 29 luncheon hosted by SEIU.
Jennifer Silverberg
Governor Bob Holden, flanked by union members, marches to a Clayton rally after an April 29 luncheon hosted by SEIU.

In December 2001, state probation-and-parole officers joined Local 2000 by a vote of 531-199. Fewer than 60 percent of those employees eligible to vote actually did. However, that same month, state workers with the divisions of workforce development and employment security rejected Local 2000 by a 300-192 vote. Nearly 70 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots.

Three months later, state social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, physical therapists and other patient-care workers voted 515-227 to affiliate with Local 2000. Most of those new members work in the Missouri Department of Mental Health; others are employed by the corrections, public-safety and health-and-senior-services departments. That makes SEIU the second-largest union for state employees, with 2,500 members.

Local 2000 also represents about 1,500 nursing-home employees, but that's a small fraction of the estimated 48,000 Missourians employed by this traditionally low-pay, high-turnover occupation. Williams is determined to change those numbers and has deployed his staff on an intensive organizing campaign. His organizers are riding public transportation to chat up nursing-home employees going to and from work. They show up when workers take smoke breaks. They approach relatives of current union members who work in nonunion homes for help.

Those efforts have drawn the attention of the Missouri Health Care Association, a trade group representing the long-term health-care industry. Last month, MHCA director of operations Marlene Anderson sent nursing-home operators a memo warning them of stepped-up SEIU activities. She urged them to report union-organizing efforts to the trade group.

Earl Carlson, MHCA executive director, says his organization's main concern is the welfare of nursing-home patients. Employees, he says, "are people that care for sick people, and a strike or job action would certainly be devastating to the health-care needs of those folks."

Williams says it's ironic that the nursing-home business is concerned about the quality of health care when many of its employees can't afford health insurance. "You can make more money flipping burgers at a Burger Doodle than you can working in a nursing home," he says.

But getting higher wages for nursing-home workers isn't easy when they are surrounded by nonunion establishments. And wages aren't their only concern -- many workers organize because of arbitrary workplace rules and bad management techniques, Williams says. SEIU tries to address those issues during contract talks; what the union is unable to get through collective bargaining, it seeks in Jeff City.

This year, Williams' local joined a coalition backing nursing-home reform, helping draft legislation championed by Lieutenant Governor Joe Maxwell. SEIU hired lobbyist and former state Representative Steven R. Carroll to help move it through the legislature, and groups such as the AARP also leaned on lawmakers. The effort paid off, and on April 20, a nursing-home bill that the governor is expected to sign was passed.

SEIU also joined forces with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Auto Workers to press for a $600 annual pay raise for state employees. Their lobbying got Holden to include the raise in his budget request, but only for state employees making less than $30,000. That wasn't good enough, so SEIU mobilized its members to call Holden's office, demanding that the raise apply to workers making less than $50,000. The governor compromised and bumped the limit up to those making less than $40,000. The union then focused its lobbying efforts on Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder (R-Cape Girardeau) and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway (R-Warson Woods), preserving the raise in the final budget that has been presented to Holden.

Although $600 isn't much, it's the first across-the-board pay raise for any state workers in two years, Williams says. And he doesn't expect the governor to veto the provision, which means it would go into effect July 1.

"We are the only state in the U.S. that got a pay raise for state employees," Williams says.

At first blush, Williams makes for an unlikely union hell-raiser. Born into a solidly middle-class family, he grew up in a sedate suburban community and attended private schools. His only direct experience with manual labor was working summer jobs while he was still in school and a short stint as a construction worker after college. Yet Williams says he knows what it's like to be vulnerable, and he has a passionate contempt for unearned wealth and privilege.

When Williams was four, his father -- a McDonnell Douglas engineer and pilot in the Naval Reserve -- was killed in a plane crash during military maneuvers in Florida. His stay-at-home mom, who'd been trained as a teacher, was forced to step into the role of breadwinner. "Losing a father early makes you feel vulnerable -- that real sense of 'Society is not a fair or safe place' -- and that kind of makes you angry," William says.

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