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 first bus arrives at the state capitol at 10:30 a.m. It's cold and starting to rain again. Some of the union members are wearing their purple jackets. "We don't want purple," one union member says. "Grant wants it to look more like a coalition event, not an SEIU event."

As the group gathers under the rotunda, John Cross speaks first. "Our mothers," Cross says, "didn't raise us to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the state." The crowd applauds. The governor waves from the second floor, then disappears. Williams is near the entrance, pacing with his cell phone and talking to Alison Schwartz, the head of the Coalition to Protect Education and Health Care.

When the speeches are over, the group heads to Hanaway's office. Thirty or 40 children manage to squeeze into the front office, but Williams isn't anywhere in sight -- and Hanaway's on the floor of the House. Three of the speaker's staff employees deal with the invasion -- and they're not happy. A teenage boy gives them a giant Mother's Day card. The message: "Missouri's children ask you to apply the values that Mom taught all of us ... Adopt a commonsense budget solution that closes corporate tax loopholes and protects schoolchildren, seniors and Missouri's working families ... "

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.

Then the groups split up. SEIU's state-worker contingent heads for a hearing room to go over talking points when they buttonhole legislators. "You can take your coalition shirts off now," Tiffany Reed, an SEIU organizer, tells the group. "This is separate from the coalition."

When Williams finally resurfaces, the union members instinctively look to him and begin peppering him with questions. They want to know what to say to co-workers who don't share their enthusiasm for union membership, aren't happy about paying at least a portion of the dues even if they don't join and believe that a union can't help improve their conditions.

"If you don't stand up and fight for yourself, it won't happen," Williams says. "Because of your phone calls, the governor put that [pay raise] in the [budget] package. A lot of your co-workers said we wouldn't get it," he says.

He urges the group to go over their talking points one more time before heading back upstairs.

Williams says he's got to leave for another meeting.

"To strategize for next year," he says.

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