Pro-Vote: Progressive? Yes. Union? No.

Each fall John Hickey, executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, hands out awards to people and organizations that have worked for liberal causes.

This year the awards will go to Democratic state senator Jolie Justus, the fair-housing group ACORN, United Auto Workers and the retired president of Missouri National Education Association, Greg Jung.

The October dinner at America’s Center is Pro-Vote’s main fundraiser, supporting its work statewide. While a who’s who of liberal politics will likely buy the $75 tickets, several of Pro-Vote’s former employees say the organization needs more than money and its well-connected founder in order to thrive.

Pro-Vote, as the fifteen-year-old organization is known, usually has a staff of eight to ten full and part-time employees. “In the last few years, they’ve had at least that many employees turn over,” says Eric Fey, a former field organizer in St. Louis.

Fey, who was hired by Pro-Vote in February, lasted seven months. Typical of life inside a grassroots political organization, the pay is meager, and the work is intense. But Fey and several other former Pro-Vote staffers say it was Hickey’s controlling behavior that drove them out.

They say it only grew worse this summer, after they tried to get union representation.

Hickey is named in a charge filed September 10 with the National Labor Relations Board in St. Louis. The Brotherhood of Union Support Staff, an independent union, alleges Pro-Vote interfered with a petition for representation.

“John is a brilliant man,“ says Megan Peterson, a Kansas City-based field organizer who left her job shortly after Labor Day. “John knows politics like most people do not know electoral politics. Management of staff in day-to-day matters is not John’s strong suit.“

Peterson says they sought to organize, first to prevent Hickey from arbitrarily declaring new rules and work hours. They also thought Pro-Vote’s paid staff should show solidarity with the organization’s many backers in labor.

“We saw it as bitter medicine, that John wouldn’t want to take the medicine, but ultimately it would make Pro-Vote better,” Peterson says.

Peterson adds that some of Pro-Vote’s directors, who work for various unions, support the organization effort.

Hickey did not return a phone call requesting comment.

Perry Molens, the Brotherhood of Union Support Staff representative, declined to comment because he has a mediation with Pro-Vote scheduled for Friday.

Four of the eleven staff members (not counting Hickey) listed on Pro-Vote‘s Web site have left since Molens asked Hickey to recognize the union.

Peterson says Hickey not only refused to recognize the union but went to great lengths to thwart the effort. She says Hickey told Molens he would have to put the question to Pro-Vote’s executive board, but then let the matter drop. Meanwhile, Peterson claims, Hickey was telling board members his staff no longer wanted to organize.

Peterson says Hickey, who frowns on lunch breaks, grew more controlling, for example, telling the staff fundraiser that she could not leave the building without his permission.

Molens filed a second petition with the NLRB on August 29. Peterson had already given her notice, but she says she walked off the job early because of Hickey’s actions.

After receiving the second petition, Peterson says, Hickey promoted and gave raises to two new staff members, one of whom hadn't yet begun working. “John was arguing every single staff person employed at Pro-Vote had the ability to hire and fire," says Peterson. "That made me so mad that I quit.”

Fey, who has found a new job, says he wanted to work for Pro-Vote because the organization had been so helpful when he was working on a Democratic state representative’s campaign in 2006. Fey had just graduated from college. “One of the regional organizers helped me immensely -- database assistance, that kind of stuff. The work Pro-Vote does is vital.“

Fey says he remains passionate about politics and the causes he worked for at Pro-Vote.

“I didn’t want it to get out to the other side that the organization was going through this turmoil, but it’s reached a point where I think it needs to get out," he says.

-Kathleen McLaughlin

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