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?

May 21, 2003 at 4:00 am
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?"

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

His mother, Kathleen, returned to school for a master's degree, then taught at Villa Duchesne, a Catholic high school for girls in St. Louis County.

"We didn't have a lot; we really didn't. We lived in a small house in north Webster [Groves] -- Webster wasn't chichi back then," Williams says.

Williams' mother was committed to education and used insurance money from her husband's death and Social Security benefits to send her firstborn to the St. Louis Priory School. Williams, who graduated from high school in 1977, was a high achiever -- he got good grades and was a member of the swim and basketball teams, although, he adds, he wasn't a very good hoopster.

Whereas other kids came to school in new cars, Williams sometimes was able to borrow the keys to his mother's station wagon. "Going to Priory made me realize that some people who have a lot of money don't particularly deserve it -- they didn't even earn it -- and maybe also made me realize how unfair the world was," Williams says.

A scholarship took Williams to the University of Virginia, where, in his junior year, he became active in the anti-apartheid movement that had been sweeping campuses, urging the university to get rid of its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He recruited his friends, and soon he was running the demonstrations held by the Charlottesville Activist Coalition. One stunt was decorating a bust of President Thomas Jefferson -- UVA's founder -- at a Board of Regents' meeting with a sign: "Thomas Jefferson says: UVA Divest." That protest was covered by the Washington Post.

After graduation, Williams spent a year working in St. Louis for Mary Anne Sedey, a civil-rights and labor-discrimination lawyer. He was accepted by, but never attended, New York University's top-rated law school. A lawyer's life wasn't for him. Williams instead went to work for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now as a community organizer in Atlanta and Detroit. In 1987, he married Mary Hickey, the sister of high-school friend John Hickey. John and Mary also were organizers with ACORN; John is now executive director of Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition (a.k.a. Missouri ProVote), a grassroots coalition of labor unions and community groups.

In 1988, Williams left ACORN, deciding that union work was "the only way to change the world." Williams joined SEIU to organize state corrections workers in Georgia. He recalls handing out leaflets in 1992 or 1993 in Reedsville, Georgia, at the same prison that once briefly housed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The warden, accompanied by corrections officers, tried to chase Williams away, but he refused to leave. Williams was charged with solicitation on a roadside -- a charge usually reserved for prostitutes. He was offered a deal -- enter a guilty plea and never come back to the county -- but Williams fought the charge. A jury found him not guilty, and, he says, "We went on to organize state corrections."

By 1995, Williams and Hickey had two young children, and Williams took a job as SEIU's Midwest regional director, hoping the move would allow him to send more time with his family. But he found himself still traveling too much, so when the trusteeship was offered in St. Louis, he jumped at the opportunity to bring his family home.

And he got right to work, throwing himself into Holden's race for governor. Williams helped provide fireworks for the contentious campaign, making a point of dogging U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, then the Republicans' gubernatorial nominee.

When Talent showed up to speak at a Creve Coeur Chamber of Commerce meeting on October 19, 2000, just days after Mel Carnahan's fatal plane crash, Williams was there and promptly got into a dispute with Vi Smith, the chamber's executive director. Williams was upset because Holden wasn't part of the program and because Talent, unlike other candidates, didn't immediately pull his campaign ads after Carnahan's death.

Smith claims Williams tried to force his way into the private event, pushing her with a clipboard against a door as someone stepped on her foot, dislocating a toe. Williams says that Smith was wasn't blameless: "Vi actually pushed a number of our people around." Both sides say they filed police reports, but no one was charged -- and that drew fire from Republicans.

The chamber official's dislocated toe wasn't the only thing that got Republicans bent: SEIU's work with Missouri ProVote is another sore spot.

The union and Hickey's group were allies before Williams came back to town, but the working relationship has intensified. ProVote leases office space from SEIU, and ProVote's office manager, Marshall Rowland, runs the SEIU call center as part of a contract between the two groups.

ProVote and SEIU joined forces in March 2002 to protest President George W. Bush's campaign appearance for Talent, who was then running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jean Carnahan. About 200 people, including Williams' wife and kids, gathered outside America's Center. Williams was identified as the leader of the vocal group that was too large for the protest area. Williams says that the Secret Service was worried about the protest and told the local police to cuff him -- perhaps if their leader was gone, the group would dissolve.

But they didn't. Even Williams' wife and kids stayed at the protest while Williams was going to jail, charged with disturbing the peace. During the bus ride on the way home, they gathered bail money to spring Williams. The charges were later dropped.

Shortly after that, the state Republican Party filed two complaints, one with the Internal Revenue Service and one with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that ProVote and Missouri Citizens Education Fund, also headed by Hickey, were engaged in "political activity" with SEIU that violated the two organizations' nonprofit status.

"You essentially have a hyperpolitical operation in the SEIU which gives massive amounts of money to candidates, campaigns and the Democratic Party," says John Hancock, former head of the Missouri Republican Party and now a strategist for the party. "And then you've got what is supposed to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit social-welfare organization right there that certainly looks like a partisan, political organ, which would, of course make contributions to such entities not tax-deductible."

But Williams and Hickey deny the allegations, arguing that the Republican complaint was nothing more than a ploy to grab headlines. Williams says the IRS never acted on the complaint. And he received a letter from the FEC indicating that the complaint was misfiled. With the media spotlight gone, he says, the Republican Party didn't choose to refile.

But there's no doubt that Republicans take a dim view of SEIU, especially after several Jeff City demonstrations targeting the Legislature's Republican leadership. Kinder doesn't mince words: Community groups that befriend the union and join up with it in coalitions do so at their own risk. "It is not a prescription for influencing the two solidly Republican majority chambers," he says.

That animosity worries one community activist, who is often allied with SEIU and agreed to speak on background only. "Their focus is so much on beating up Republicans that they can't talk to them at all," the activist says.

Others disagree. John Cross, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United, says that SEIU is an important partner and that his group still "works with Republicans and Democrats."

Williams says he isn't opposed philosophically to supporting worthy Republicans: He was able to do so in Georgia.

The problem here, Williams says, is that "the Missouri Republican Party is very extreme."

Given the Republicans' current hold on Missouri, some argue that SEIU's interests might be better served by throwing its considerable weight behind a stronger Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2004, but Williams refuses to dump Holden overboard for a potentially more appealing challenger such as Claire McCaskill.

"I think his numbers are up," he says, putting the best spin on things. "A lot of our members are enthusiastic about Holden -- those who aren't realize what the alternative is."

Williams says there are plenty of examples of incumbents' facing strong primary challengers, then losing the general election. Jimmy Carter lost the presidency in 1980 after facing U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in the Democratic primaries; the first George Bush went down in 1992 after fending off Pat Buchanan in the Republican primaries. "A divisive primary ends in defeat for the general [election] candidate," Williams says. "I think Claire's smart enough to figure that out," he says.

But there's an even more important reason for SEIU's backing Holden. "They still have to stick with this guy if they are going to be able to exercise their political backbone in this state," says one political strategist who spoke only on background. He notes that Holden stuck his neck out on issues that are important to SEIU: collective bargaining, nursing-home reform and a state-employee pay increase. "When the going is very, very rough, you just don't bail; sticking through the tough times is remembered far more than being there through the good," he says.

Even if Holden -- who did not return calls for this story -- ends up serving one term, as many now predict, few believe his loss will cost the union its standing with state Democrats.

"I can't conceive that any Democratic winner wouldn't want the support of the growing service segment of the economy," says former Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods.

"And that's what Grant represents."

Two charter buses idle in front of SEIU's headquarters on May 8, a cold and rainy morning. It's three days before Mother's Day and a week before the regular legislative session ends -- a session that's been anything but regular. Dozens of union members and members of other advocacy groups, many with children in tow, have turned up for a trip to Jeff City, where they expect to light a fire under lawmakers.

Chevon Martin, an organizer with SEIU, stands in the aisle with a microphone as one bus heads down Interstate 70. Everyone has already received a copy of the two-page agenda for the day.

"We are joining with a large coalition of education and health care [community groups]," she says. "We are looking at $400 to $500 million in cuts, so we have to join together with other groups."

The group wants "sensible solutions" to the state budget crisis, such as closing corporate tax loopholes. But the real business at hand is making some noise. "We're going to do an action on Catherine Hanaway," Martin tells the people on the bus.

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 ... "

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.