Less than two weeks to go before the Aug. 5 primary election, a key question in the St. Louis County executive contest centers on how much muscle area unions will exert in their effort to oust incumbent Democrat Charlie Dooley.
On the same side for years, many labor unions have become estranged with Dooley over county contracts and county appointments. Since last fall, most of the region’s union campaign donations and endorsements have gone to Councilman Steve Stenger, Dooley’s chief opponent in the Democratic primary.
Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, said, “We feel the county executive has ignored labor and he’s taken us for granted in some instances. And we were tired of it.”
Among other things, Soutier singled out labor disagreements with county operations chief Garry Earls and Dooley's campaign treasurer John Temporiti.
Jeff Aboussie, secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades, went further on St. Louis Public Radio's Politically Speaking podcast.
“We didn’t feel Charlie Dooley was fulfilling his promises to labor," Aboussie said. "We’ve seen more and more contracts go to non-union out-of-state contractors … Unfortunately, the current county executive has basically ditched us.”
Soutier cited a recent incident at the almost completed community center in Lemay, where Dooley is accused of crossing a union picket line to get to an event. Dooley's campaign says it was unclear what was going on just outside the center; two men were standing out front. The campaign accuses labor critics of staging the alleged picket to make Dooley look bad.
Stenger also has been endorsed by the two labor members on the County Council: Councilman Pat Dolan of the 5th District, who is president of Sprinkler Fitters Local 268; and Michael O’Mara of the 4th District, who is with Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562.
Dooley says that his union record and views have been distorted. “Labor has had no better friend than Charlie A. Dooley,” he said in a statement last fall. “Nobody agrees on anything 100 percent of the time, but I will put my record of support for labor up against anyone’s. I am proud of my long history with labor and this won’t change that.”
Dooley's campaign spokeswoman Linda Goldstein said that 90 percent of the county’s work has gone to union firms. She also points out that several unions — notably the Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers — have endorsed Dooley.
Nancy Cross, vice president for SEIU Local 1, explained, "Our members have benefited from having Charlie Dooley as the county exec ... both on social issues and on labor-related issues. We haven't had some of the same issues that the other unions have had."
Cross said her union leaders "are making sure our members are aware of the election and that they come out and vote on Aug. 5" to help Dooley and to support other issues on the ballot, especially the proposed transportation sales tax.
Cross emphasized that SEIU "appreciates and understands'' the disagreements that prompted the Labor Council and allied unions to back Stenger.
Lew Moye, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said his group also is sticking with Dooley. He added that he was concerned that the split among the unions over Dooley and Stenger could hurt labor solidarity after the primary.
Unions provide bucks, boots
Union disenchantment can cause problems for any major St. Louis area Democrat. Even though the overall workforce is largely non-union, labor provides a critical bloc of votes. But more importantly, labor groups often back up their endorsements with hefty campaign donations and volunteers.
Aboussie said Stenger’s campaign reports, which show him outraising Dooley, demonstrate “exactly how engaged we are.”
But the field operation can be even more crucial, especially in a low-turnout primary in which victory hinges on getting supporters to the polls.
Unions, said Stenger's spokesman Ed Rhode, “are our boots on the ground.”
Several unions are preparing last-minute mailings and door-to-door drives to get out the vote for Stenger. “We’re working the neighborhoods this weekend,’’ Soutier said.
The pro-Stenger ground game contrasts sharply with the situation four years ago, in 2010, when labor went all out to help Dooley defeat his Republican opponent, Bill Corrigan.
“Charlie Dooley was in serious trouble in the last election,” recalled Aboussie. “Going into the last three weeks, labor put together a pretty good ground troop swell to comb south county and north county. You saw the outcome … That didn’t happen by accident.”
This time, it’s unclear what will happen after the primary, if Dooley wins. Aboussie and Soutier said the region’s major unions will “reassess’’ the situation.
Both labor leaders said it was unlikely that their organizations would back a Republican for St. Louis County executive. But Aboussie offered kind words about Republican candidate Rick Stream, a state legislator who is the Missouri House’s budget chairman. In what could be a warning to Democrats, Aboussie said, “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rick Stream” and he judges him “a nice man.”
Stream voted against the “right-to-work’’ measure sought by some legislative Republicans to curb union rights in the workplace.
Such pro-GOP comments reflect, in part, a renewed pragmatism among labor leaders in the region and the state. The state AFL-CIO issued legislative endorsements this week that included several dozen Republicans.
Still, Soutier predicts that labor won’t get behind a Republican for St. Louis County executive. So if Dooley pulls off a primary victory, “maybe there will no endorsement,’’ Soutier said.
But the labor leaders say they’re confident that their pro-Stenger effort will succeed, which also could send a message to both political parties.
Union groups endorsing Stenger
- Greater St. Louis Labor Council
- Carpenters District Council of Greater St. Louis
- Easter Missouri Laborers District Council
- Teamsters Joint Council 13
- St. Louis Building and Construction Trade Council
- Professional Firefighters of Eastern MO Local 2665
- St. Louis County Police Association
- Missouri Fraternal Order of Police
- Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15
- South Saint Louis County Labor Organization
- Rockwood Labor Club
- North County Labor Club
Unions endorsing Dooley
- United Auto Workers
- Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
- United Food and Commercial Worlers Local 655
- International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union
- Service Employees International Union