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Thousands of union workers turn out to protest 'corporate greed' and attacks on bargaining rights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2011 - Thousands of area union members -- from teachers to janitors -- packed Kiener Plaza this afternoon, to protest actions by corporations and Republican-led state governments that speaker after speaker called "an attack on the middle class."

"Now is the time to send a powerful message to the enemies of working men and women," declared Jo Wanda Bozeman, president of the Parkway National Education Association.

She asserted that the nation was witnessing "a methodical and planned assault" on the collective-bargaining rights of union workers.

The crowd roared as Bozeman shouted, "We're not going to take it anymore!"

Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, called the turnout -- the official count was 4,300 -- the biggest local labor gathering he's seen in years.

Although smaller than union crowds in some other states with labor fights, including Wisconsin and Indiana, Soutier said the local rally -- organized in a few days -- was evidence that "people in St. Louis are fed up, not just by Washington, but in Jefferson City."

The rally was aimed, in part, at sending a message to Missouri legislators in the state Capitol. The state Senate is slated to take a floor vote Monday on a proposal, officially called "right to work," that would bar union shops, in which all workers at a business must pay dues if a majority have voted to be represented by a union.

Soutier and other area labor leaders plan to be in the Capitol for the Senate vote, even though it's unclear if the state House will take up in the issue. It's also doubtful that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, would sign it.

Even so, the "right to work" fight -- initiated by Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter -- has galvanized unions and many business groups.

Mayer and his allies contend that "right to work" will make it easier for the state to attract and retain businesses. Union leaders dub the measure "right to work for less" and say it's aimed at reducing worker wages, particularly since the Legislature also is voting on a proposal to curb the state's minimum wage.

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, headlined a pro-"right to work" event held earlier Friday in St. Charles. 

Amid chants of "We are One!", pro-union speakers blasted what they viewed as corporate greed and government overreach. But there was also praise for certain corporations, such as Boeing Co. and AmerenUE, who were singled out for their cooperative attitude toward labor and their respect for their workers.

"If you go to work Monday for a good employer, thank them!" said Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building Trades Council.

Aboussie emphasized to the crowd that the battle wasn't entirely partisan. He announced the names of several Republican state senators -- Tom Dempsey of St. Charles, Jim Lembke of Lemay, John Lamping of Ladue and Kevin Engler of Farmington -- who publicly oppose the "right-to-work" bill.

Aboussie said in an interview afterwards that other Republican senators also have signaled privately they may vote against the measure. Labor's aim is, at minimum, to prevent backers from assembling the necessary 23 votes in the state Senate to override any veto by Nixon.

What the unions are battling, Aboussie said, are "some out there who believe depressing wages is the answer."

Those in the rally crowd included James Pulliam, a vice president with Local 1887 of the United Auto Workers, who lamented a recent contract settlement with his own local employer. Among other things, the new contract eliminates pensions and retiree health insurance, he said.

The company executives, said Pulliam, "had the money, but they just wanted the concessions."

Although heartened by the turnout and the talk, Missouri AFL-CIO president Hugh McVey said in an intervew that he was particularly pleased by the broad cross-section of union members who had showed up.

It has been rare, said McVey, to see such diverse professions as teachers, autoworkers, firefighters, police, construction workers, nurses and janitors all banding together. What's also different, he said, is that the grassroots union members are just as energized as their leadership.

"This is the energy we've been looking for, for 40 years," McVey said. "It's all of us pushing in the same direction."

Nancy Cross, vice president with Local 1 with the Service Employees International Union, said she saw the rally as "a good start" in what she sees as a battle broader than the traditional tensions between labor and business.

She said she was concerned about the widening gulf nationally between "the 'haves' and 'have nots," and that she believed the public was worried as well.

"We have to have a middle class in this country," Cross said. "I feel all working people are under attack, whether they are in a union or not in a union."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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