Letter from Langdon: Of Unions and ‘Patriots’

Sen. Claire McCaskill came to rural Missouri to talk about the stimulus. But those who attended the meeting were more concerned with labor unions.

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Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, found plenty to talk about when she came to Maryville a few weeks back. Maryville is in extreme Northwestern Missouri, only a few miles from Iowa. 

Her visit was billed as a “stimulus” visit. The Senator wanted to talk about the large spending bill Congress passed to get the economy moving. She took many questions from folks who needed help or a phone number, or just wanted to blow off some steam.

Senator McCaskill said she knew from talking to constituents during seven earlier meetings around Missouri that there was a lot of anger out there. She came to Northwest Missouri to visit about the stimulus and President Obama’s plans, but she said that most of all she wanted to talk about what the 100 people who filled the Maryville Senior Center wanted to talk about.

Not everyone there wanted personal help. In fact, almost from the beginning the discussion turned to McCaskill’s support of labor unions.

Keep in mind she never mentioned organized labor in her opening comments. Rural places like Maryville haven’t seen much of organized labor, except in the news. Maybe that’s the reason folks were so concerned about labor unions. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Missouri has a smaller percentage of its workers in labor unions than the nation — and the proportion has been dropping. This chart shows the percentage of union workers nationally in red and Missouri workers in black and white.

One business owner told McCaskill that she went to much trouble to get along with her workers so that they wouldn’t want to join a union. Her chief concern was the Employee Free Choice Act now pending in Congress. (The act would make it easier for employees to join or form labor unions.) She stated that unionization made it impossible for the US to compete with countries like China, and cited America’s declining automobile industry as proof.

Senator McCaskill responded that she thought the reason behind GM’s troubles was that they booked a profit on every vehicle built before they were ever sold. If GM wanted higher earnings they built more cars and trucks, filling dealers’ lots to overflowing.  Then they held a sale to rid themselves of excess inventory below cost of production. (Come to think of it, that’s sort of how the farm program used to work, too.) 

It also didn’t help that U.S. automakers went 20 years without significant mileage improvements while outsourcing manufacturing of components, sometimes to the detriment of quality and reliability.

Before the union discussion was over two more people interrupted to express anti-union sentiments. But Senator McCaskill is a tough debater. She held her own. 

Her belief is that unionization helped create a strong middle class in our country. Now, with the current downturn in the economy, it’s a great time for business management to sit down with workers and negotiate better terms.

Unions aren’t very popular in towns like Maryville, which, for rural Missouri, has a large industrial base. Business often sends its factories to rural areas to escape organized labor. People who live in areas with limited job opportunities are generally too grateful to look an employer gift horse in the mouth. 

Business owners often warn that unionization will make them pull out of the community altogether. That’s what happened here when Cargill closed our meat packing plant.

One union, the IBEW (the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), made inroads and raised eyebrows in this part of rural Missouri recently when it organized the employees of two rural electric cooperatives, one based in Rock Port and the other in Maryville. Reasons varied for why the workers voted in favor of joining the Electrical Workers, but mostly it was because of company belt tightening and pay increases that weren’t keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

Back at the stimulus forum, union talk finally subsided and the Senator responded to a question about immigration reform by saying that we should toughen and enforce current laws against hiring illegals. “I want the law enforced equally, I want the law enforced at the border, I want the law enforced at the workplace” she said. “Most business people don’t want to be arrested. It deters them from crime.” That got a laugh or two around the room.

One person told the Senator he was an older worker, unemployed but competent, and that his labor was being wasted. Senator McCaskill’s suggestion was that an agency for retraining could teach new skills to all workers left unemployed by the recession.

Richard Oswald
Sen. McCaskill said those who turned out for the meeting in Maryville were “patriots.”

Someone brought up water quality, and suggested that tax credits might persuade industry to do more to improve that problem. The senator’s response was that they were trying to give out less money, not more. Tax credits aren’t free.

Obviously unions weren’t the only things discussed in Maryville, but I thought it was interesting that so much time was spent cussing and discussing them. In a place where a “good” hourly wage is $10 or $12, it seems odd that people who want to earn more are mad about the autoworker in Detroit or Kansas City who makes $40. 

No one in Maryville asked about CEO compensation. Why was GM’s top gun making $15 million a year, or how could the head of Merrill Lynch, John Thane, spend $1.5 million on office renovations after seeing most of his company’s wealth evaporate? 

Many people around here think the stimulus is a waste of money. That came up, too. Senator McCaskill said that the stimulus wasn’t meant to replace all the money that was lost. The stimulus was there simply to create jobs. 

Before leaving for her last meeting of the day, the former state auditor and St Louis prosecutor told all those present that her office doesn’t do earmarks, and that she returns, unspent, hundreds of thousands of dollars, each year. 

She called everyone present that day “patriots” for showing an interest in their country by being there.

Considering that she was elected in a close race over an incumbent, and that Northwest Missouri didn’t exactly give her a landslide, the fact that Claire McCaskill would come to Maryville says something about her character, and her will to fulfill the obligations of her office and serve all her constituents.

For my vote she’s the best conservative liberal I ever helped elect.

Now, if we could just get some of that stimulus to Langdon….

 

 

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