By DANA SPITZER
Despite the economic and political setbacks for unions in recent years, Herb Johnson, a 52-year veteran of organized labor who retired Dec. 31 as the Missouri AFL-CIO’s chief lobbyist in Jefferson City, is optimistic about the future of organized labor.
He sees the country’s lop-sided distribution of wealth, which has been growing since Republican conservatives redefined the country’s political culture more than 30 years ago, as an opportunity for unions to organize low-wage working families facing the future with no pensions, inadequate health care and no money to help their kids go beyond high school.
“It will happen when a dad or mom reaches such a point of desperation that they see no way out for themselves and their children,” Johnson said in a recent interview.
He said that’s how many of today’s unions got their start. They were formed out of unrest when miserable working conditions, unsafe operations and arbitrary wage cuts pushed workers to a point that they walked off their jobs.
Johnson says Missouri lawmakers, despite a pro-business Republican majority, have so far been persuaded by union leaders to reject anti-union measures like right-to-work (for less) that have been passed in recent years in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. All of those states have a higher union density than Missouri.
Unions, many of them for the first time, began talking seriously with Republican lawmakers after Democrats lost control of the senate in 2000 the House in 2002 and the governor’s office in 2004, Johnson said.
Before that, Johnson said, unions had enough influence with Democrats that right-to-work (for less) and other anti-union bills usually died in committees.
By 2012, there were as many as 30 GOP members of the House and about a dozen in the senate who joined Democrats in stopping right-to-work (for less) and several other anti-union bills.
Johnson credits former Democratic State Senators Tim Green of Spanish Lake and Victor Callahan of Kansas City with rallying GOP support in the senate, while Johnson and other AFL-CIO lobbyists concentrated on the House.
In talking with GOP lawmakers, Johnson said he rarely encountered a hostile attitude. Typically, they did not know much about unions, and seemed genuinely curious about what unions do for working families, he said.
“I thought for the most part they were fair and responsible people. We eventually got a good number of them to help us on some important votes.”
While Johnson says he is optimistic about the future of unions in the long term, he sees some rough times ahead in Missouri.
Republican strength is growing among the state’s lawmakers, boosted by a nearly five to one advantage in spending on campaigns.
In the 2012 campaigns, political insiders estimate GOP candidates for the legislature spent close to $2.5 million, compared to about $500,000 by Democrats.
GOP lawmakers also were able to draft favorable boundaries for state house and senate districts that assures majorities for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, it is only a matter of time before Missouri elects another Republican governor, probably one favorable to right-to-work (for less).
Republicans hold a 24 to 10 majority in the state legislature this year. They outnumber Democrats 108 to 52 in the house. There are three vacancies that will be filled later this. Only one is expected to be a Democrat.
“There will be no quick turnaround for Missouri,” Johnson says.