Retired union leader sees opportunity in economic inequality

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HERB JOHNSON
HERB JOHNSON

By DANA SPITZER

Managing Editor

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.

1 COMMENT

  1. I wish it were true that Unions could gain momentum in this environment, but I fear it is too late. There is a sentiment based on the uneducated mentality of the Anti Union folks, that Unions hold no real benefits for it’s members, much less Society. I know, as a Union member, that with out my Union, I would be working for low wages, and little benefit, and that the “dues” I pay are a worthwhile investment in my future. But there is more to being a Union member than money. The knowledge that when I am in need, I have my Brothers & Sisters to assist me. A conversation, sound advice, friendship, and assistance when times are difficult. And you can not put a price tag on that aspect. And that the only employers I have had that had any concern for my safety and well being where Employers who only hired Union. And that has a value all its own .

    It amazes me that so many see the logic in a CEO having a contract, but when an employee wants a contract, they are “THUGS”…And it is expected that a CEO make a profit, yet when an employee seeks to profit from their work, they are called “LAZY”.

    This attitude is rampant, look at Craigslist and see for yourself. These anti union types do not realize the remaining “Rank & File” are why employers pay the wages they pay, and provide benefits they provide. And that as soon as Unions are eliminated, that employers will have free reign to eliminate wage laws, and benefits. Few realize that the reason for “right to work” is not about protecting employees, it is about dismantling the power of Labor in Washington. So many fail to realize that when an employer tells you, they are only looking out for your best interests by eliminating YOUR rights to look out for YOUR own best interests, then it is time to check their premise, and guard your wallet. And so many more, feel that they are “protected” by the integrity of their employer, and that Union Representation is unnecessary.

    I have challenged some of the out spoken anti Union types to ask their employer to show the wages employees in their job title are paid, to see if they are equal, and to learn why they are not.

    None have accepted the challenge.

    I learned early that when an employee is the “GO TO” person, it usually is because they are fooled into thinking, it is because they are the most capable, when in reality it is because they are the lowest paid, and most likely to work extra hours just for a “pat on the back” and some words of praise.

    And when you add in the misguided “Ayn Rand” mentality of so many who do not understand what Ayn was really championing, the hope for renewed Labor strength is dwindling. Ayn’s character John Galt, had an oath, “I swear by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another to live for mine”. This has been bastardized into a “capitalism for the sake capitalism” mentality which transcends into “Profits at any expense” and that allows a manger to eliminate a fifty year old employee with 23 years of employment, 2 years from full retirement, in order to show “paper profits” that justify a few extra thousand on a managers year end bonus. And holds no regard for what that employee is to do to survive. There is no “Value for Value” aspect in today’s world. Corporations pay the lowest wages, buy the cheapest quality resources, manufacture junk they sell for “profit margins” that they do not reinvest. Remember when a refrigerator lasted for 20 years with out a service call? Good luck finding that quality now. When an employer pays minimum wages to an employee, that is forcing “a man to live for the sake of another.” And not only is it wrong. It is immoral.

    Another Ayn Rand character, Hank Reardon, pays higher than Union scale, imagine that..”Value for Value” show me that theory put into practice today. An employer appreciating an employees contribution by actually recognizing their value to his profit margin..with a reward that actually benefits the employee.

    Economies only serve one purpose, they allow people to live together in a “Society”..It affords each of us the time to do what we do best, and not waste our energies performing redundant tasks, like hunting for food and hauling water. And eliminates the devastating competition that would exist if it were “every man for his self” seeking sustenance. Economies only thrive when they are based on equitable concepts, and that is where Unions prove their relevance. But so many people fail to accept that relevance is real. And that is why “Right to Work” and Anti Union mentalities thrive, because there are so few who have any memories of the struggles workers survived in order to gain the right to be UNION. Or they do not have first hand accounts from their Grandfather, a Union carpenter, of the importance of UNIONS. Or the story of how their families lives changed when their father lost his UNION employment at Brown Shoe.. And they have not been in a situation where their employer has abused them by taking advantage of their need for continued employment and a Union was the only protection they had.

    I am not with out hope. I believe that Unions can make a strong comeback. I believe it and show it by addressing every anti Union comment I encounter. Like when I had to get a prescription filled at Walgreens and the employee questioned my benefits card, and I told him it was through my Union, He stated “I do not think much of Unions”. And after, when he stated he had never seen a prescription cost of only $.90 cents. I said “What do you think of Unions now?”

    Or while at Lowes getting a piece of glass cut, the employee had to tape the edges to protect me. I asked, ” Why don’t you have gloves to protect you?” He replied, “They do not care about my safety.” I said “You need a better Union.” He stated “I do not like paying to work.” I showed him my Dues receipt and told him how much I earned for that small investment in MY benefit. And that nothing is free, and I am more than willing to pay for my Union to be able to work for me on my behalf.

    Yes, I believe in Unions, I have said, sometimes more than God, because the Union has been there when God was not. And maybe God put the Union there for me..or maybe God was attempting to teach me a lesson. And if that is the case, then maybe it is a lesson others need to learn. Because the God I believe in has the same morals and ethics of a Union..
    And Unions are only as good as their members. And any Union member that supports a political party that seeks “right to work” is not a good Union member. And any Union member that does not address the issues affecting Unions today is a sad excuse for a person, much less a Union member. I do not see myself as a Union leader, in any formal capacity, but I do see myself as a leader of Unions because of my belief and desire to further Union Ideology. I will always champion the need for Unions, because it is logical and I am a logical person. And If seeking equality for employees makes me a “Thug” then so be it. But I will always be a UNION THUG.

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