Union support, family history influence Wesley Bell’s campaign for Congress


WESLEY BELL, the St. Louis County prosecutor, is running to unseat two-term incumbent Cori Bush in the Democratic primary election Aug. 6. – Labor Tribune photo

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has a rich family history with unions and growing support from Labor as he campaigns to unseat incumbent Congresswoman Cori Bush for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District in the Democratic primary election Aug. 6.

Bell’s father was a police officer. His uncle was a member of UFCW Local 655 at Kroger, and later an electrician with IBEW Local 649 at Amcor.

Bell’s parents divorced when he was young and remarried. His stepdad was a union electrician at Clark Oil Refinery.

His grandfather, the Rev. Melvin T. Bell, led the 1967 strike against Duncan Foundry and Machine Works in Alton, Ill., that ultimately led to better pay and benefits and later to a favorable National Labor Relations Board ruling against the company filed by Rev. Bell’s widow.

During the 2018 fight against so-called “right-to-work,” Bell took time from his own campaign to knock on doors to defeat the disastrous legislation and incorporated “NO on Prop A” into his campaign literature.

“I come from a union family,” Bell said. “And we recognize what unions have done for workers and working class folks throughout the history of this country. I think it’s past time that we start amplifying that narrative again. There’s a generation that’s not as aware of what unions have done, of the things that they enjoy as a result of unions.”

Bell has been endorsed by of the Missouri-Kansas Laborers’ District Council (MKLDC), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655, SMART Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 and its initernational, Insulators Local 1 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, as well as the Carpenters Mid-America Regional Council.

“I am grateful and humbled to be endorsed by so many workers in St. Louis,” said Bell. “As a former union member (NEA), I am proud to stand with Labor. A strong economy is built by strengthening workers’ protections and ensuring a fair and just society for all. I vow to be a voice in Washington, D.C. that supports workers in the fight for fair wages, and advance, rather than be an obstacle, for President Biden’s plans that are already providing good-paying jobs across the country.”

Bell sat down recently for an interview with the Labor Tribune about his goals for the office.

Bell says his top priorities are jobs, public safety, education and access to quality healthcare, all issues which are intertwined.

One of the greatest job creators in recent years has been the landmark Biden Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that union laborers and other union members worked hard to pass.

The law provides for $1 trillion investment in roads, bridges, transit, rail, climate change mitigation, electric vehicles, clean drinking water, high-speed internet, resilient transmission lines, and more. The bill also includes labor standards guaranteeing that the jobs created have family-supporting wages, as well as ‘Buy American’ provisions that will bolster U.S. manufacturing.

A boon for union workers, the bill is also a point of contention for union members when making their choice between Bell and Bush.

Bush was joined by five other Democrats, members of The Squad, in voting against the legislation because it had been decoupled from the social-safety net provisions of the Build Back Better bill, which passed in the House four days after the infrastructure and jobs act bill was signed into law.

“There’s two patterns that we’ve seen from her,” Bell said. “One is if she can’t get everything she wants, she’s voting against it, she’s not going to support it. Perfection cannot be the enemy of the good or of progress. And she votes on ideological terms. It’s always on an ideology vs. what her constituents actually need.”

With conservative groups challenging the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Board and a far-right majority on the U.S. Supreme Court primed to rule against Labor, Bell espouses a bottom-up approach to protecting union rights and achieving Labor’s goals.

“These are anti-Labor, anti-working class folks and they are looking for ways to undermine the progress that we have been making,” Bell said of the challenges to the NLRB.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is a lot of the anti-union sentiment is also about the fact that unions get out the vote, by and large. So you have a lot of folks that are anti-union that are Republican that are looking to cut that support out. One of the leading entities that has historically helped to get the vote out, particularly on the Democratic side, has been unions.”

Protecting Labor rights is key, Bell says, and the step toward doing that is winning majorities in the House and Senate.

“I think when we have our majorities we have to push on legislation for Labor protections so we’re not a susceptible to the courts undermining us, depending on what court is in at one particular time,” Bell said. “I think that’s one thing that Democrats could do better. We have to do it to get those protections strengthened with legislation to insulate us from the whims of a particular court.”

One major piece of legislation that has languished in Congress is the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The bill was first introduced in 2019 and passed in the House but never made it out of committee in the Senate. It was reintroduced and passed in the House in 2021, but again died in the Senate.  Last year, the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2023 was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It passed in committee but no further action was taken.

Bell is confident the legislation can get passed with the right approach.

“If you want to pass legislation, you don’t do it top down, you do it ground up. You take your message to your constituents and sell it to them,” Bell said. “You have something like this bill, it would be easy to sell. I think the problem is sometimes we start pushing from the top down and we let others get the narrative out before we get an opportunity to. There’s other groups with other agendas who literally create narratives that are not true. It’s almost first to market sometimes. I think if we understand that if we’re first to market with the idea that it actually helps working class people I think that we can get it passed.”

Bell says he’s optimistic about Democrats’ chances of winning a majority in the House this year, and hopeful about the Senate.

“The Senate is going to be tougher, but we’re so close; we just need a couple of pieces to fall our way,” he said. “I think it can happen, but I think we have to push these narratives. We have to start becoming, at least in the minds of many voters, the party of the working class, which means supporting unions and things of that nature.

“We’ve allowed some folks to co-opt that narrative who clearly do not have the interests of working class people at heart. I think we need to push those narratives, and I think it can happen. And when it does we’ve got to push and get legislation like the PRO Act passed.”

Some recent examples of those attempting to co-opt the narrative include former president Donald Trump and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley.

President Joe Biden made history in September when he visited a picket line in Michigan in a show of loyalty to United Auto Workers striking against the Big Three automakers. President Donald Trump responded the next day by holding a rally at a non-union Michigan auto parts facility with paid actors holding fake “Auto Workers for Trump” and “Union Members for Trump” signs.

“That’s the perfect example of what we’re talking about,” Bell said. “He is clearly doing that to try to peel off votes, not because he’s supporting workers’ rights and better pay and working conditions. That is purely a strategic move to peel off votes, and for the few folks who are listening to him who might be leaning union to think ‘Oh, well he’s a safe alternative.’ But it’s not. And we’re seeing that, a lot of it.”

Closer to home, Missouri’s Republican incumbent Senator Hawley visited the UAW strike line in Wentzville days after his presumed Democratic challenger (labor-endorsed) Lucas Kunce met with striking workers there, and did the same thing during last month’s Teamsters Local 688 strike at Graybar. With Hawley’s voting record, the visits were seen by many as photo-ops rather than genuine solidarity with the workers.

To donate to Bell’s campaign, visit https://secure.actblue.com/donate/bell-search-q4

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