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Unions rally at Missouri Capitol against 'right to work'

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | 8:26 p.m. CDT; updated 9:27 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 26, 2014
About 1,000 Missouri union workers gathered on the Capitol lawn to protest "right to work" legislation. Gov. Jay Nixon said he opposes the legislation and called it unnecessary. It would take away the requirement in labor contracts that all employees pay union fees.

JEFFERSON CITY — It was an early day for Julie Perry and other nurses of the National Nurses United in Kansas City. Many members got up between 4 and 5 a.m. to catch the 5:30 bus to the capital.

Their mission? To protest "right to work," lobby state legislators to vote the measure down, and find support for a bill that would create requirements to make lifting patients easier.

After a brief training seminar at Bones Lounge & Restaurant in downtown Jefferson City, members of the nurses union split up into several groups to visit 35 legislators in an hour, said Jan Rodolfo, a nurse and union representative.

The first meeting for Perry's group was with Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, shortly after 9:30 a.m. And still before 10 a.m., the group was sitting outside the door of Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy.

Perry took the lead.

The safe-lift bill would require hospitals to get proper lift equipment for every department and create lift teams available 24 hours a day, she explained. Perry gave him a paper copy.

Schieffer seemed receptive. The guerrilla meeting took less than 10 minutes, and then it was on to the next person. 

The nurses union was one of many unions that showed up to protest the Republican-sponsored "right to work" bills. The legislation would prohibit unions from collecting dues from workers as a condition for employment.

The Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council organized the rally and made an open invitation to whoever wanted to attend.

Local unions representing workers as diverse as laborers, elevator repairmen, electrical workers and sprinkler fitters filled the Capitol halls and the South Lawn outside.

Perry started working as a nurse at Menorah Medical Center in 1998 and joined the union there in 2000. She became a representative, a position akin to a shop steward, or someone union members can go to when they have a grievance. Then she joined the union as a full-time organizer.

In the hallway, she bumped into another member. Everyone wore dark red hospital smocks.

Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, was on Perry's list, but she wasn't in her office. The group went up to the third floor to get her from the House chambers, but she wasn't there, either, so they went back downstairs.

After conferring with another group about May, Perry called to see if other nurses needed help completing their lists.

"They need us to do a Republican visit," she said. "It's Rep. Johnson."

Perry held a pep talk in the hallway to go over some key talking points.

"We take care of patients who are constituents in your area," she coached her team, and education is the No. 1 reason businesses move somewhere, not "right to work."

"This one is really needed," Perry said of Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph.

They wove through the crowds back to the third floor to Johnson's office but hesitated in the doorway. The group looked nervous, but Johnson wasn't there. After taking some mints from a Capitol-shaped candy dish on his legislative assistant's desk, they bee-lined to the House chamber and asked to meet him in the hallway.

Johnson assured the nurses he was taking "right to work" seriously and wouldn't "walk out" on the vote.

At 11:30 a.m., the nurses braced the cool windy day and went outside to hear the rally's official speakers. A number of high-ranking Democrats and labor leaders spoke.

"When they need to build it best, they hire union," Gov. Jay Nixon said of a proposed law that would allow areas destroyed by natural disasters to rebuild without the prevailing-wage law.

"The strength of this solidarity is such that if they're going to vote to take away your rights, they're going to have to do it while they look you in the eye," Secretary of State Jason Kander said.

Attorney General Chris Koster stressed how deeply unions affect everyday life.

"A family scraping by on $8 an hour faces a whole different set of challenges in this world than a family making 32 bucks an hour," he said.

Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, a former utilities worker and union member, broke ranks with her fellow Republicans, saying that hiring union means "you get what you pay for."

Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades Council, closed the rally. He put his fight against "right to work" in a national context.

"The end of the beginning is in Missouri," he said, "and when we beat it back here, we start on offense." 

Around 1 p.m., the nurses gathered at Bones restaurant again for a chicken lunch and to talk about their experiences.

Perry thought the day was successful. She said the union's plans included preparing for a public hearing on the safe-lift bill, which is still weeks away. Perhaps they'll have a dramatization of lifting, she said, noting strains on the back, neck and arms that come with hospitals' lifting procedures.

The nurses at the table agreed that NNU was as much of a patient-advocacy group as it was a worker-advocacy group. Without the proper protections for themselves, they wondered, what would happen to the patients?


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