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Union support starting to split in Missouri

February 09, 2004

By: Christie Smythe

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Labor union support in Missouri's governor's race is doing what it did in the presidential primaries -- it's getting pulled apart.

Although, for the most part, labor is still standing firm behind Gov. Bob Holden, his challenger for the Democratic nomination has drawn favor from at least two groups and is looking to win over more.

Still on the fence and up for grabs is the 13,500-member Missouri Laborers' Union, which mainly represents workers from the construction industry, but also includes workers from Boone County hospitals and Columbia city government.

Missouri Laborers' Union legislative director Ted Farnen said he can't say when the organization would make its choice.

"It's still early in the process," Farnen said. "So it's not unusual that some unions, including our own, have not decided which candidate to back or to back one at all."

Spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, Jim Gardner, said he would point to labor's alliances in the presidential primaries as evidence that each union has its own issues to focus on, and not that there's any major skism in the Democratic Party.

"The Democratic Party has always prided itself on a big tent where we have a great deal of spirited debate," he said. "Following the conclusion of any primary elections, we shake hands and work for the common good."

The Teamsters, who were supporters of Holden in the 2000 election, declared Sunday that State Auditor Claire McCaskill was their choice for 2004.

A Teamsters' officer cited differences in opinions over legislation that would have extended state regulations to Mexican truckers last year, and unsatisfactory recovery of jobs lost in 2002 as a couple major reasons for shifting away from Holden. He also said the union jumped onto McCaskill's side early in the race because members think she can win.

"I think Claire will win the nomination," said Jim Kabell, president of the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska Conference of the Teamsters. "I think that Claire has the stronger chance of winning in November as well."

The Missouri Council of Firefighters has also endorsed McCaskill.

Kabell said he hoped other unions would follow the Teamsters' lead -- though several, including the AFL-CIO, aren't budging.

"We're still behind the governor 100 percent, and that's on behalf of everyone that sits on my board of the AFL-CIO," said Missouri AFL-CIO President Hugh McVey. The Missouri AFL-CIO represents about 390 unions, and about 500,000 union employees and retirees. Each union, however, is free to choose its own candidate to endorse, McVey said.

Referencing Holden's past stance on workers issues such as unemployment compensation and protecting collective bargaining rights, he said: "We believe he's still the best friend labor ever had."

To Holden campaign director Caleb Weaver,"it's still clear organized labor is solidly behing the governor."

In addition to the AFL-CIO, organizations still planted behind Holden include the Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trade Council and the eastern division of the Plumbers and Pipefitters.

Plumbers and Pipefitters official Michael O'Connell acknowledged that the choice could be difficult.

"I guess the Democrats have so many really good candidates that labor is being kind of pulled apart a little bit," he said. "Claire's a fine lady and good candidate, but we made a committment and we're sticking to it."