President of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO says labor unions still matter

04/30/2014 3:52 PM

05/20/2014 7:39 PM

Pat “Duke” Dujakovich of Kansas City is president of Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. Dujakovich was raised on the city’s East Side, near 14th Street and Belmont Avenue. His grandfather came to Kansas City from Poland and worked in the Armco Steel plant. Dujakovich’s father was a sheet metal worker with Local 2. Dujakovich was in Chief Officers Local 3808 during his career with the Kansas City Fire Department. This conversation took place at his office in Quality Hill.

The Missouri House recently voted on a Right to Work bill that would prevent unions from requiring members to pay dues. The bill failed to get enough votes to send it to the Senate, where it would need to pass to get put on the ballot in August or November. How concerned are you that proponents can pick up enough votes on a second vote to send it to the Senate?

I’m very pleased that it didn’t get enough votes the first time, so it is kind of stalled.

Nobody wants this bill. Businesses aren’t pushing for this. This is an attack on the middle class, not just on unions. If you take away the freedom to bargain collectively you widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and it’s too wide already.

Somebody wants it, or Republicans in the House wouldn’t be pushing to get it on the ballot.

It benefits big corporations and wealthy individuals by lowering wages. If you can successfully take away workers’ bargaining rights, you can lower wages and race to the bottom quicker.

What is your message to House Republicans?

We are thanking those members that stood with us, and we are making sure nobody flips or changes, and we’re trying to convince the others who aren’t with us yet that it’s a very bad idea for their constituents. We endorsed 17 Republicans last time around, and they are lined up with us on our core issues, and this is one of them.

Why should workers be forced to pay union dues?

Any organization or government that offers services has to figure out how to pay for it. Take the City of Kansas City. They provide streets, snow removal, trash pickup, fire fighting, so the citizens pay for that through taxes.

Unions provide services for members as well. They negotiate contracts, file grievances where members have been wronged, they lobby legislators to protect their rights, and those things cost money, so we pay dues.

The so-called Right to Work bill says even if you are in a union you wouldn’t have to pay dues unless you wanted to. They would never support letting people get city services without paying taxes. The only goal is to destroy unions. It isn’t about protecting workers’ rights. The group so-called Right to Work has never supported one bill that protected workers. They have tried to push through measure after measure that takes away workers’ rights.

For instance?

In 2011, a bill was introduced that would eliminate most restrictions on child labor in Missouri (SB 222).

They are opposed to raising the minimum wage and support the growing trend of forcing workers to sign mandatory arbitration clauses, which basically say that if the employer harms them or is negligent that they have no right to sue. They can only have binding arbitration, and the employer picks and pays for the arbitrator. That issue doesn’t affect union workers and is an example of the AFL-CIO working to protect all American workers, not just union members.

How has the union landscape changed in Kansas City in your lifetime?

When I got out of high school in 1982, the greatest jobs you could have here were to work at the Leeds plant for General Motors, work at Kansas City Power Light or for UPS. Those jobs were all union, they had pensions, they paid decent wages, they offered full benefits and they trained you.

If you got in you did not have to worry about bouncing around from job to job. You were never going to be a millionaire, but you could have a house and a family and a life and a reasonable amount of security. If you wanted to go to college, that was fine, but it wasn’t for everybody, and union jobs were a great path for noncollege workers.

Then things started to change. We started telling kids they all needed to go to college or they were going to wind up digging a ditch. Well, I can introduce you to the guy digging the ditch now, and he’s doing better than a lot of kids that went to college. If you are in the Operating Engineers or the Heavy Laborers (unions), that’s a good career.

A lot of kids go to college, amass an ungodly amount of debt and then there are no jobs in what they thought they were getting trained to do.

The great thing about the unions is, when you get into an apprenticeship program with a union, you get paid. And it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything. It is all paid for by the members of the union. And when you come out, there’s usually jobs. It’s not training for jobs that don’t exist.

What is the job situation in Kansas City right now for union workers?

It’s looking pretty good. Unions maintain a list of their unemployed members; it’s called the bench. The benches are emptying and some of them are cleared, and we’re seeing people calling for organized workers to come in from out of town to help on some projects.

What is your answer to people who say unions are destroying America?

My response is: Have you heard of Enron? WorldCom? Tyco International? How about the Wall Street traders and the junk mortgage peddlers? You want to give a pass to rich individuals and corporations that committed fraud and stole from pensions and put the blame on blue-collar workers? Are you kidding me?

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