A Joplin businessman and political megadonor has lit a fire under Missouri’s labor community. He is advertising on television and radio, telling union members how to vote out the unions that represent them.
“My phone blew up. I knew within hours which stations it was on,” said Terry Akins, business manager at Local 124 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Kansas City.
Rock ’n’ roll fans from Kansas City to St. Louis — which includes a lot of union members — have heard the radio pitch. The television version has aired locally on broadcasts of Sunday’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” and during Royals games.
“Were you forced to join a union just to get a job? Are you tired of paying union dues to help elect politicians like Chris Koster?” asks a woman’s voice as the 30-second television spot opens.
“There is something you can do about it,” she says. “Know your rights. Find out how to decertify your union.”
The ad directs viewers to a website that steers them to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation’s web page on union decertification elections.
The $285,959 media campaign is the work of David C. Humphreys, whose wallet has been active in Missouri politics with the third-largest tally of political donations in the last several years. And he is no stranger to organized labor.
Humphreys and organized labor stand on opposite sides of the “paycheck protection” bill that failed by one vote in a Missouri Senate vote last week. The bill would have required most public employee unions to acquire written permission from members annually before any union dues can be withheld from their paychecks.
Humphreys’ company Tamko Building Products Inc., which sells roofing, decking and similar materials, already is the target of a boycott by the Missouri AFL-CIO. And a union advertisement targeted Humphreys for his effort to unseat Republican legislators who helped stop right-to-work legislation during a veto override in Jefferson City last year.
Humphreys was not available for an interview, but he provided a statement about the advertising campaign and its impact.
“I am not surprised that the unions are upset with their members being informed of their rights,” Humphreys said in part. “I am funding these ads with personal funds and think that people ought to be informed of their rights.”
For their part, union leaders don’t expect Humphreys’ ads to change much. Members already know they can vote to decertify, they say.
“We’ve had a few chuckles about the ad, mostly at what a waste of money the whole thing is,” said Joe L. Hudson, political director of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.
Still, the highly produced advertisements are attention-getting.
Alise Martiny saw the television ad in the Kansas City area. And it shook her.
“It scared me very much at first because it literally is giving our members exact directions on how to decertify their unions,” said the business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council in Kansas City.
Union members sometimes do vote out their unions.
Data from the National Labor Relations Board show that 106 decertification elections succeeded last year.
In Joplin last month, for example, members of United Steelworkers Local 812 voted 134-94 to end their union representation at EaglePicher Technologies. Workers had been without a contract for eight years and nearly voted out the union in two earlier elections.
But the number of decertifications has declined steadily. There were 246 successful decertification elections in 2006.
The labor board’s data show many more successful elections to certify unions — 1,120 last year, the highest total in a decade.
“We already know we can decertify,” said Akins of Electrical Workers Local 124. “We choose to be union.”
One sign of that was the reaction to the radio spots on stations that receive a steady stream of advertising dollars from labor. One of those is Kansas City FM station 101 The Fox, which Akins said heard directly from members when the ads aired recently.
“They hear something coming out of their radio that’s aimed at their livelihood, they get angry,” Akins said. “I have not heard them on 101 since the backlash from labor.”
Cumulus Radio, which operates 101 The Fox, declined to comment.
Akins took one action in response to Humphreys’ ad. He did an interview with 101 The Fox radio personality Slacker, in which they shared coffee and their thoughts about the benefits of unions.
Humphreys’ radio ad aired on St. Louis FM station KSHE, another classic rock station that knows it has a lot of union listeners. Despite running a disclaimer before the ads, calls from about 30 listeners persuaded Emmis Radio senior vice president John Beck to take further action.
“We had a number of complaints, so we removed it,” Beck said. “St. Louis is a union town.”
Beck said the station talked with the buyer and they agreed to move the remaining purchased ad slots to an alternative rock and a top 40 station the group owns in St. Louis.
Humphreys’ ad also caught the attention of Judy Ancel, who heads the Worker Education and Labor Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She said there are problems with those two questions emphasized in the ad.
First, no one has to join a union to get a job, she said. A worker hired at a union shop can opt out as an objector and continue to work. Objectors still must pay fees to help cover the costs of union representation, and unions are required to classify their spending to show which costs meet that standard.
Ancel also challenged the question about paying union dues to help elect any politicians. She said unions are barred from doing so, adding that the first political action committees were union because of the prohibition against using dues. She said the committees are funded through donations.
Humphreys, in his emailed statement, reiterated the ad claims.
“Most union members do not know that they can get rid of the unions (or how to) because employers are legally prohibited from telling their employees about decertification,” he wrote. “Our ads also make clear that dues paid by union members go to fund political races, and almost all union political contributions go to Democrat party candidates like Chris Koster who has taken millions of dollars from unions.”
Koster is the only Democrat running for Missouri governor and faces a field of five Republican hopefuls, each of which favors right-to-work legislation that Koster opposes. A statement from his campaign did not address the advertisements’ content but called them negative.
“Attorney General Koster has always had the back of the working men and women of Missouri, and that’s not going to change no matter how much money millionaires and out-of-state special interests spend on negative ads,” the statement said.
Humphreys has funded the union decertification ads through the Committee for Accountable Government in Missouri. Its disclosures to the Missouri Ethics Commission show it has taken in more than $1.75 million and had more than $687,000 on hand as of April 13.
Media purchases by the committee have totaled $433,180, though its filing notes that only $285,959 had been placed and the balance would be refunded.
David C. Humphreys’ statement in full
“I am not surprised that the unions are upset with their members being informed of their rights. Most union members do not know that they can get rid of the unions (or how to) because employers are legally prohibited from telling their employees about decertification.
“Our ads also make clear that dues paid by union members go to fund political races and almost all union political contributions go to Democrat party candidates like Chris Koster who has taken millions of dollars from unions. People who are required to pay union dues ought to consider whether they want their money to go to those kind of candidates.
“We have no union employees as we pay our employees very well (our production employees make on average $65,000-$75,000 per year) and we treat our people with respect. I am funding these ads with personal funds and think that people ought to be informed of their rights. No one should be forced to pay union dues just to get and keep a job.”