Just over a month into her tenure as chair of the Missouri Democrats, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker is facing a revolt from some of the party’s biggest supporters: labor unions.
Baker, elected to the party post in December, has been in contract negotiations with the International Asociation of Fire Fighters Local 42, which represents the assistant prosecutors who report to her.
But those negotiations have reached an impasse. The assistant prosecutors have been without a contract since Nov. 15. IAFF Local 42 president Tim Dupin said the union had lost members in the process.
“We believe that...the county is holding out on these negotiations to bust the union,” Dupin said.
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On Tuesday, the dispute escalated. Member unions within the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO pledged they won’t support the state or county Democratic parties until Baker either steps down as chair or “agrees to return to the table and negotiate in good faith and reaches a final agreement with IAFF.”
About 13.6 percent of the state party’s donation proceeds last year came from unions, and county parties also receive significant donations.
Baker said in an interview Friday that her return would be a short trip.
“I never left the negotiation table,” she said. “I’m still sitting there.”
In a letter to Baker, Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO president Duke Dujakovich said member unions voted unanimously to stop giving to the party. The letter points to the labor-friendly policies endorsed in state and national party platforms and questions whether Baker upholds those ideals.
“We are gravely concerned that a person whose conduct clearly demonstrates disdain for the above stated principles and commitments is the current leader of Missouri’s Democratic Party,” Dujakovich wrote.
Dupin said unions would still contribute to labor-friendly candidates, but not the party committees.
The impasse involves two major sticking points: a proposed raise for assistant prosecutors and a process for settling disputes through arbitration.
IAFF Local 42, Dupin said, has proposed raising starting prosecuting attorneys’ pay to more than $61,000.
“Right now, a starting prosecuting attorney makes $50,000, which is pretty sad,” Dupin said, noting criminal defense attorneys earn much larger salaries.
The union also wants an annual cost-of-living adjustment tied to inflation and capped at 3 percent.
Baker, appointed prosecutor in 2011 and who won election in 2012 and again in 2016, said she has raised assistant prosecutors’ pay significantly. This time, she said, the county hasn’t agreed on a budget, so the raise pool has yet to be determined.
“I’m not opposed to raising the assistant prosecutors’ bottom line at all,” Baker said. “I worked as an assistant prosecutor for far more years than I’ve worked as the elected prosecutor.”
But she “can’t create a budget that is not there.”
Dupin argued she should advocate directly to the Jackson County Legislature.
“If the legislature was aware of what the proposed raises were, or requested were, they could make an informed decision in their budget process,” he said.
Local 42 and the prosecutors’ office are also deadlocked over how to handle disputes that go to arbitration. The expired contract provided for retired judges to arbitrate. But Dupin said he doesn’t believe former county judges can be impartial.
The union proposed that if it can’t agree with the prosecutor’s office on a retired judge that the parties turn to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Baker said her office and the union had used the service in past contracts but that it was far too costly. She said arbitrators in that system also didn’t understand the special judicial ethics demanded of prosecutors.
“It’s news to me that 42 finds it so offensive because 42 negotiated for this the last time,” Baker said.
The AFL-CIO letter also raised alarms about Baker’s decision to fire three assistant prosecutors several years ago. According to the letter, no other union members had been terminated for cause.
Baker said two of them lied to the court and were fired after due process. A third had entered a work improvement plan under a previous prosecutor because ofperformance issues. She said her office extended the plan, but it didn’t work out.
Dupin and Baker claim it was the other who left the table. Dupin said Local 42 has been able to negotiate with past prosecutors. Baker said she’s been able to negotiate with previous Local 42 presidents.
“There’s nothing to talk about if they’re not going to give us any new proposals,” Dupin said. “We’re well aware of what the proposals are.”
The union wants to take the negotiations to a mediator, but Baker doesn’t.
“He just needs to come back to the table that he left,” Baker said. “Come sit back down.”
In the meantime, Dupin said he’s hoping the unions’ decision to withhold political donations puts pressure on Baker.
Though the resolution passed unanimously, Dujakovich said it’s not binding.
“There is no enforcement,” Dujakovich said. “I cannot yank somebody’s union charter if they break it... All the unions have autonomy.”
He added: “It was a tough vote because everybody in that room knows and works with Jean Peters Baker and she’s worked hard in the past on a lot of important issues and candidates we’ve all agreed on.”
Baker said she would be worried about what it means for her party leadership for the unions to withhold money if she believed Dupin’s allegations were true.
“I think what they are hoping for is to squeeze every bit of political pressure they can out of me to do things that I should not, and that misunderstands who I am,” Baker said.
Dujakovich said the impasse was a bad situation to be in any time, but especially leading into the 2020 election.
“But we’ve got to do what we can for working people.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to county judges as county employees. County judges are employees of the state.