Government & Politics

Free-trade spat between McCaskill, labor suggests changing relationship between Democrats, unions

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office has defended her votes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office has defended her votes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. AP file photo

Bill Caldwell, a machinist and labor union official in Kansas City, is finished with Sen. Claire McCaskill.

“I’m not knocking on any doors, I’m not phone-banking for her. Period,” he said. “I think she’s forgotten where she came from.”

Caldwell’s deep disappointment — prompted by McCaskill’s support for a new U.S. trade agreement with Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim nations — may reflect the ordinary tension between a legislator and a constituent. No lawmaker can make everyone happy all the time.

But McCaskill is a Democrat. Her party traditionally supports organized labor, relying on it for money and votes.

That relationship is changing, many analysts say. Declining union membership and the rank-and-file’s support for conservative positions on issues like guns and abortion have combined to disrupt the decades-old coalition between Democrats and labor.

That changing relationship has led some candidates and campaigns to conclude that labor unions are no longer the political threat they once were.

“For all intents and purposes, they’re a paper tiger,” said Ryan Johnson, president of the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a conservative public interest group.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, still counts labor as an ally. But “organized labor today is not what it was 25 years ago,” he said.

Immediate evidence of the split between Democrats and labor surfaced in this summer’s debate on the pending trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Supporters say the agreement will lead to lower import and export fees on everything from computers to tennis shoes, saving Americans money and creating jobs.

Most labor unions have bitterly opposed the deal. They claim it would actually lead to the elimination of high-paying jobs in the United States while harming the environment and threatening workers’ rights.

They’ve compared it to the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which lowered barriers for imports from Mexico and other countries.

“There’s no middle class,” Caldwell said, referring to the impact of free-trade deals. “It’s a line in the sand.”

McCaskill was not available for comment on the issue. In an email, spokeswoman Sarah Feldman said the TPP vote was “a good example of how important it is to Claire to separate her supporters and donors from her votes, and while she knows she disappointed some friends, she did what was right for Missouri jobs.”

Republicans — and President Barack Obama — have made similar arguments.

“We are not going to grow our economy or create jobs if we put up trade barriers,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri voted for accelerated trade negotiations, as did Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts of Kansas. All are Republicans.

“I can see an economy in the middle of the country based on making things and growing things,” Blunt said. “But you have to have someone to sell that new opportunity to.”

Their positions may reflect a political calculation that extends beyond free trade.

Organized labor’s influence at the ballot box continues to dip. In 2014, Labor Department figures show, only 214,000 Missouri workers were members of a labor union. That’s 8.4 percent of the state’s workforce, compared with 11.5 percent just 10 years ago.

In Kansas, 95,000 workers were union members last year, 7.4 percent of all employees. Declining union membership means fewer campaign workers, smaller donations and dwindling votes.

“We have less members, that’s one thing that’s for sure,” said Pat Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “And we in labor have not done a good job of educating our members. A good number of my members will vote in their own worst interest.”

Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said McCaskill and her Democratic colleagues likely felt they had little to lose by opposing labor and voting for accelerated consideration of the TPP.

“For a Democrat like McCaskill, the other part of (her) answer is: Where the hell do they go?” Overby said, referring to labor voters’ typical reluctance to elect Republicans. “And labor’s strength is concentrated in places where she’s already doing pretty well.”

Additionally, the nature of labor union membership is changing, Overby said. Manufacturing unions — cars, aircraft, clothing — are giving way to unions representing service workers, teachers and public employees. Those union members, he said, are less focused on trade agreements than on other issues such as wages and health care.

On those issues, labor remains an important force, some Democrats say. On Friday, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

“I still think that, for the Democratic party, labor is still big,” Cleaver said.

That strength will be tested next month in Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed a bill that prohibits mandatory union dues, a measure known generally as right to work. Lawmakers will attempt to override Nixon’s veto in September.

Labor groups have scheduled rallies in several Missouri cities this month, attempting to find votes to sustain Nixon’s veto. “Right to work is a divisive, partisan political issue meant to punish labor unions,” one labor-related Facebook page says.

But Republicans and other supporters of right to work are also lobbying and asking for public support. Americans for Prosperity Missouri has purchased airtime to run an ad supporting the legislation.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, now a GOP candidate for governor, has challenged Democrats to a debate on the issue.

“Right to work, at its core, is about fairness,” he said in a statement this summer. “If a worker in our state does not want to pay union fees, they should not be required to do so just to get or keep a job.”

Overby said he still expects Missouri Democrats to vote to uphold the governor’s right-to-work veto. Labor’s influence may be diminishing, he said, but it has not disappeared.

Ryan Johnson of the conservative Missouri Alliance for Freedom said it’s possible Nixon’s right-to-work veto will be sustained this fall, but that declining union membership means mandatory union dues in the state will eventually disappear.

“They’ve dwindled in numbers, they’ve dwindled in power and the ability to move the ball on important issues,” he said.

Unions are likely to be involved in Missouri politics in 2016, supporting Democrats like Attorney General Chris Koster for governor and the party’s eventual presidential nominee. Jason Kander, now seeking the nomination to run against Blunt, will also need labor support in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis.

Even McCaskill may still get Bill Caldwell’s vote in 2018, if she runs for re-election. The machinist says he would find it tough to cast a ballot for a Republican, and notes McCaskill is still reaching out to labor for help.

But “I’m just not going to associate with her,” Caldwell said. “I’ll never do anything else for her again.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to

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