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Will unions hold sway in Missouri’s race for governor in 2024? Democrats are betting on it

Eleven months before the 2024 election, Missouri labor unions are coalescing around Democrat Crystal Quade in the race for governor, but the real test of their influence will come when their members head to the polls.

Republicans expect many union-represented workers will vote for the GOP nominee, even if the unions follow their typical practice of endorsing the Democrat. Three prominent Republicans are in the race — Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and state Sen. Bill Eigel, a hard-right lawmaker from Weldon Spring.

“Organized labor’s political power has increased in the last year, however, union members are much more conservative than their leadership,” Ashcroft spokesperson Jason Cabel Roe said in a statement.

Missouri Republicans have backed policies diametrically opposed by unions such as a right-to-work law which prevented unions from requiring employees to pay dues. Voters later overturned the law in a 2018 vote that was viewed as a massive win for organized labor.

But labor groups have struggled to elect a pro-union governor in recent elections. Even as union membership has ticked up in Missouri over the past decade, Republicans have tightened their grip over statewide politics.

Democrats hold no statewide offices, and the last Democrat to win a statewide election, Auditor Nicole Galloway in 2018, lost the 2020 race for governor to Republican Gov. Mike Parson by more than 16 percentage points.

Heading into 2024, the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska Conference of Teamsters, Missouri AFL-CIO, as well as electrical workers and service employees, have backed Quade, who serves as the minority leader in the Missouri House, in the Democratic primary as she mounts a campaign after eight years of Republican dominance.

“I’m proud to be taking my message of putting Missourians first across the state, visiting workers in every corner to hear about what they need from their government,” Quade said in a statement to The Star following Monday’s Teamsters endorsement. “It’s time for Missouri to have a governor who puts Missouri workers first.”

Quade is running against Springfield businessman Mike Hamra. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will face a Republican Party that increasingly pitches itself as the true home of blue collar workers and working class families.

Republicans nationwide, including U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have attempted to win over workers who may have once supported Democrats, in part by deploying populist rhetoric.

“Republicans have tried at times not to antagonize a union — certainly they lost on right-to-work and I think that probably gave them a little bit of pause,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“But they still have plenty of things in terms of their position on taxes and some of the cultural issues that may have peeled away some of the labor base support.”

But as a series of strikes from auto workers to actors has thrust organized labor and unions into the national spotlight, Democrats are hoping that Quade’s focus on workers during her time in office — along with her humble upbringing and working class background — will help lessen the gap. Voters are expected to turn out in high numbers in 2024, with races for president and U.S. Senate as well as a potential abortion rights measure on the ballot.

“There is a belief that with the issues likely to be on the ballot in the general election, an open seat and a high turnout year labor can have a bigger influence on the governor’s race and it may be more competitive than it turned out to be in 2020,” Bob Jacobi, executive director of the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City, a nonprofit that works to build relationships between labor and management, said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, talks to reporters during a news conference.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, talks to reporters during a news conference.

Union support ticks up in Missouri

While the number of people represented by unions has trended downward nationally, membership has increased slightly in Missouri over the past decade – 10.6% of employees in Missouri were represented by unions in 2022, compared to 10.1% in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The unions in Missouri have done a very good job of both protecting their members that they currently have, both private and public sector, but also being in the forefront of organizing and recruiting new members,” said Ryan Lamare, a labor professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

The only way a Democratic candidate is going to win a statewide election in Missouri is if they tap into voters’ discontent with an economy skewed towards the wealthy — and voters who believe that unions would help, said Lenny Jones the president of the Missouri and Kansas branch of the SEIU, which represents service workers.

That includes shows of support, such as visiting picket lines, he said.

“That would go a long way into changing the political dynamic because I highly doubt that you’re going to find a Republican candidate that’s going to be willing to do that,” said Jones, whose group has endorsed Quade in the Democratic primary.

Quade, first elected to the Missouri House in 2016, said in a statement that she never could have won her previous races without labor support.

“I’ve stood alongside workers on picket lines, helped to defeat anti-union Right-to-Work laws, and we’ve made working Missourians the priority in our campaign,” she said.

Kehoe, who has touted his own humble origin story of rising from washing cars to owning a car dealership in Jefferson City, has received backing from some labor groups such as firefighters and police. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The campaigns for the two other Republican candidates, Ashcroft and Eigel, in statements to The Star, acknowledged the importance of labor support and casted themselves as pro-worker. But both campaigns gestured to the apparent split between union leaders and their membership.

Eigel said in a statement that he would be a governor “who works for workers and takes on union bosses” and would “do everything in my power to keep more money in workers’ pockets.” The state senator vowed to eliminate the state’s personal property tax, state income tax and to “stop all these corporate handouts to billionaires and corporations that come at the expense of hard working, middle class taxpayers.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, left; Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, center, and state Sen. Bill Eigel are three declared or likely candidates for governor. The early positioning comes as Republicans begin to contemplate the future after Gov. Mike Parson terms out of office in January 2025.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, left; Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, center, and state Sen. Bill Eigel are three declared or likely candidates for governor. The early positioning comes as Republicans begin to contemplate the future after Gov. Mike Parson terms out of office in January 2025.

Talking with union members about “shrinking take-home pay while Jefferson City politicians give corporations and special interests taxpayer-funded benefits will be an important message in the primary and the general election,” said Ashcroft’s spokesperson, who also attacked Democratic President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy.

Ashcroft holds a prominent name in Missouri politics as the son of a former Missouri governor, U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush.

Lamare, the labor professor, pushed back on the Republican framing that workers are more conservative than union leadership.

“In reality, what we’ve seen is by and large the policies that are endorsed and generated by Republican legislators haven’t been particularly friendly to union members and their families,” he said.

Union leaders, he said, can communicate effectively about the benefits union-backed politicians provide.

But Democrats will face a steep climb to take the governor’s office in 2024.

“For the Democrats it’s still an uphill battle in Missouri, but I think having the organizational resources that unions bring to a campaign is probably a benefit for the Democrats,” Squire said.

Labor support for Quade

One of the more prominent union-backed lawmakers in the General Assembly, state Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat who has endorsed Quade, said unions need to educate their members about which candidate best represents workers.

“When you educate your membership — and this is nonpartisan when I say this — of who is best for you as a working person…and whatever your particular trade or craft is, that’s the very important part,” he said.

Beck said “attacks on workers,” including right-to-work, are all Republican policies and ideas.

Jake Hummel, the president of Missouri AFL-CIO, said his group endorsed Quade in the Democratic primary because of her work supporting unions while serving in the General Assembly.

“She’s been there every step of the way and we know she’ll be there for us again this year in the legislature,” he said. “That’s worth something to us — when people go above and beyond to help organized labor, we’re going to do the same for them.”

The AFL-CIO will endorse its preferred candidate in the general election in August, Hummel said. The group has not decided whether it will endorse any of the candidates in the Republican primary.

“We do have a small percentage of our membership that votes on the other side,” he said. “While we can’t maybe convince them to vote the other way, we want to make sure that, you know, worst case scenario, we have someone that supports us on some of the issues.”

Jacobi, with the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City, said most unions have endorsed Quade — pointing to a family history of union members and her strong voting record related to organized labor.

Hamra, Quade’s Democratic opponent, has “a bit of a hill to climb coming out of the fast food industry, which is not viewed as favorably by union members,” he said.

Hamra is the CEO of Hamra Enterprises, a Springfield-based hospitality company that operates restaurants such as Wendy’s, Panera Bread and Noodles & Company locations. A campaign spokesperson said he would “lead Missouri as he’s led his business–as an advocate for fair pay, good benefits, and treating everyone with respect.”

Hamra’s campaign statement said he knew that organized labor and working families were “essential partners in growing our economy.” But, similar to Ashcroft and some Republicans, he also tried to paint union members and workers as separate and distinct from union leaders.

“Union members in Missouri are made up of a very diverse group of people and interests, and the recommendation of their union leadership is only one factor they’ll consider when deciding how to cast their vote,” the campaign said.

A lot has changed since 2020, Quade said, referring to the year in which Parson defeated Galloway, viewed at the time as a serious contender to take the office, by such a wide margin.

The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, showed how critical workers are and the labor movement appears stronger than it has in decades.

“Around the country, and around Missouri, support for unions is stronger and union membership is growing,” she said. “Over the last few months, we’ve seen record-breaking victories for workers and we are just getting started.”

While unions nationally tend to typically support Democrats, Squire and Jacobi both said that the energy and influence in the governor’s race may depend on which candidate gets the nomination.

“Quade versus Ashcroft would generate much more labor energy than Hamra versus Kehoe, for example,” Jacobi said.

For Hummel, with the AFL-CIO, union support remains very strong in Missouri, strengthening the middle class which also benefits those not in the labor movement.

“Alot of folks that aren’t in the unionized industries — they make higher wages and benefits here in Missouri because of us and a lot of people know that,” he said.