JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – “What we’re doing today isn’t just important for public workers,” Bradley Harmon, president of the Missouri State Workers’ Union Local 6355, told about 250 union activists as they prepared to march on the State Capitol here on March 21.
“It’s important for all workers,” Harmon added. “What we’re doing today isn’t just important for Missouri. It’s important for the United States of America.”
Harmon, a fiery orator, rallied the assembled union members. He placed their immediate struggle for pay raises and collective bargaining into a larger national context for democracy and progressive change. He connected their day of lobbying to the up-coming November elections and the re-election of President Obama: “Today we march. November we vote.”
In an earlier conversation with this reporter, Harmon said, “We want the tea party Republicans to think this is total war.”
The public sector workers’ lobby day consisted of union members from the Missouri State Workers’ Union (CWA-MSWU), the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Jamie Reed, a MSWU member from St. Louis, told the People’s World, “I don’t think most of these politicians understand what we actually do.”
Reed, a Department of Youth Services employee, works to keep at-risk youth out of jail, off drugs and out of gangs. She said, “Without state workers a lot of these kids end up back on the streets or in jail.”
However, Reed is not only concerned about the human cost of budget cuts. She’s concerned about the Missouri economy, too.
She said, “It costs tax payers more money in the long-run – if we don’t intervene while they are young. A lot of these kids could end up on food stamps, in jail or on drugs. Every kid we reach saves the state money.”
Missouri is currently running a $500 million budget deficit, and hundreds of public workers have already been laid-off. Union members think Missouri politicians should be focused on generating revenue, not cutting services.
Currently, the Show-Me-State is losing about $250 million annually in “unclaimed taxes,” Clark Brown, from the SEIU State Council, told the assembled union members. He said we need “revenue enhancement” to grow our budget and give state workers’ raises.
One popular piece of legislation being debated is the Main Street Fairness Act. This legislation would collect taxes on online sales and protect local small businesses by leveling the playing field with online retailers. Currently, online purchases are not taxed in Missouri.
This tax would generate an estimated $187 million, an amount that would likely increase as more and more consumers make purchases online. Currently 23 other states already claim this tax.
Another way to grow our revenue, said Brown, would be to increase the Missouri Tobacco Tax. Currently, cigarettes are taxed at $.17 in Missouri, the lowest tobacco tax in the United States. The national average tax is $1.42 per-pack.
According to Brown, a smoker, “Missouri could double its tobacco tax and still remain far below neighboring states.”
In Kansas cigarettes are taxed at $.79 per-pack and in Illinois cigarettes are taxed at $.98 per-pack. The Department of Revenue estimates that raising the tobacco tax in Missouri from $.17 per-pack to $.34 per-pack would generate $94.8 million annually.
Missouri’s public workers haven’t had a pay raise in five years and are the lowest paid public workers in the country.
In fact, according to Brown, “Missouri state workers are 34 percent behind the national average in pay.”
The Missouri House is currently debating a 2 percent pay raise for state workers at a cost of about $20.5 million – less than one-tenth of the “unclaimed taxes.”
Brown added, “We have to stop the anti-workers agenda. They want to blame workers for the economy. But this is really about shutting us down, breaking the union and our collective power.”
Josh McCarroll, from AFSCME District Council 72, summoned-up the lobby day when he said, “This is where the rubber meets the road. Make sure they understand we are paying attention. And we vote.”
Photo: Tony Pecinovsky