KCUR News
5:06 pm
Thu March 17, 2011

For Mayor: Labor Pro and Con

KANSAS CITY, MO. – Kansas City organized labor has always heavily engaged in the battle for the Mayor's office. The ardor is strong with the election next week. This time there is a division of forces; labor is split between candidates. KCUR's Dan Verbeck was once actively involved in labor as a volunteer shop steward for a broadcaster's union. He no longer has that association. Here is his report on the making of the Mayor via labor.

The men who would be mayor wanted support from labor under the umbrella of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, led by Pat Dujakovich. Known to everybody as "Duke" since firefighter colleagues gave him the moniker years ago, Dujakovich talks the philosophy of elections from his office in an old house on the downtown's west edge. To him, "the AFL-CIO is of the belief that you don't try to pick the winner. You try to pick the best candidate and make them a winner."

The process started badly. The labor council picked a loser in the primary. It backed incumbent Mark Funkhouser.

Dujakovich says his organization generally endorses in primaries, but, " a lot of times we'll just kind of keep 'hands off' and wait and see who makes it thru. A lot of unions have determined that's the better way."

Union support counts to candidates. Maybe it's not what it once was. Union membership is down everywhere. But there's clout.

It's estimated 20 thousand people belong to organized labor in the 15 county region. No one knows what the effect is in this Kansas City election. But mayoral candidates want it and filled out the seven page AFL-CIO questionnaire.

It's an essay test of 20 questions. Mike Burke and Sly James answered them as they looked for financial and human support.

Heres a simple one. What kind of car do you drive? Cadillac for Burke, Lincoln for James. Both American made. Score a point for each.

They agree on school vouchers as bad. Both like tax increment financing, although Burke says current use goes beyond original intent.

James opposes the rewards and punishments of so called 'performance pay.' Burke thinks it has a place.

Both oppose what's called ' right to work' legislation.

The questionnaires are on Dujakovich's desk and he nods to them. As a reporter pores over the survey, Dujakovich murmurs an observation that, "if you and I'd have filled those out in school they'd of accused us of copying off one another. They are very similar in their beliefs. They are similar in their ideas. And it does make it difficult to find the small differences to be able to differentiate the candidates."

Labor Council screeners evaluate and pick James in the general election. Dujakovich says it was not unanimous.

There's another issue that comes into play. The endorsement goes to the candidate most likely to increase jobs which unions want and need, and secure retirement for union and non-union city workers. The city's four pension programs are underfunded and here's what Burke said during debate," as far as I'm concerned, on options for the future, its all on the table. I know some union people disagree with me on that."

In the same debate, James wanted to deal with a committee to solve pension funding problems--"labor is at the table at the start of the talks, business is at the table at the start of the talks and they have a very definite charge and hopefully good leadership in trying to get to the solution. Hopefully they will come up with a solution that all the people at the table buy." If that sounds like collective bargaining, remember that James considers himself a mediator. And he gets the nod.

There's a dissenting union element backing Burke. To AFL-CIO chief Dujakovich it's not as confrontational as in the past. In his words, "we're not endorsing out of spite. The other thing is, the Greater Kansas City Building and Trades, the construction trades, the carpenters, those are my brothers and sisters."

Dujakovich finishes the thought with, " all due respect, Sly James and Mike Burke, are politicians. In 8 years I'm going to be standing with my union brothers and sisters and not with either Sly James or Mike Burke. So, there is no anger from the AFL-CIO against anybody who endorsed differently."

Strength of union vote in this election may be hard to measure. Leave it to the analysts after the mayor's office is filled.