Missouri unions, tea party groups rally at Statehouse

Hundreds of union supporters and tea party members held small but raucous demonstrations at the Missouri Statehouse on Saturday, arguing both sides of the collective bargaining issue that has sparked much larger protests in Wisconsin over the past week.

The rally was part of a nationwide effort by labor and political groups to show solidarity with protesters in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is backing legislation that would strip unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. About 300 demonstrators in Jefferson City waved signs and shouted slogans like “Solidarity!” and “Power to the people!” in support of union membership and bargaining.

“I’m not part of a union, but I believe that people should have the right to assemble and bargain collectively for what’s fair,” said Dean Andersen, who lives in Columbia and is a health educator at the University of Missouri.

Bill Schwulst, of Milwaukee, Wis., told the crowd he had been at protests in Wisconsin over the past week. He said other unions, including those that represent police officers and snow plow drivers, had expressed anger with Walker’s bill.

“You know you’re in trouble when you’ve got the police officers, and fire departments and snow plow drivers going against you in Wisconsin,” he said through a bullhorn while standing on a stone bench with several other speakers.

Some in the crowd wore patriotic top hats and caps shaped like wedges of cheese — a nod to Wisconsin, of course. Several times during the rally, the crowd broke into song, even delivering a rendition of “On, Wisconsin!”

On the south side of the Capitol, about 200 tea party supporters held a counterprotest in favor of the Wisconsin bill and also touched on the broader federal budget issue and where they think cuts can be made. Some in the crowd called for Missouri lawmakers to pass legislation that would weaken union power, including a measure to make Missouri a “right-to-work” state.

Lake Ozark resident Jerry Walker held a sign urging Wisconsin senators to return to Madison. He said he was protesting because he believes public employees such as teachers and firefighters should not be able to form unions.

“The motivation is that people like the (Service Employees International Union) have the audacity to come here and try to intimidate our legislators into voting for their leftist agenda,” he said. “Unions have no place as part of the government.”

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., spoke near the tea party rally’s midpoint, calling the current federal budget deficit “a whale of a problem.”

“And it’s not going to do any good to whitewash it,” Akin said. “I believe the American people are ready to deal with it. Some things (in the budget) are nice, but nice has to go.”

As he spoke, union supporters marched up the street in front of the Capitol shouting “Union busters gotta go!” Some approached the grass where the tea party group was demonstrating, but police motioned for them to keep moving toward the other side of the building, where they dispersed.

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