Some of my earliest memories with my sister as we were growing up were visiting my mother at work at what used to be Municipal Ambulance Services Trust (MAST) in Kansas City. I remember being in the dispatch room where everyone who answered 911 sat in front of several monitors with highlighted maps and spreadsheets displayed. We would hear voices rise as dispatchers would try to calm the callers who undoubtedly were experiencing their most terrifying moments while on the other line. My sister and I knew that what my mom was doing was brave and incredibly important, we looked up to her knowing that she played a part in saving people’s lives.
My mom first became an EMT at the age of 20. She was the daughter of a widowed single mother and gave college a try thanks to Pell grants. After deciding that university life wasn’t for her, she explored her options and signed up for EMT school. In the 70s and 80s, it was a rare occurrence to see a woman in this line of work. She stood out with her petite frame and bright blonde hair. In Kansas City at the time, all emergency transportation was privately owned and split between four different companies. My mom regularly worked over 90 hours a week at $2.82/hour. Conditions were dangerous and exploitative – no access to medical insurance, no paid time off, no job security, and if equipment was broken while you were on the clock, it came out of your paycheck.
In 1979, after restructuring the four private companies and contracting with the city of Kansas City, it made available the perfect time to unionize. After joining IAFF 42, life was unmeasurably better for my mom. MAST was eventually bought out from the city, and the Kansas City Fire Department took control. My mom retired in 2016 after 40 years of service.
My mom’s positive experience from her work before and after joining a union is not a unique one. Historically, union membership has provided powerful impacts on promoting economic equality, better pay and benefits, and a voice in shaping their communities. On average, states that have a higher percentage of union membership also have a higher minimum wage, are more likely to have passed sick leave and family leave laws, and have passed significantly fewer restrictive voting laws. The impacts of unions are undeniable across the intersections of health, economics, and quality of life.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.6 percent of wage and salary workers in Missouri were union members in 2022. As the wage gap continues to expand and the price of living goes up, the need for unions in Missouri is at a critical high. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how valuable our workforce is, front-line workers in the service and healthcare industry were put at definite risk amid everything shutting down. As a result, Missouri has an estimated 53 available workers for every 100 jobs open, with 167,000 total jobs available across the state.
As our job market continues to evolve post-COVID-19 shutdown, strategies and recognition of the importance of unions are a paralleled conversation. The Baby Boomer generation has made up over half of the workforce in recent years, but looking ahead, that will shift. With younger generations entering and sustaining the workforce, there is no doubt that more changes are on the horizon.
The work of labor unions is not over, but what lies ahead? In our next Friday Forum we will be joined by Andrew Hutchinson of Laborers Local 955 to explore the current focus of the labor movement, how unions continue to support Missouri workers, and how you can support their work. Register now to join us next Friday!