More than 200 union members showed up to the Iowa Federation of Labor Conference in Des Moines Wednesday to hear from over half the crowded Democratic presidential field.
Before any of the candidates took the stage, union leaders welcomed the crowd to the conference and warned the Republican Party is trying to strip unions of their rights.
Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, said there is a wholesale attack on the working people happening in the United States and it needs to be stopped.
“When our membership was around 30 percent, our ability to raise the wages of working people across this country was unmatched,” Sagar said. “We had the ability to lift all boats, and we did.”
“As deregulation and a wholesale attack by the far-right has accelerated over the last three decades, we’ve seen a diminishment of the labor movement,” Sagar said. “Correspondingly, we’ve seen the middle class lose its share of the income of this country.”
He later said the country is so polarized right now, “it scares the shit out of me. It does.”
“It should you, too,” Sagar said. “Because you know people in your workplace, you know people in your family who you can’t have a civil conversation with about politics.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was expected to join the convention, but his flight was cancelled, so he called in via video phone.
He told Iowans there’s something special about this state, especially during primary season.
“There are 166 days left before the Iowa caucuses, and we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then,” Trumka said. “Today, you will be hearing from nearly every Democratic candidate seeking the nomination and that’s fantastic, because the path to the White House runs through the labor movement.”
“If you want our endorsement, if you want our vote, if you want our support, then show us you are unambiguously pro-worker and pro-union,” Trumka told the candidates. “Tell us about your plans to make it easier to form unions and harder to bust them. Show us workers are more than a section of your website or a line in your biography.”
John Delaney introduces himself with his family’s union background — his father was an IBEW Local 164 member out of Jersey City, New Jersey. He said he never heard an argument about socialism versus capitalism around his family dinner table until he went to college. He never heard about trickle down economics or redistribution until he was in college, either. But his dad gave him one political lesson:
“He’d say John, let me tell you how politics works. And he’d say if you care about workers, you vote for the Democrats. That was his lesson. I think he told me that a thousand times. As I look back and I think about the Democratic Party going forward, I actually think my dad had really good insights. Because if the Democratic Party stays focused on that message, putting the worker first and making sure whenever we are talking about a piece of policy, whether it be economic policy, whether it be environmental policy, whether it be educational policy, whether it be health care policy, we say to ourselves: What does this do for hard working Americans? Does it help them or does it hurt them? And if it’s not going to help them, it probably shouldn’t be a part of our platform.”
Warren said she’s in the presidential race because she learned early on “you don’t get what you don’t fight for.” She said Washington works great for a thinner and thinner slice of people who are at the top, but she’s running because she wants to have a government that works better for everybody else. She said she will fix that by inviting unions to the negotiating table when she’s President, and by continuing to spread something she’s said to more than 80,000 people at 126 town halls in 26 states and Puerto Rico:
“Every single time I have appeared at one of these town halls I have uttered this sentence: ‘Unions built America’s middle class and unions will rebuild America’s middle class.’ I don’t just say it when I show up in this room, I say it every time because I believe it.”
Booker said his grandfather pulled his family out of debt because he was able to find a job on the assembly line as a UAW worker. He said unions have traditionally helped America through tough times, such as when blacks and whites and Americans of all races came together to build bombers during World War II to defeat the Nazis. Now, Booker said, unions are on the defensive, union membership is declining and wages are going stagnant. That’s why he said this election is so important.
“This election is not a referendum on one guy who holds office. We know who he is. This election is a referendum on us. On what we stand for and what we’re willing to fight for. Don’t let folks try to tell you about our aspirations. The highest thing Democrats seem to want according to the polls and the pundits is someone who can beat Donald Trump, and what I have to say is ‘can’t we have bigger aspirations than that?’ Beating Donald Trump is the floor, it’s not the ceiling. Beating Donald Trump gets out of the valley, it doesn’t get us to the mountain top. It doesn’t get us back to those values that got me on this stage, that pulled my family out of poverty, that pulled us together as a country.”
Sanders came into the convention having just released a new, comprehensive plan on labor and workers’ rights. It included provisions to tamp down on union concerns that a rigid Medicare for All system could undermine health benefits negotiated through contracts. Sanders received repeated applause throughout his speech for highlighting his history of fighting for union issues and his vision for the workforce of the future.
“The reason we have introduced that very strong pro-union platform is that for 45 years there has been a war on this country waged by the corporate elite against the working class of America. And the truth of the matter not talked about in Congress, not talked about in the media, is as a result of that war against the working class by the corporate elite, what we have seen is the decimation of working families all across this country, while the wealthiest people and largest corporations have done phenomenally well. If there’s going to be class warfare in this country, it’s time that the working class of this country won that war.”
BILL DE BLASIO
Also having to teleconference in after flight cancellations, De Blasio thanked Iowa union members for the fight they are waging every day in a state where organized labor has been under attack. He said he knows it’s not easy to find passion and strength to stand up for what you believe in. He said his message comes down to three words: Working people first.
“I fear there are so many voices in our party that want us to be Republican-lite or want us to be moderate to the point we don’t actually stand up for working people, and we sometimes as Democrats are afraid to call for the big changes we need. I’m going to tell you something, the Democratic Party should be a party that is always ready to say we are a party of organized labor, period. Period. That should define us.”
Biden said he wouldn’t have won his first race if it wasn’t for the support he received from labor unions. He said he’s fought on behalf of unions his entire career, although he said labor has been at war for more than two decades. Iowa labor unions have been on the front lines of that war, he said, as they attempted to battle Republican Governor Terry Branstad and now Governor Kim Reynolds. He said they’ve gone out of their way to decimate unions here, and that the fight against unions has always been about greed.
“The fact is Wall Street didn’t build this country. Ordinary middle class Americans given half a chance built it. And the only reason — this is not hyperbole, I’ve been saying this for over 35 years — the only reason we have a middle class is unions.”
Castro said he will support legislation to make it easier for unions to organize and he will appoint people to the National Labor Relations Board who believe in labor unions. That way, he said, when decisions get tough the people on the board will understand the value of labor and make decisions that are consistent with that. He also said he will appoint a Secretary of Labor who will champion labor unions’ ability to organize.
“My vision for the future of our country is that in years to come our United States should be the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest and the most prosperous nation on Earth. I’ve spent the last seven months of my campaign talking about how we can get there. Everything from universal childcare, to pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, paying teachers what they deserve and improving K-12 education, investing in trade programs in high schools and partnerships with labor and community colleges and businesses and also ensuring we make higher education universal by going tuition-free at public state universities, community colleges and job training certification programs.”
Buttigieg said the United States will not advance politically with a message that says ‘back to normal.’ He noted he comes from the industrial Midwest and therefore knows the middle-class economy got to where it is because normal didn’t work. Buttigieg said the working class needs to find a new normal and make sure it is better than what it was before because there’s no such thing as “again” in real life. He said he’s heard a lot about globalization and technology and automation and there are people who want him to believe what’s happening to the middle class is just some kind of cosmic force —that there’s not much that can be done about it. But, Buttigieg said, that’s not true. The economy is is a result of the intentional decisions that were made in Washington.
“Remember, the decline of the middle class and the decline of unionization in this country started happening at the exact same time. Anybody here think that’s a coincidence? This is a policy. This is a choice. And when conservative lawmakers sought to systematically silence the voices of workers from Washington to Wisconsin, that had consequences. Organized labor brought us the middle-class lifestyle itself. 40-hour work week, basic labor protections, child and safety standards, the weekend. These things didn’t happen. They happened because people stood up and demanded them. And now it’s time to stand up and empower workers in the US.”
Before Montana Governor Steve Bullock entered public office, he was a union-side labor lawyer. He represented the Teamsters, IBEW, teachers’ unions and public employee unions. He said he would go home and tell his families about the battles unions were fighting tooth and nail for every day. As Governor, Bullock said he continued to fight for unions by preserving the state’s pension system. He said the state made record investments in K-12 education and first-time investments in pre-K. He said Montana froze college tuition, while also recognizing not everybody was going to go to college. So, the state built up its community college and apprenticeship programs. As Attorney General and as Governor of Montana, Bullock said he took on Citizens United and the corrupting influence of money in U.S. elections.
“We kicked the Koch brothers out of the state of Montana during our elections. If we can do that in Montana, you sure as hell aught to be able to do it in Iowa and all across this country. We have a generation of workers who have been replaced by independent contractors and union membership is half of what it was in the 1980s. When there’s now twice as many contract workers as their are union members, it’s pretty clear D.C. and our statehouses aren’t working for working people. When Lindsey Graham literally says we’ve got to get these tax cuts to make these donors happy and 44 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in their pocket in case of their emergency, when whoever cleans up tonight actually pays more in taxes than 60 Fortune 500 companies like Chevron, like Amazon, it’s clear our economy isn’t working for everyone.”
Ryan described to the crowd an article he saw the other day that said between 1978 and 2018 CEOs had pay increases of 940 percent. The working class saw pay increases of 12 percent during that same time period. He said it’s vulgar, and what’s happening to the middle class is obnoxious. Ryan said where he comes from in Ohio he has seen the erosion of manufacturing plants and he specifically mentioned two where a combined total of nearly 30,000 people have lost their jobs. There’s nowhere for those workers to go, now, Ryan said, and everyone has to fend for themselves. He said he wants to be President because when factories close, the people out of jobs are his family members, his cousins, and the kids he used to play football with.
“The contract in the United States for a good portion of the last 100 years was that if you work hard, if you play by the rules, if you do everything right, you’re going to get the benefits and the security of a good wage and good health care and a secure retirement. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have anymore in the United States. Or very little of it.”
Bennet said Americans in the working middle class didn’t think things could get any worse in 2016, so they voted for Donald Trump, a reality TV star, to be the next American president. But, Bennet said, things did get worse. He said Trump filled the National Labor Relations Board with ideological nominees and gutted rules to strengthen overtime pay that left 8 million workers behind and cost them a little more than a $1 billion per year. He said Trump failed to protect workers from harmful materials linked to cancer and lung disease and renegotiated NAFTA while doing nothing to make labor provisions tougher. Bennet said Trump is the first President in American history to take health care away from millions of Americans.
“That’s why I’ve proposed the most significant investment in working people in generations. My plan has three points. First, we will invest $500 billion in the 70 percent of Americans without a four year college degree who have been left completely behind in this economy and forgotten by the politicians in Washington so they can earn a living wage when they graduate high school, not just the minimum wage. We will expand proven models of job training like the registered apprenticeships unions have built for decades.”
Klobuchar is the granddaughter of a union iron ore minor, the daughter of a union newspaper man and the daughter of a union teacher. An avid supporter of union rights, Klobuchar said she will look out for workers and will fight for true shared prosperity. She said President Donald Trump appointed judges who support the Janus decision, which will handicap the power of public unions. And, Klobuchar said while she’s talking about infrastructure and creating plans that will bolster labor unions, Trump is talking about buying Greenland, angering the entire country of Denmark.
“We need a real leader who is going to make real promises and keep them. We need a President — and I will do this — who will strengthen the National Labor Relations Act. We must stop the attack on unions and roll back the right to work laws across this country and we must make it easier, not harder, for workers to form unions. I will stand with you.”
O’Rourke said the City of El Paso received a $6 billion windfall from Fort Bliss, but the city wasn’t ready for the huge investment or to build new buildings because Texas is a right to work state. He said El Paso had no elevated labor unions at the time because there were no apprenticeship programs for electricians or steelworkers or plumbers or carpenters. So, El Paso imported workers to do high-valued, high-skilled and high-wage jobs within its limits.
While traveling Iowa, O’Rourke has noticed the state is headed in the same direction as Texas as far as supporting labor. He said he’s heard Democrats, Republicans and Independents all say they’re concerned about the teacher shortage in this state.
“It was a conscious decision of the state legislature here to remove the collective bargaining rights of public employees including public educators in Iowa And so the taxpayers here, many of you among them, have paid to train and raise teachers who are leaving this state for Minnesota, which is receiving a bumper crop of kindergarten teachers and physics teachers and people who could have made this community even better if their labor and their value was recognized in the laws that we passed. That is something felt by everyone regardless of political division, regardless of geography, regardless of any difference. So supporting those teacher unions, supporting those public workers, supporting AFSCME, that’s good not just for the members of those unions, that’s good not just for the unions, that’s good for this state and the kids in the classroom who deserve a world class education.”
Sestak, who has a 97 percent approval rating by the AFL-CIO said minimum wage should be $15 an hour with inflation. He said he’s running for President because he wants to move the nation forward and unite the country. He told the crowd:
“You stand for the working family. Read the charters all of you have where it says the AFL-CIO stands for the working family. You are the last organized force in America to stand for them.”
Gleib said he is a working man and that most people haven’t heard of his campaign because most working people in the country aren’t given the same respect as the ruling class. He said he’s sick and tired of workers getting screwed and he’s sick and tired of seeing his paycheck shrink while the cost of goods goes up. He asked why every member of congress promises to change things, but nothing ever changes. “What happened to your change?” the comedian asked. “Did it fall through your pockets?”
“I’m the only working-man candidate in the race. And I am the only member of the AFL-CIO in the race. As a SAG actor member for 12 years I have fought over and over again to make my projects union. So you know I will fight for you because I am one of you.”
by Paige Godden