Dubuque residents Tom Townsend and Dave George have a big decision to make Feb. 3.
As current and former business managers of local labor unions, they’re not only caucusing for their own interests but considering the needs of each of their chapter members. Townsend and George take the job seriously — they went to three Dubuque caucus events with three different front-runners within 32 hours of each other as undecided voters with an imminent deadline to make a decision.
“I have a top four, maybe five,” Townsend said at the beginning of this past weekend. “What we do, when we’re dealing with so many different members, we have to educate ourselves about all the issues and all the candidates. I go to a union meeting, I got to be ready for whatever issue those guys are going to bring up.”
Townsend is the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 704, representing around 300 construction, manufacturing and hotel workers, while George is the former business manager of IBEW Local 204, with around 1,400 utility employees, attorneys and sheriff deputies.
The men are a snapshot of the town, famed for its deep labor roots and blue-collar workers, which hosted Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for events last Friday and Saturday.
After Warren’s Saturday night event, the last of the three, George described the weekend as “tiring.” Although they heard each of the top-tier candidates’ plans on labor-specific topics like health care and the rights of unions, the men said they’ll caucus for any candidate with the ability to inspire their members to vote.
“All of it doesn’t matter if they don’t vote,” George said.
With 27 days left, the men still don’t know whose corner they’ll stand in on caucus night.
Weekend Events Focused On Labor
Townsend and George have been courted by all three campaigns.
Because they worked in 2018 to elect Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer, the U.S. representative called them to come to Biden’s event. Before Sanders’ event, Townsend and a group of about five other union leaders talked with the Vermont senator. Both men also got a moment in the clutch meeting with Warren before she spoke.
The campaigns understand the importance and influence of union leaders — all three candidates focused heavily on labor topics during their time in the city.
Finkenauer’s recent endorsement of Biden preceded her roving around the state for the rest of the weekend with the former vice president. At his Friday morning event in Dubuque, she stressed Biden’s background with union workers to members of the 1st District.
Biden has plans to give employees more leverage to organize in the workplace and raise the hourly minimum wage, among other labor-strengthening proposals, but took time to tell stories about his working-class background during the rally, his experience as vice president, and he addressed the killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani.
“I get the same feeling I got going to a mainstream Democrat speech for however long. That’s obviously the platform he’s running on, that he and Barack Obama did great things,” Townsend said.
The next day, at Sanders’ event put on by union organizers, John Deere employee and member of UAW Local 94, Stephen Louis Meier, introduced the candidate.
Emphasizing the senator’s plan to double union membership in his first term as president and reverse Iowa Republicans’ 2017 law that stripped the rights of public sector workers to collectively bargain, Louis Meier said Sanders would protect the dignity of workers.
“I stand with Bernie because Bernie stands with workers. He knows unions mean good, healthy work environments. He knows how to double union memberships in his first term and he understands that health care has no right in our bargaining table because health care is a human right,” he said.
From Townsends’ local union, Dubuque Hilton Garden Inn housekeeper Tiffany Trowbridge then spoke of the candidate. As of July, her hotel is the first in the city to become part of a bargaining union.
“We were tired like we were working for nothing, being treated like we were nothing,” Trowbridge said. “Being in a union has boosted the confidence of all our employees because we now have a voice … We need someone like Bernie Sanders. He will be our voice to fight for the working class from the White House because he always has.”
Large cheers came from a crowd of around 650 when Sanders proclaimed, “I apologize to nobody for my working-class roots.” After the town hall, Townsend thought the energy was inspiring, and said the senator could drive union members to actually go caucus.
“If you looked at the crowd today,” Townsend said. “There was a lot more diversity in age, there was a lot more excitement in the room … To me, one of the biggest keys in this whole thing is whoever is the candidate has to inspire people to get out to vote. Trying to get our members to vote is important.”
George and Townsend thought that the last event, on Saturday night for Warren, felt sort of like a mixture between Sanders’ and Biden’s rallies. The senator focused more on telling her stump story, but addressed the issue of labor during the question-and-answer section of the night.
When asked, Warren said the government needs to help workers by making it easier to join a union and giving them more power.
“Unions built America’s middle class and given a chance, unions will rebuild America’s middle class,” Warren said. “Start in the mid 1930s. And you watch GDP goes up, family income goes up and union membership goes up. They go up together … And it’s unions that make sure that that money going into these giant corporations gets shared with the workers.”
After the event, George said he appreciated her emphasis on unions, saying it’s a nuanced topic for election cycles.
“She mentioned the word ‘unions’ and ‘unionizing’ more than the candidates ever did in the previous election. Just like Bernie,” George said. “Every one of them, even the ones where I haven’t gone to their events, I’ve seen them talking about unions and strengthening unions. So they’re starting to realize, that’s what built the middle class.”
Like Townsend And George, A Lot Of Iowa Is Still Undecided
Dr. Jill Biden, who had come to the state as a surrogate for her husband, pleaded with voters in Dubuque after Biden’s rally on Friday morning. While recently phone banking for her husband, Dr. Biden said she spoke to an Iowan who told her they’d met the former vice president three times, but met a number of the other candidates on many more occasions. The Iowan said that if Biden came and had dinner at their house, they’d caucus for him.
“That kind of hurt my feelings. You haven’t made up your mind, you don’t know who you’re voting for?” Dr. Biden said. “This is a big decision for all of you Iowans. And I respect that you really take it seriously, and you meet all the candidates and you get their positions … But today is the day you’re going to cross off your list and decide who I’m going to commit for. Because today you’re going to commit for my husband Joe Biden!”
The former second lady is right. Many event attendees said they still don’t know who they’ll caucus for.
Dubuque resident Kenneth W. Miller went to all three of the weekend’s events. He has seen just about everyone who’s running but is still undecided.
“I have maybe a top four,” he said. “Most of the stuff I’ve heard before, but there might be people asking questions and I’d like to hear what they ask and the candidates’ answers.”
Kerry Federonich, another Dubuque resident, attended both Sanders and Warren’s events. She caucused for Sanders in 2016, and with the widened field, she is now trying to decide on her 2020 choice.
“I walked away from Bernie’s event this morning thinking that he has some really great ideas and I was leaning a lot more strongly for him than I had in the past,” Federonich said at the beginning of Warren’s event. “This time there were so many candidates and I was listening to so many good ideas. I’m a lot more undecided than I was last time.”
Looking For Inspiration
In his former union chapter, George said that when officer elections and contract votes are held, he keeps track of how many ballots are sent out. It’s “disappointing how few people will vote in an election,” he said, so it’s important a candidate that will inspire people to get out to caucus.
“I think there’s a lot of apathy,” Townsend said. “That’s why I think the storytelling and the folksy stuff that Elizabeth Warren is doing is good. If some of my members came and saw her, they’d probably think she was a pretty down-home lady and might not be a bad person to vote for.”
Both Townsend and George said that while most of their union members would vote in the general election, a very small percentage would actually go caucus.
“They’re not going to caucus. A lot of my members feel like they pay me to do this kind of stuff so they don’t have to,” Townsend said. “So, I don’t know if policy makes that much of a difference … Do people remember what the policy difference was between Obama and Clinton in 2008? I don’t think anybody knows. But Obama inspired them to get out — they got out.”
For now, Townsend and George said they’ll continue to head out to Democratic events in hopes of solidifying their top candidate.
“I think the caucus is really wide open,” Townsend said.
By Isabella Murray