In face of clampdown on union rights, members tout their value on Labor Day

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CEDAR RAPIDS — In the first Labor Day since a clampdown on union worker rights in Iowa, members at a Monday gathering in Cedar Rapids said their unions remain strong, but all workers — union and non-union — need to fight back as legislatures and governors squeeze workers.

Earlier this year, then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed a controversial collective bargaining bill placing restrictions in Iowa’s public sector despite heavy protest.

“For state employees, things have definitely changed for the worse,” said Dustin Chase, 36, of Iowa City and a member of the electricians Local 405. “For construction unions, we are on the same course we’ve always been, but we are all union, so when someone attacks our brothers and sisters, then they are attacking all of us.”

That was the sentiment echoed by several union members as at least 1,800 people gathered for the Hawkeye Area Labor Council’s annual Labor Day picnic at Hawkeye Downs. Musicians jammed on indoor and outdoor stages, while the largely union member crowd sipped on beer and ate barbecue, tossed bean bags at a dunk tank and perused a muscle car show.

More than a dozen statewide, legislative and local politicians and candidates attended the event to serve food and distribute information.

Union members said they hope politicians take the message that unions aren’t just fighting for themselves, but setting a standard that applies to all workers.

“People still see unions favorably, but they don’t recognize how it helps them personally,” said Jebediah Novak, 43, of Cedar Rapids, electricians Local 405. “Our standards help everybody. When our wages are set that’s the baseline for non-union workers, same with benefits, insurance, safety standards.”

Better wages, benefits and health insurance all can be traced back to unions, he said.

Jeff Wright, 56, of Cedar Rapids and a member of Teamsters Local 230, explained further.

“If we didn’t have unions, we’d have no minimum wage, no 40-hour workweek, no Saturdays and Sundays off,” Wright said. “Think about that for a minute.”

Wright thinks back on the good life he’s had during his 38-year career with the Teamsters. He didn’t attend college, yet raised two kids, earned a steady, decent paycheck and is planning to retire within 18 months. Recent threats on unions have him worried about his pension.

Meanwhile, union membership is down, which is perplexing given the high cost of college debt, he said.

Dale Camp, 27, of Anamosa and a member of Operating Engineers Local 234, doesn’t regret joining a union. He sees it as a brotherhood of workers trained to “do the job the right way instead of just doing it.”

Still, he wonders what the future holds.

“It makes me nervous,” Camp said. “They are trying to take away everything we’ve worked for.”

Rick Moyle, executive director of the Hawkeye Area Labor Council, criticized Republicans for anti-union sentiment and votes. He said they are in lockstep, so unions have to work to educate the electorate in hopes of swaying policy.

“If working people don’t start to educate themselves on the issues, we are all in trouble,” Moyle said.

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