Labor union members and their supporters held a rally at the Iowa Statehouse last night as part of a nationwide effort to commemorate the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tie the labor movement to his legacy.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting sanitation workers.
“What this is all about is supporting working men and women,” said Charlie Wishman, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, who was taking a video recording of the rally. “Martin Luther King Jr. died supporting the right of sanitary workers to organize.”
Wishman was recording the rally that state police estimated attracted roughly 300 sign-carrying and flag-waving people to the west steps of the Capitol.
The rally included songs, chanting and several speeches by labor activists and Democratic lawmakers.
“We’re going to hang tough and hang together,” said Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, who said she was a college student when King was killed. She said the assassination steeled her resolve to fight for civil rights and workers’ rights.
This year Republican lawmakers took aim at collective bargaining and public employee contracts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and other states. The fight in Wisconsin made national and international news as tens of thousands of people rallied in Madison while Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the House and Senate pushed through an aggressive labor reform package.
Republicans in the Iowa House also pushed through a labor reform package that included requiring state workers to pay at least $100 of their insurance premiums and allowed workers to not belong to a labor union even if they were in a union shop.
The Democrat-controlled Senate hasn’t taken up the bill.
Several dozen union members from Eastern Iowa traveled to the rally from IBEW Local 405 Hall in southwest Cedar Rapids. Most were members of Local 405, but others were current or retired members of other Hawkeye Labor Council member unions.
Council President Shelley Parbs of Benton County said the group was going to the rally “because we need to stand up for working people.”
“It’s wrong to attack public employees or workers in general when we’re not the ones who caused the recession or the budget problem,” said Parbs, a Rockwell Collins employee. She said everybody likes to believe that the gains working people have fought for won’t go away, but “people are waking up and realizing they can be taken away from us and they are darned angry about it.”
Bob Havlicek, 59, of Shueyville, said union bargaining rights are being targeted and union supporters must stand together.
“They’re trying to cut union labor’s throats — that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Havlicek, a journeyman electrician.
Willie Jenkins said his reasons for attending the rally are pretty simple: He wants to support the middle class.“We’ve got to stay above water,” said Jenkins, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 199 who works as a maintenance engineer in the Cedar Rapids school district.