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Labor Day: Union members are urged to make their voices heard

Attendees fill the tables during lunch Monday at the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Attendees fill the tables during lunch Monday at the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A host of politicians and candidates worked the crowd and served up plates of hot dogs, baked beans and coleslaw at the Hawkeye Area Labor Council AFL-CIO annual Labor Day picnic Monday at Hawkeye Downs.

Democratic state Sen. Rita Hart was there, campaigning for her gubernatorial running mate Fred Hubbell, as was Democrat Abby Finkenauer, who is hoping to oust Republican Rep. Rob Blum in November to represent Iowa’s 1st Congressional District.

Finkenauer, of Dubuque, said the government should increase investment in trade schools and apprenticeship program. She said she saw firsthand the benefits of labor unions growing up — her father was a union pipe fitter welder, and her mother worked for the Dubuque Community School District.

“I grew up in a union household ... Being part of a union is something to be proud of, something to be celebrated,” she said.

Just as the candidates were hoping to woo voters from the labor union members in attendance, volunteers at a table near the hall’s entrance were making sure those members were registered to vote. Among them was Catherine Crist, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party 1st District Central Committee, as well as chair of the disability caucus.

“It’s important to me to ensure people have their voices heard, and the only way they can have their voices heard is to register to vote ... Voting is a fundamental right, and it’s also a responsibility,” she said.

As unions have faced political challenges in Iowa and elsewhere — a 2017 collective bargaining law curtailed bargaining rights for public-sector workers in Iowa — she said labor union members voting is more important than ever.

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“I am hopeful that people now fully understand how critical it is that people have a right to be organized and negotiate living wages and benefits,” she said. “When that occurs in the workplace, it lifts everyone up. It lifts every wage up. It allows people to truly have the American dream.”

Union membership has dropped sharply over the last quarter-century. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2017, 10.7 percent American workers were union members, compared with 20.1 percent in 1983.

Still, sheet Metal Workers Local 263 union member Greg Long and Jack McElmeel, who was a union member before he retired, were optimistic as they helped serve popcorn to picnic-goers.

A Pew Research Center survey this year found a majority of Americans, 55 percent, hold favorable views of unions, and Long and McElmeel, both of Cedar Rapids, said they think unions will grow again as people react to sluggish wage growth.

“I think organized labor is coming back. There are low-paying jobs out there. We don’t have a living wage anymore for lots of people. I think it will draw people back into labor,” McElmeel said.

Long agreed.

“The economy has consistently grown, but wages are stagnant. Something will give, eventually,” he said.

Attending the annual picnic has been a lifelong tradition for him.

“My dad was a union sheet metal worker, my mom was a union teacher, and now I’m a union sheet metal worker,” he said.

Renee Rolan of Cedar Rapids was attending the picnic for the first time — she joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1362, this year after starting a job as an assembly operator at Rockwell Collins in January.

“I joined the union to have a voice, to stand for what’s right,” she said.

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She was there with fellow Rockwell Collins employee and union member Lisa Walton, a repair inspector who has been a union member for 30 years.

IBEW members voted Aug. 15 to authorize a strike against Rockwell Collins after the company outsourced custodial jobs, though members have not yet begun striking.

“Nobody wants to go on strike, but we collectively have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Walton said. “The biggest part of being a union member is looking at the big picture. Solidarity means you stick together, even when it doesn’t directly affect your job.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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