Government

Democratic presidential hopefuls compete for labor backing at Cedar Rapids event

Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Steyer take questions at Teamsters forum

CEDAR RAPIDS — One thing was clear Saturday after hearing from six candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: If any of them is elected, labor will have a friend in the White House.

“As my grandfather would say, I’m labor from belt buckle to shoe sole,” former Vice President Joe Biden told about 600 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Where I come from I understand the basic notion that Wall Street didn’t build the United States of America. The middle class built it and unions built the middle class.”

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar talked about being the daughters and granddaughter of union members, and Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker — a mayor and a former mayor — spoke of the importance of public sector unions that represented municipal employees.

Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, who has led public efforts to rein in the power of drug companies, utility monopolies and oil companies, said his “first partner” in his political activities has been labor.

“My best partner in everything I’ve done politically is organized labor and I promise you that my last partner in anything I do politically will be organized labor,” he told the audience, including people following a livestream of the forum held in Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The last candidate to speak, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, congratulated union members for staying awake through his rivals’ speeches. Then, at times, he brought the Teamsters to their feet as he called for doubling union membership in his first term as president.

“There are some very good candidates running for president of the United States and many of them are friends of mine,” Sanders said. “But I think at the end of the day, if you study the record, you will find that there is no candidate running for president of the United States who is more pro-labor than Bernie Sanders.

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“Being pro-worker is nothing new. I didn’t poll test it. I’ve been doing it all my life,” he said.

James Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. which represents 1.4 million members in a variety of industries including farm work, public safety, construction and health care, opened the forum that was organized in partnership with The Guardian and the Storm Lake Times by saying labor has the candidates’ attention this year.

“The Teamsters vote will be critical in 2020. Candidates need our support to win, and the votes of our members and working people across the country can’t be easily won,” Hoffa said. “I think they learned from ’16 they can’t take labor’s vote for granted.”

Postelection polls found that more than a third of labor households supported Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

The candidates responded to questions from onstage moderators and union members in the audience. The questions, vetted by the Teamsters, addressed the union’s priorities including pension protection, retirement security and collective bargaining rights.

The candidates promised that as president they would shore up pensions including the Central States Pension Fund, which represents beneficiaries in a variety of industries. Thousands of workers, including Iowans, have been warned of cuts of up to 70 percent of their promised benefits because the fund is in danger of insolvency.

Biden called for the federal government to make 1 percent interest loans to pension funds so they can sustain benefits.

The candidates unanimously called for raising or eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes — thereby making wealthy people pay more — to extend the social program’s viability and to increase monthly benefits.

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Booker called for raising the eligibility cap on who can apply for Medicaid benefits and extend the Earned Income Tax Credit to people who are caring for people with special needs.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg called for extending collective bargaining rights to people in the “gig” economy — like Uber drivers and others they said often are misclassified as independent contractors. Klobuchar said as many as one-third of workers are in the expanding gig economy and allowing them to unionize “would make of a stronger America because when unions are strong, America is strong.”

“As far as I’m concerned, if you do a gig you’re doing work. That makes you a worker, and if you’re a worker, you ought to have a right to organize and have labor protections,” Buttigieg said.

On the issue of health care, Booker said the differences between the candidates “are small compared to what’s going on on the other side of the aisle where they’re trying to take health care away from us all.”

Still, he acknowledged that if not all of the Democratic senators on the stage supported a single-payer plan it would be hard to get all of the Democrats in the Senate to support it.

“We keep having this same debate over and over,” Klobuchar said, and warned that under the Medicare for All bill before Congress, “149 million Americans, including a bunch of the people in this room,” would lose their current health care coverage.

“I don’t think that’s the way to go. I want to build on the Affordable Care Act ... (which) is 10 points more popular than the president of the United States,” she said.

It’s time for universal health care, said Sanders, who called health care a human right.

“We’ve been talking about it and talking about it and talking about it, and right now, the function of our health care system is nothing less than to make the drug companies and insurance companies huge profits,” he said.

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In addition to holding the Cedar Rapids forum, Teamsters have met with candidates in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and other key states to ask them where they stand on key issues for working people.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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