On a hot Iowa Labor Day weekend everyone was feeling the Bern!
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders himself set the pace on Friday and Saturday as he met with Native Americans on their reservation, and walked a picket line at Ingredion in Cedar Rapids. It has been widely reported that he is the first major presidential candidate to walk a picket line while campaigning since Robert Kennedy in 1968. That is as much a commentary on the gap for Democratic candidates between their talk and their walk as anything else.
Ingredion (should be spelled Greed), formerly Penford products, produces starch for food products. When they bought Penford, the new owners pledged to keep up employment and work with the union, a local of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union. But as it often goes, after Ingredion took over they demanded massive wage and benefit cuts. Now faced with continuing management ultimatums, the workers are picketing while they negotiate and are asking for community support. Ingredion’s CEO is paid $7 million a year and has a golden parachute of $28 million. The 160 workers there and their families vs. the greed of management is now gaining notice and media coverage across Iowa and beyond.
Sanders’ Labor Day talk to the New Hampshire AFL-CIO underlined the difference between himself and other candidates. He again specifically supported the $15 minimum wage, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and most importantly connected his support for the expansion of collective bargaining rights to sustainable economic growth.
My own Iowa journey took me to seven Labor Day stops in eastern Iowa in two days. In manufacturing towns like Cedar Rapids or Clinton, Davenport, and Dubuque, the consequences of decades of failed trade policies were apparent in the closed factories and cutbacks in those still operating. Union members and non-members alike, active and retired, almost universally opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They were mostly united in disbelief that our government would continue to pursue problematic foreign policy objectives that devastated communities by cutting jobs and pressuring our wages to compete with unthinkable wage levels.
A John Deere employee described his eight years on layoff as production shifted out of the country; a retired electronics worker described the size of his plant’s workforce before and after NAFTA and failed trade policy with China. Public-sector workers well understood the connection between cuts in manufacturing and the pressure to close schools and cut public services.
On this Labor Day there was also hope. Hope that Bernie Sanders and those of us supporting the political revolution could begin to find a path forward together. There was hope that we had a candidate without super-PAC funding and that one day together we could end super PACs and billionaire politics. There was hope that we could fund free public higher education instead of following the Iowa governor’s plan to gut the University of Iowa and continue to drive up tuition. There was hope that we could fight for Medicare for all instead of more cost-shifting to those among us who are sick. There was hope that we could reverse the attacks on collective bargaining and help workers build new unions with a voice on the job and dreams of a higher standard of living.
Yes, I will remember my visit to eastern Iowa as a hopeful one. As Steve, Bonnie, and I drove almost 500 miles in two days and talked to thousands of Iowans, we will recommit to Bernie Sanders and to joining thousands of volunteers across Iowa and more than a million across our nation, as we feel the Bern and stand up and fight back. If we do not stand for our own values and instead accept business as usual, we may be missing the opportunity we have long imagined.