Iowa workers and activists continue to fight for higher wages and support for unions

Unite for Worker Justice Rally

Iowa City Ped Mall — Thursday, Sept. 14 at 5 p.m.

Labor Day 2017 protests. — photo via Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

It has been two years since the Johnson County Board of Supervisors made state history by raising the minimum wage to $10.10. After this and other local measures to raise the minimum wage were crushed by the Republican-dominated state legislature, workers have vowed to keep fighting, and Iowa organizations are not waiting until the 2018 election season to take a stand. This Thursday the Unite for Worker Justice rally will take over the Iowa City Ped Mall to highlight the ways local activists are striving to defend workers’ rights, as well as fighting for immigrant families.

During the rally, the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa will release a guide of the 150 local businesses that have taken the pledge to honor a $10.10 minimum wage, despite the preemption legislation that rolled back minimum wage increases.

Based on data provided by the Living Wage Calculator developed by MIT professor Amy K. Glasmeier, Johnson’s County’s current minimum wage of $7.25 (which is the same statewide) is much lower than what would qualify as a living wage. One adult would need to earn $10.50 to be able to afford basic necessities in Johnson County, according to the calculator. Iowa’s 98 other counties had similar findings.

The Center for Worker Justice will be joined at the rally tomorrow by fellow sponsoring organizations Iowa Action, Iowa City Democratic Socialists of America, the Iowa City Federation of Labor and others. Starting at 5 p.m., these groups will show solidarity with workers in the community and urge local businesses to commit to the wage increase originally supported by the board of supervisors.

This rally — along with other events hosted by Iowa organizations — helps maintain momentum created on Labor Day earlier this month, when hundreds of workers gathered in Des Moines to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to organize unions and to show solidarity with fellow workers.

The first Monday of September was decreed a national holiday by President Grover Cleveland in 1894. This Sept. 4, wage-earners in various industries, from fast-food to healthcare, rallied in 400 cities to join strikes and demonstrations for a national day of action, making it the largest national demonstration yet in the Fight for $15 movement.

Since the Fight for $15 movement was launched in November 2012 when over 200 cooks and cashiers walked off the job, the movement has grown. Groups such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been organizing workers to stand up for a living wage and their right to form unions.

On Labor Day, Iowa workers and organizers launched a “Massive Voter Engagement Drive to Defeat Anti-worker Politicians in Battleground States.” Iowa CCI organizer Matthew Covington told Little Village the biggest struggle in this fight deals with the state legislature and Governor Kim Reynolds.

“They are the most anti-worker legislature I’ve seen since I’ve been paying attention to Iowa politics,” Covington said. “But I think workers and everyday people will remember this when it comes time to vote in [20]18.”

Iowa CCI members and allies gathered at their headquarters before 5:30 a.m. on Labor Day to board buses to the fast food workers strike at a Des Moines Burger King (1405 E Court Ave) at 6 a.m. Over 40 workers from various fast food chains in the Des Moines metro and Ankeny went on strike. Between 150 and 200 people were in attendance, including some from Iowa City and across the state. On the way to a second rally near Mercy Medical Center, the marchers stopped by a nearby McDonald’s to encourage employees to walk off the job and join them.

“We rallied there because there were a couple hundred of us and the Mercy rally wasn’t starting yet, so it felt like the right thing to do,” Covington said. “High energy, great spirit. Did it to show the McD’s workers we were standing in solidarity with them and to lift up the issue with passersby.”

The second demonstration was hosted by healthcare workers and their allies across the street from Mercy Medical Center (1111 6th Ave), which had a turnout of 250-300 people. According to an SEIU press release, this march near the intersection of 6th Street and University Avenue was organized to stress “the need for unions in the city’s fast-growing healthcare sector to lift Des Moines’ economy and boost pay for working families.”


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Labor Day 2017 protests. — photo via Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Glasson was present at both events. As a nurse and president of SEIU Local 199, Glasson knows firsthand “the pressure workers face when they try to form a union or advocate for a living wage.” She has organized healthcare workers at several hospitals, including the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

“Hospital workers in New York, Seattle and California have formed unions and guess what? They’ve won a better life, a higher wage, a better standard of living for their families,” Glasson said during her keynote speech at the Mercy rally. “So, why can’t we do that in Iowa? I say we can. I say it’s time.”

The following day, workers who went on strike or walked off the job were escorted back into their places of work by Iowa CCI members and allies. This was done to show community support for the workers and to prevent employer retaliation (as they were within their legal rights).

Union membership has been on the decline for decades. Since the 1950s, membership dipped from 30 percent to 11 percent. However, recent efforts by corporations and lawmakers to drive down wages and roll back workers’ gains has sparked a resurgence of strengthening existing unions and organizing nonunion workers.

According to the findings of a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), unions raise wages for union and nonunion workers alike, raise wages for women, lessen racial wage gaps, improve working conditions and provide better security for retirement.

The report, which was published on Aug. 24, noted that while union workers in the past were mostly white men, “as of 2016, roughly 10.6 million of the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color.”

“The lack of collective worker power helps explain why workers’ wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years and why working people are so frustrated — as they have not reaped any of the gains of an improving economy,” EPI President Lawrence Mishel said in a press release.

Covington said Iowa groups such as Iowa CCI will continue to fight for workers’ rights and higher wages through calls to action at both the local and national levels in an effort to make sure that when the 2018 election rolls around those issues are a key part of the discussion.

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