‘Full-Tilt Boogie’ in Iowa

David Moberg

We wanted to make sure you didn't miss the announcement of our new Sustainer program. Once you've finished reading, take a moment to check out the new program, as well as all the benefits of becoming a Sustainer.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean swept through Iowa in early December. The crowd gathered to hear him at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ (IBEW) union hall was divided between the curious and the committed. These well-organized union members are likely to play an outsized role in the January 19 caucuses, which in turn are likely to play an outsized role in selecting the Democratic presidential nominee. Though they disagree—with surprisingly little rancor—on who would make the best Democratic candidate, all agree with IBEW official Brian Heins that any Democratic aspirant would be “1,000 percent better than Bush.”

Despite liking several other candidates, Heins, 36, president of an IBEW local at a nearby Rockwell factory, has been caught up in the enthusiasm of the Dean campaign. “One thing important to me is that regardless of what audience he’s in front of, he’s willing to talk about unions and their role in building the middle class in this country,” Heins says. Distressed about both the war in Iraq and threats to manufacturing jobs at Rockwell, he says Dean “has a grasp of what trade should be—a fair playing field. He talks about human rights, worker rights, built into these [trade] agreements.”

On the other hand, telecommunications technician and Communications Workers Vice President Joie Welsh was still undecided. Concerned about Bush’s attacks on labor and a vanishing economic future for her children, she worries about jobs going overseas and about the burdens on the middle class while “the upper crust” doesn’t pay its share of taxes. She abandoned her support for Rep. Richard Gephardt because he backed the war in Iraq. She is fond of Sen. John Kerry but is attracted by Dean’s “honesty.” And her 85-year-old mother calls every day urging her to support Dean.

In the hallway nearby, Rick Becker, 40, a Sheet Metal Workers organizer, praised Gephardt, whose critique of free trade agreements first got Becker involved in politics in the ’80s. Two of Becker’s family members have lost jobs recently because factories moved to Mexico and China. Yet unlike Gephardt, he completely opposes the war in Iraq. “It just appears to be a war for oil,” says Becker, whose second-choice candidate is Dean. “If we can’t control the dependence this country has for oil, we’ll be in trouble.” The faraway war is all too close to home: A couple of weeks earlier, this same union hall was filled for a memorial service for a local union member killed on duty in Iraq.

Dean acknowledges that he has learned from Iowans over the past year that the campaign was about more than budgets, jobs and health insurance. “The concern was the kind of America we’re going to have,” he says. “When they talk about their jobs and about their fears of their own employer, their fears are that their employer didn’t value them any more and would move their jobs to another country, not thinking about the impact it would have.” Cataloging corporate misdeeds, Dean said: “We are not cogs in a corporate machine. We are human, spiritual beings. We merit better consideration as human beings than we are getting from this administration.”

Such economic populism isn’t unique to Dean. Most of the other candidates, including Gephardt and, most forcefully, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, regularly attack corporate power. Even Sen. Joe Lieberman—an eager defender of corporate interests—remarked after a debate in early December, “I would say George Bush has declared class war on behalf of the top 2 percent.” Taken together, Bush’s right-wing policies and the arguments of labor and its allies have at least temporarily redirected Democrats from Clinton’s conservative strategy of pro-corporate accommodation.

Whatever candidate emerges, the AFL-CIO already has begun building the infrastructure for a grassroots campaign in 16 battleground states on economic populist themes and educating workers about Bush policies on trade, jobs and labor. But the federation is not likely to endorse until the primaries have made the likely winner clear. Gephardt labor supporters were upset that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney did not call a general board meeting in October to vote on an endorsement, but Sweeney concluded then—and in ongoing conversations afterward—that there wasn’t the needed two-thirds support for an AFL-CIO endorsement. Nevertheless, many individual unions are active in the Iowa caucuses and early primaries.

Gephardt and labor’s stalwarts

With backing from 21 international unions (as well as the United Auto Workers and the Operating Engineers in Iowa), Gephardt clearly has the most official union support. Eighteen of those unions are coordinating action—including running an anti-NAFTA TV ad in Iowa—through the Alliance for Economic Justice, a national federation of unions now working for Gephardt but that intends to stick together for other political work after the primaries. “I’ve never seen a groundswell of labor operations like this,” says Chuck Rocha, the Steelworkers International Union political director and now labor liaison for Gephardt, who won the 1988 Iowa caucus vote and has longstanding ties with the state. “There’s a true belief of being behind someone who’s been with us for years.” Gephardt supporters particularly attack some of Dean’s past positions, including his support for Nafta, his criticisms of Medicare and his favoring privatization experiments. “Unions endorsing Dick Gephardt have been hurt hardest by manufacturing loss,” Rocha says. “[They’re] the ones who wake up every morning and don’t know if our jobs will be there. They’re not like the paper pushers at the Service Employees Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). …They don’t want some Johnny-come-lately who is suddenly for labor and worker rights. They want somebody who has been there with them.”

Gephardt wins support most emphatically for his trade policy and loyalty to labor. Bob Bianchi, president of a Firestone tire local, is a longtime Gephardt supporter. “Is there another candidate in there? There’s one other guy as strong, but the poor little guy ain’t going to make it,” Bianchi says, referring to Kucinich. “Dean? Personally, I don’t trust him. He’s got too much rich stigma for me. He doesn’t understand us poor working people.” It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of trade and jobs issues in Iowa. As UAW Community Action Program President Dave Neil noted, “There isn’t a week a company in Iowa isn’t moving to Mexico or China.” Since the ’70s, Ertl Toys has moved more than 900 jobs out of the small town of Dyersville to Mexico, then to China.

Gephardt, however, loses points on the war. Machinists district president and Gephardt backer Jerry Nowadzky, whose local has the names of 1,000 members whose jobs were lost to plant closings and outsourcing on its “wall of shame,” sees his members split between Gephardt and Dean. “The ones really behind Gephardt are there because he stood against Nafta from the beginning. What’s hurting him is the war. A lot of people see people getting killed over there and think it should be the United Nations over there instead of just Americans.” Indeed, Gephardt backer Bianchi says, “In my opinion, it’s a political war for the rich.” A small political group, run by Gephardt and financed in part by the Machinists, Laborers and Ironworkers, has run TV ads questioning Dean’s foreign policy experience. But Machinists spokesman Rick Sloan condemned the ad, which showed Osama Bin Laden’s face while the voiceover attacked Dean, as a “despicable” effort that probably hurt Gephardt more than Dean.

Dean counterbalances that with support from two of the biggest and most politically effective unions—SEIU and AFSCME—as well as the Painters and some National Education Association state organizations, with support likely to come from the West Coast Longshoremen and parts of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the Northeast.

Dean: broader appeal?

Unlike the laser focus on trade issues among Gephardt partisans, Dean’s labor supporters emphasize a broader range of issues while expressing admiration for Gephardt’s record. They applaud Dean’s willingness to tackle Bush forcefully (not only on the war). And they argue that his campaign has the energy to defeat Bush, while Gephardt is, according to SEIU Iowa Executive Director Kim Miller, “a little bit stale.” Dean’s labor coordinator, Bob Muehlenkamp, argues that “on labor’s issues generally these candidates do not have a great deal of difference,” but Dean offers a broader message about the need to change the party and the country. Both Dean and Gephardt backers tout their candidate’s health-care proposal (but most say they personally would prefer single-payer national health insurance if they thought it could pass).

While the Gephardt unions claim to represent nearly three times as many members in Iowa as Dean’s labor endorsers, AFSCME is not only the largest union in the state but also has some of its 30,000 members—and a union coordinator—in every county, a great advantage in the caucuses. The international union has sent in 90 staff to educate and mobilize members aggressively. “We’re full-tilt boogie in Iowa,” says AFSCME National Political Director Larry Scanlon. SEIU also is organizing its 4,000 members for Dean and making a nonpartisan effort, not linked to any candidate, to get non-union nurses SEIU previously organized into Iowans for Health Care to attend both party caucuses.

Despite the divisions, there is little open political warfare among unions. Each attempts to educate and turn out its members rather than influence other unions. More important, Democratic labor activists are likely to rally behind whatever candidate emerges. “There’s a deep, deep feeling that the stakes are extremely high, and four more years of Bush, Ashcroft, Cheney and the rest will be a complete, out-and-out disaster for people,” says Iowa Federation of Labor President Mark Smith. “By April everyone will be on the same team just out of survival.”

Be a Sustainer

We surveyed thousands of readers and asked what they would like to see in a monthly giving program. Now, for the first time, we're offering three different levels of support, with rewards at each level, including a magazine subscription, books, tote bags, events and more—all starting at less than 17 cents a day. Check out the new Sustainer program.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue