WATERLOO – The phone rang in Jerry Hageman’s office at the Black Hawk Labor Temple.
The caller was inquiring about how to unionize — organize co-workers to affiliate with a union to negotiate for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.
But unions themselves are feeling the pinch too, as another Labor Day weekend rolls around.
The union hierarchy itself is reorganizing. For example, the Black Hawk Labor Council AFL-CIO, which existed for decades, now calls itself the Black Hawk Labor Assembly and is part of a larger organization — the Hawkeye Labor Council, a regional group covering most of eastern Iowa, generally along the Avenue of the Saints highway from Mason City through Waterloo-Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. It’s one of four such regional labor councils now in Iowa. It’s reflective of a decline in union membership, but local labor leaders are even more resolved to raise awareness of the value of organized labor in maintaining a standard of living in the face of eroding pensions and rising health care costs.
The goal is to encourage workers to be involved in their communities as well as their workplaces, Hageman said. “Ideally, we’d have lots of young union members jumping in to help,” Hageman said. The assembly will hold an annual Labor Day picnic 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday at Gateway Park in Cedar Falls.
However, those younger working union members Hageman hopes to get involved are struggling to make ends meet, labor assembly members indicated.
Unions and collective bargaining units have to fight harder to stay organized. Changes in state law have forced periodic recertification votes and complicated dues payment and collection for union members.
Additionally, union families still have challenges. Chuck Kacher, a relatively new business manager and financial secretary for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 288, knows that all too well, starting a family with a young child at home.
And labor assembly members say while unemployment rates are low, under-employment at comparatively low wages remains a concern.
“There’s still a lot of under-employment in this community,” labor assembly member Rich Kurtenbach of the IBEW and the Waterloo Building Trades Council said. “Minimum wage is still $7.25, but in reality it should be $15 an hour. With what our cost of living is around here, you’ve got employers complaining they can’t get good help. Well, what are you paying them?”
Hageman, retired from CenturyLink and its predecessor companies beginning with Northwestern Bell, said he was afforded pay and advancement opportunities throughout his career, in the same workplace, despite acquisitions and name changes, allowing one spouse to remain home to raise the family.
“If one person cannot make enough money, they (spouses) both feel they have to work and they have to deal with child care,” he said, incurring additional expenses.
“It’s a concern,” Kacher said. In other households, he noted, one parent stays at home to avoid child care expenses. But that requires the other primary breadwinner to work substantial overtime to meet all other household expenses.
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“We established a 40-hour work week,” in decades past, Kacher said.”But now guys are working six or seven days a week. We work more than any country in the world. Now all we do is work. For less.”
“With six and seven days of work, they can hardly participate in community services” and volunteer work, Hageman said.
“Community services, or raising your kids, or having quality of life,” Kacher added.
Assembly members also are concerned about the potential effect of trade tariffs on business locally.
“The erosion of defined pensions have caused some of the issues we have now,” in retaining quality workers as well as union membership within a given workplace, Kacher said. That’s why his father remained at John Deere for decades.
“He didn’t want to walk away from that pension,” Kacher said. That’s less and less the case now in workplaces. “Everybody has a 401K” retirement plan, which employees can roll over and carry with them as they change employers. “Now companies are starting to complain about that” in terms of workforce turnover. “Well they created that.”
Local labor assembly members also are concerned changes at the federal level with the National Labor Relations Board will make it tougher for unions and union workers.
“That NLRB is the court of last resort,” in labor disputes, Hageman said. But the current administration’s appointments to the NLRB do not bode well for organized labor.
“Now our labor laws are on shifting sand,” Kurtenbach said, where they once were “the bedrock” of the labor movement. That’s especially true with new state labor laws constricting collective bargaining rights.
Changes in Iowa public employee collective bargaining law limiting the scope of negotiations and requiring regular recertification votes also make it difficult for union representatives to serve their members, Hageman and Kacher said.
Additionally, Hageman said, the union leadership is aging, with younger people too busy raising families and making ends meet.
But organized labor is not going away as long as there’s a need for workers to unite for better pay, benefits, and working conditions, as evidenced by calls like the one Hageman received.
Despite challenges, “I’m optimistic about the future,” Hageman said. “And that’s why we have Labor Day picnics. There’s a place for the voice of labor. The first part of things getting better is somebody being optimistic about it.”