Storm Laker aims to organize workers across Iowa

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Jesse Case takes on political, labor establishment with a new movement built on organizing communities

The new leader of Iowa’s largest union local, Storm Lake native Jesse Case, is embarking on a quest to restore the labor movement to its roots by transforming it into a community organizing force that also lands contracts to lift wages and improve working conditions.

Case, 50, is the son of the late Mary Anne and Wayne Case of Storm Lake and a graduate of St. Mary’s High School. He stopped by The Storm Lake Times office Saturday enroute from his home in Iowa City to his mother’s funeral in Kingsley on Monday. We were close friends with the Cases growing up.

Knowing Jesse, he will turn heads in Iowa’s political and labor establishments with tenacity unlike they have seen, straight talk and clear demands that actually could upset the order of things. If you knew his dad, an ex-Marine with a leg shot off and an attitude toward The Man, you would know the psychic firepower Jesse packs.

Case has been with the Teamsters union for 14 years, most recently as recording secretary of Local 238. He was elected secretary-treasurer (the top leadership post) of the local with 6,000 members in 86 Iowa counties on Nov. 1. Local 238 has offices in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Clear Lake, Waverly and Burlington with 14 business agents. About half its membership is in the public sector (police and county road crews, mainly) and its private sector members include industry, warehouses and truck drivers (including UPS and Hy-Vee).

His most immediate goal is firming up the ranch and rebuilding the Iowa Teamsters Law Enforcement League, which advocates for members in some 100 law enforcement agencies on issues involving officer safety, families and legislative issues confronting police. He said it had been neglected for a few years.

But he also is seeding an effort to grow labor’s roots all across the state. He said he has two years to do it — to upset Iowa’s political order.

Case has been making the rounds at labor conferences noting that union membership has declined from 30% of the workforce in the 1960s to 20% and then 10% and now 6% and “pretty soon we’ll be at 2%.”

He believes that working people across the nation voted to “blow up the system” by electing Donald Trump and sending the entire Democratic Party into urban shadows.

“People are looking for alternatives to the status quo,” Case said. “We’ve got everyone living in debt and living week to week. We had better do something different. We’re out of excuses and we’re using a model that’s 100 years old.”

Immediately after his election he gathered his business agents and told them they are not just collective bargaining agents but they are community organizers. He said they greeted the charge with enthusiasm.

Case intends to campaign across Iowa organizing workers and perhaps even a worker-oriented political party.

“Collective bargaining will always be part of our core mission. We will always be organizing companies. But we have to expand our mission and redefine ourselves as the voice of all workers,” Case said.

The way the union has always done it: “If you sign a card, and If you alienate your boss, and If you don’t get fired, and If you win an election, and If you get a contract, Then you can be a union member.

“That’s the most ridiculous model I’ve ever heard of,” Case concluded.

The Teamsters will reach workers wherever they are by using tried-and-true Teamster techniques: identify issues, form local committees around those issues, and mobilize workers to confront those issues. In Iowa City, the Teamsters helped establish a community resource center that serves people who are not necessarily union members by addressing landlord-tenant disputes, civil rights violations and wage theft. The center has recovered over $50,000 in wage theft for workers with the assistance of three full-time staff members.

It is a model that could be deployed across the state, and perhaps the Midwest.

Case has run the issue past his own members and will be talking with other unions to let them know what he is up to. He hopes to make it a prairie fire that takes over the Statehouse.

“We don’t ask permission from anyone to organize workers,” Case said.

In other words, if you’re not on board you had better get out of the way.

The issues in Waterloo may be different than Waverly, just 25 miles apart. But the concept of organizing is the same. In Waverly it may be an issue with the school board that the community organizes around, with Teamster training. In Waterloo it might be minority communities not being heard by the city council. In Storm Lake (which is served by the Teamsters’ local out of Omaha, but which coordinates with Local 238) the issue might be immigrant rights.

“The key is putting together coalitions that will hold their own communities accountable,” Case said. “We can’t wait for the federal or state governments to do it, and we can’t count on business to police themselves. Wage theft is a $600 million problem that touches every corner of every county in Iowa, and there is one state investigator assigned to it.”

Typically, the resource center in Iowa City would identify a problem, confront the business owner or landlord with a committee that includes the faith community, and try to arrive at a solution. “In nine times out of 10, the employer realizes their error. In the other cases, it’s a matter of escalation. We want these companies to be successful. But they have to be accountable to their communities.”

Workers have been sliding in purchasing power since the 1970s. They feel that government is fed by corporate interests that don’t care about their communities. Democrats, who have purported to speak for organized labor, roar without teeth. Nothing changes. Unions won’t exist under the old paradigm, Case insists. They have to embrace workers who maybe don’t pay dues. They have to form non-profits to organize around communities and issues. They have to ally with the state’s trial lawyers to sue for their case.

“In my mind a worker is a worker is a worker,” Case said. “The entities with all the money have done a good job dividing us — dividing the native Iowan from the immigrant, blue collar from white collar, urban from rural, by employer and shift. People have to remember that we have more in common than we have differences.”

Case will not be afraid to point out his differences with Iowa’s establishment. They will have to deal with him. You will hear about it. He might not get where he wants to go, but he will blaze a path to somewhere.