Unions built this town



Every once in a while we should remember what Labor Day is about: the working man and woman, the ones shoveling blacktop on a hot road or wielding a sharp knife in a cold room on a dead hog or driving a dark blacktop with lights twirling on the way to save injured victims from a crash. That’s what Labor Day is supposed to be about. It was organized by organized labor, by the Knights of Labor in New York. Congress made it an official holiday in 1894 six days after workers were shot dead at the hands of federal forces in the infamous Pullman Strike in Chicago.

Labor Day recognizes the contributions made by union men and women to the strength and vitality of the United States.

The labor movement is all but dead around here. Storm Lake used to be a union town. When it was, you could say it was a stronger town. Fewer people lived in poverty. St. Mary’s School and Church were built with donations from the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union, which held shop at Hygrade. To keep up, the local newspaper in the 1960s paid the back shop printers the Hygrade wage to stay competitive. Rising wages lifted all boats and built this community.

This hasn’t been a union town since 1980. The United Food and Commercial Workers have been rejected a couple times in Storm Lake. It is a shadow of the old union, done in by a set of factors both micro and macro — Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers, free trade opening up new ways to exploit labor, the hubris of old unions trying to protect international contracts for their own job safety at the expense of members, and the complete restructuring of the food processing supply chain.

We could make a solid argument that Storm Lake was better off with strong private- and public-sector unions. Unions police their own members on job performance, at least in the modern iteration. They help provide community stability when they work with management to improve productivity, which unions are today. Unions help maintain wages to attract the best and brightest to public service. The Teamsters helped lift Storm Lake police wages to become competitive; before, the department was steadily losing officers to neighboring sheriff’s offices. The union and management are happy with the arrangement — each side wants what is best for the community.

This will not be a union town again, probably. And that’s too bad. Workers are kept down and held back by immigration laws that keep them in the dark and laying low. That holds Storm Lake back. Strong unions could speak up for workers terrorized by our government — undocumented and documented. Organized labor could speak up for better housing and treatment. They can reduce employee turnover, which helps build community stability and bonds. Strong labor organizations promote civic participation by workers, which is precisely what Storm Lake lacks.

This is not an indictment of our employers. Most of them are paying a living wage that can support a family in relative comfort. Most provide health insurance and other benefits. All those things were won for workers by labor movements, which makes workers think that unions are passé. We just happen to think that unions make for better, more productive and more profitable workplaces that support healthier communities.

So did most of the nation in 1894. Famed conservative President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day holiday bill six days after the workers were slaughtered by federal marshals and the US Army. We should remember that, and remember how unions helped build Storm Lake.

Starving ourselves for Apple

Of course we hope patrons of the Sioux Central School District will support a ballot initiative for an instructional support levy, which blends income and property taxes and is used by almost all districts in Northwest Iowa. It is essential in light of the budget crisis engendered by the Branstad Administration, primarily, which has seen state aid to schools running at about half the rate of inflation over the past five years.

Sioux Central has had to cut staff in physical education, the arts and a third-grade position. This means fewer offerings, larger class sizes and students getting short shrift. It’s happening everywhere as rural enrollment declines. Community colleges are increasing tuition and property taxes to make up for state aid cuts. Tuition is rising fantastically at state universities, which should be good for private colleges — except the legislature whacked the Iowa Tuition Grant program, too.

But we were able to scrape up over $200 million for Apple to build a server warehouse that will employ 50 people. Which suggests that since Waukee will not enjoy property tax flows from the property for decades, taxes will rise on residences to provide the local services that Apple’s situation will demand. Apple would locate here with or without the subsidy — we have the renewable energy, water and stable climate the project vitally needs.

We are left to swallow hard and vote for local initiatives to keep our schools at least decent by taxing depleted rural areas at higher and higher rates. Because, we just can’t count on the state to provide for schools anymore.

Or lakes. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has put off work on the Big Island in Storm Lake for lack of funds. It is sinking into the lake we have been trying to dredge. The dredge ran out of money and quit, too. But this is about Sioux Central and how it is being shorted by the state to the tune of $320,000 per year. We need some changes, big changes, in Des Moines before we tax our property right through the roof.