Teamsters pin down Dems on pensions, collective bargaining

Los Angeles-area Teamster Billy O’Connell (left) and Guardian Editor John Mulholland (center), both natives of Ireland, chatted about the old sod with Times Editor Art Cullen, who could listen to that brogue all day.

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Teamsters who organized a forum with six Presidential candidates on Saturday in Cedar Rapids seemed as conflicted as most Iowa Democrats by strong presentations from a talented crop.

I was honored to moderate the forum with Leslie Marshall, a radio host for Fox Network who talks about labor. The Guardian US was the media partner for the event, livestreaming from Veterans Coliseum to its growing global audience. Some 130 media outlets, including NBC and CBS News, covered the questions from union members across America.

I’m still sort of dazzled by it and pinching myself. I got to meet John Mulholland, editor of The Guardian US, national correspondent Ed Pilkington and Midwest correspondent Chris McGreal. Reporter son Tom Cullen was thrilled to work alongside them. I’m proud to be a columnist for The Guardian US, and especially so after meeting this crew. James Lynch of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, dean of the statehouse press corps, was gracious enough to spend Friday evening detailing Iowa politics for us.

I have a hard time walking, much less chewing gum. So I do not have a straight account of what the candidates were saying while I was watching the clock and handlers on the side. But I could hear the crowd.

The rafters rattled hardest when Storm Lake native Jesse Case, leader of Teamsters Local 238 in Cedar Rapids, took the stage to rouse the brotherhood and introduce General President James P. Hoffa. Hoffa delivered a few remarks and was going to introduce Joe Biden, who was late. We had to kill five minutes, so Case returned to the limelight and started into a screed against Rep. Steve King that could have scared Chuck Norris. It was completely extemporaneous, sparked by the sight of Democratic candidate JD Scholten in the house. Case also urged the union to support TeamCAN, the community organizing group that he founded. TeamCAN helped save 150 residents of Westview Mobile Home Park in Alta from eviction, and hundreds more across Iowa. It is little wonder why Hoffa leans on him. Hoffa said the International union needs to fund TeamCAN. That’s a big deal.

The second-biggest roar was for Bernie Sanders being introduced. Younger union members would drive I-80 all night long for him. My brother Bill, an old Teamster in Dubuque, will knock on doors for Bernie. Most of the old guard Teamsters appear to be with Biden.

The third loudest applause on my meter came for Pete Buttigieg, despite his past corporate consulting work for clients that are on the Teamsters’ nemesis list.

Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, connected widely with her story of being the granddaughter of an iron ore miner, and the daughter of a union newspaperman and mother who was a union teacher. She knows what is in the Taft-Hartley Act and wants to repeal or change much of it to free union organizing.

Tom Steyer was tremendous. As usual, he talked a lot about the climate crisis, and how we have to take back the country from corporate control. The billionaire scored a lot of points with working people who are naturally suspicious of him.

Cory Booker gave a passionate appeal that defeating President Trump is a low bar and a long way from the mountaintop. He was well-received.

The three big issues were pension security, collective bargaining rights and, of course, health care.

All the Democrats are on board to save multi-employer pension funds from collapse by giving a low-interest loan from the federal government. “The Republicans are bucking us,” Hoffa told me. Sen. Chuck Grassley is the one handling the bill in the Senate.

Collective bargaining is under full assault in Iowa. Republicans controlling the statehouse took bargaining items down from 17 to one — pay — and made it illegal to bargain over health insurance. “It’s an all-out attack on working families,” Case said. Again, all candidates pledged to fight right-to-work laws (which Iowa has had for decades) and make it easier to join a union.

Everyone supports a public option, at least. Sanders was able to defend Medicare for All in front of a crowd that wants to defend the health insurance packages for which they have given up wage increases over many years. He got a healthy round of applause for that. It should not be assumed that all union members can’t figure out they can get back to bargaining over wages if employers aren’t saddled with health care costs. It sounded to me like there is strong support among members and many leaders for single payer, especially since Sanders would require wages to be increased by the value of the insurance lost ($4 an hour or more).

You can watch the forum at teamsters.org and you can read about it at www.theguardian.com.

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