Contemporary struggles challenge Quad City unions

More than 200 striking Teamsters get a show of solidarity outside the Nichols Aluminum plant in Davenport. On a blustery March day, the major hang-up hinges on health insurance — the coverage and cost being passed on to employees — and a two-tier wage system.

“This company has made an awful lot of money from the hard work of working class people,” said Teamsters Local 371 President Howard Spoon.

These days, the Quad City Federation of Labor represents 33,000 workers at 77 locals around the area. It’s important to strikers and fellow union members showing support.

“Corporate America wants to take everybody’s benefits and bring back slavery to the working people,” said Kevin Dobbs, a 35-year Nichols staffer.

“It sure felt good to have some of our brothers and sisters come by and just, you know, sock it to ‘em,” said Erma Wiszmann, retired local CWA president.

But just days later, Teamsters end the strike. More than 100 non-union temporary workers become permanent. Nearly half the union workforce remains off the job.

“Today, the argument goes, unions are a drag on the economy,” said Dr. Lendol Calder, Augustana College. “They shot themselves in the foot by overreaching.”

There’s really an anti-union environment around these days. It’s been growing since the 1960’s. That makes it much harder for unions to organize and have a powerful voice.

That affects the quest for better wages and benefits. Union shops also cut down on workplace injuries and turnover rates.

“When you walk into the workplace, it’s not a democracy,” said Tracy Leone, an organizer with the Iowa Federation of Labor. “It’s pretty much a dictatorship. What unions provide basically is a voice at work. It provides democracy in the workplace.”

In 2012, that union voice turns again to politics. In particular, working on the bid to re-elect President Barack Obama.

“This is definitely going to be the most important year for working families,” said Jerry Messer, president of the Quad City Federation of Labor and UFCW Local 431.

Longtime union leader Messer has seen his share of presidential campaigns. This time around, unions will offer more outreach and support on behalf of its members.

“They need a voice in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The union movement is the only thing that speaks for working people.”

Reflecting on the picket line at Nichols Aluminum, this display tried to forge a tactical change. It’s a mission that lingers on in trying times. Local unions can’t afford to sit back and rely on past successes.

“It’s something that the labor movement neglected for a number of years,” said Alan Lane, a retired labor leader who served locally and as executive vice president for the national UFCW. “But now we’re organizing again, and I see a resurgence of the labor movement.”

In the Nichols dispute, successful or not, it’s a sign of the times.