While John Deere strike raised union profiles and popularity, membership remains stagnant in Iowa

·8 min read

Despite hosting the largest strike in the country, Iowa’s labor movement stagnated last year.

The number of workers in the state who belonged to unions remained flat at 93,000 from 2020 to 2021, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last week. While Iowa temporarily bucked the national trend of shrinking union membership, worker advocates and local labor leaders expressed frustration that they have not been able to capitalize on what the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll and other opinion surveys have shown is a rise in pro-union sentiment.

Iowa also remains far behind the nation as a whole in the proportion of its worker who belong to unions. According to the bureau, 6.5% of Iowa workers were union members last year as compared to the national rate of 10.3%.

Among its neighbors, Iowa had the second-lowest rate of unionization, behind only South Dakota, where about 4% of workers were in unions. To the north, Minnesota led the region with 16%. To the east, the rate in Illinois was 14%.

Iowa has trended away from organized labor in recent years. Since 2018, the number of Iowans who are members of unions has declined by about 20,000, an 18% drop.

But unions in Iowa seemed to get a boost last year, when about 10,000 United Auto Workers members at Deere & Co. plants, the majority of them in Iowa, went on strike in October. The largest work stoppage in the country in 2021 and the biggest in Iowa since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking walkouts in 1991, it resulted in a contract promising substantial raises for the workers and improved retirement benefits.

Coming at a time when workers were quitting jobs in record numbers, expressing dissatisfaction with stagnant pay, skimpy benefits and unsafe working conditions, the Deere labor action was popular among Iowans. In the Nov. 7-10 Iowa Poll, 58% of respondents said they sided with the workers over the company.

Pro-union views also were on the rise across the country. According to a September Gallup poll, about 68% of Americans held a favorable view of unions last year, the highest rate since 1965.

But there was no concomitant surge in union activity in Iowa, where workers at just three companies held unionization elections last year. Employees formed a 100-member union at Clow Valve Co. in Oskaloosa and a five-member union at Midwest Air Traffic Control Service in Dubuque. They rejected a proposed 20-member union at a Cargill facility in Buffalo.

Members of the United Auto Workers strike outside of the John Deere Engine Works plant on Ridgeway Avenue in Waterloo.
Members of the United Auto Workers strike outside of the John Deere Engine Works plant on Ridgeway Avenue in Waterloo.

Labor leaders blamed the lack of union growth in Iowa on the challenges of organizing through the COVID-19 pandemic, the realities of operating in a small state where workforces are scattered and labor laws they said unfairly favor management. University of Iowa labor educator Paul Iversen, however, said it may be too early to discount the rise in unions' popularity.

“I still think the current militancy wave will hit Iowa,” Iversen said. “I can’t say for sure when it will happen. I can’t say it will happen at all. But there’s a lot of momentum and energy still.”

Without new laws around unionization, ‘the stakes are really high’

During a news conference in connection with the release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, members of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute said unions nationally saw some significant wins last year.

In addition to public opinion polls showing that Americans have become increasingly pro-labor, institute President Heidi Shierholz pointed out that some unions gained national attention with successful strikes last year. The UAW, for example, secured a new contract for Deere workers that protected a pension program, boosted retirement bonuses and increased wages by 10% — about triple the wage gain most unions have secured over the last two decades.

Shierholz also pointed to the tightening of the labor market as low interest rates fed economic expansion. With increased demand for labor coming as the workforce shrank, companies have had to compete for a smaller pool of workers.

More: 'They'll watch Iowans get sick': Union chief criticizes Iowa proposal to ban vaccine mandates

But Shierholz said the trend eventually will subside as COVID-19 case counts decrease. And she said organizing will continue to be a struggle for many unions.

Nationally, the number of workers in unions decreased by 241,000 last year. About 10% of workers across the country are in unions, roughly half the proportion when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking the data in 1983.

In Iowa, the number of workers in unions has decreased about 19,000 since 2018, a 17% drop. Over the last decade, the proportion of workers in unions in Iowa has decreased to 6.5% from 11.2%.

Shierholz called on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a federal bill that has stalled as lawmakers debate debated trillion-dollar bills aimed at boosting the economy.

Among other changes, the PRO Act would increase financial penalties against companies whose managers violate labor laws, such as threatening to fire workers for unionizing. The bill also would allow unions to bargain for the right to charge dues to every member they represent, increasing their coffers and potentially giving them more resources to start union drives at other local companies.

“If policymakers fail to act, the downward trends in unionization will likely continue and the post-pandemic economy will be marked by widespread inequality and wage stagnation for people," Shierholz said. “The stakes are really high.”

More: How Iowa's Top Workplaces recipients are adapting to a COVID-altered working world

United Food & Commercial Workers Local 222 President Leo Kanne said the PRO Act would help increase the number of unionized businesses in the state. Kanne, a veteran labor leader whose local is based in Sioux City, said he assisted workers trying to organize a couple bargaining units over the last year.

But he said managers told employees that the company would move their factories if they organized. He said some laid off pro-union workers. Though the managers didn’t directly lay off the employees for organizing, Kanne said, other workers became afraid to unionize.

“Companies, they can violate labor laws all the time when it comes to organizing,” Kanne said. “And there’s no penalties for that. It’s just a slap on the wrist. I’m frustrated.”

Physical challenges to organizing unions in Iowa

Iversen, the University of Iowa labor professor, said there have been other obstacles to organizing during the pandemic.

union leaders and employees don’t have much of a path to build solidarity when so many people work from home, he said. At factories and warehouses where most employees still report to work in person, some workers have become hesitant to meet with the co-workers, especially as COVID-19 outbreaks sickened hundreds.

More: With UAW strike concluded, Deere reports record annual profit: $5.96 billion. Next year looks strong, too.

“The employer has a built-in advantage (in) any union organizing campaign,” Iversen said. “They have a captive audience. They can force people to listen to their meetings. Union organizers have to meet people at their homes or bars or other places. They can’t force them to be there. Organizing is a very one-on-one process.”

UFCW Local 431 President Simplice Kuelo, who represents workers from Des Moines to the eastern edge of Iowa, echoed Iversen on the pandemic's effect on organizing.

Union representatives employees involved in organizing drives who approached workers at their homes after hours found many wanted to keep their distance, he said. He added that building a connection with a stranger while wearing masks also is difficult.

The Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo, where workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo, where workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“You start a campaign, you’ve got to get familiar with the people,” he said. “You’ve got to build trust with the people. But how do you build trust? You’ve got to contact people. But when you contact a person, they want to keep their distance.”

Then there is the issue of worker concentration, or lack thereof. Des Moines is the Midwest's fastest-growing large metro, but its 709,000 population is a fraction of the 9.6 million people in Chicago, the 4.4 million people in Detroit or the 3.7 million people in Minneapolis-St. Paul — cities where the union presence is much stronger.

As a result, labor leaders don’t have a large employment center in Iowa to draw from, said Iversen, who used to represent unions in Minnesota. This means union leaders in Iowa often have to drive hours between factories, a barrier to efficient organizing.

Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa history professor, said organizing also is more difficult because a greater share of people have lost or left factory jobs and found service-sector positions at restaurants and hotels.

The biggest service-sector employers grow through franchising, meaning that workers at two McDonald’s locations, for example, are not necessarily tied together through a common ownership. Gordon said that as a result, recent high-profile union drives at Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, will have no direct impact on Starbucks employees in Des Moines.

Given these challenges, Iowa Federation of Labor President Charlie Wishman said the state’s local labor leaders need more help from national unions. He said locals need more money to hire organizers, who increase the number of members, who pay more dues, which leads to more organizers.

More: U.S. Supreme Court to hear case of former Iowa Taco Bell employee who says she was cheated out of overtime

“A lot of unions want to concentrate on the East and West coasts and things like that,” Wishman said. “There’s an enormous amount of potential to grow in the Midwest — especially in Iowa. But like so many things in life, the Midwest gets overlooked, it feels like.”

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa union membership below U.S., even after Deere strike, report says

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