Hundreds of union members and supporters rallied on the steps of the Iowa capitol building this afternoon, railing against proposals from the governors of both Iowa and Wisconsin.
The crowd heard from a key state legislator, union leaders and two Iowa Democrats who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Waterloo, was first to speak.
“There are people who think that you have all gathered here today just because of something that’s happening in Wisconsin,” Braley said. “But you know and I know that the real reason we’re here today is because the middle class and working women are under attack and it’s our job to stand up and set the record straight.”
Mike Gronstal, the Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate, seemed to promise the crowd he’d use his authority to block any anti-union proposals that pass the Republican-led Iowa House.
“There’s not a dime’s bit of difference between what they’re proposing here and what they’re proposing in Wisconsin and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a tough battle, but we’re going to fight it because we’ve got all of you on our side,” Gronstal told the crowd. “…Read my lips…We will fight for you and we’ll fight with you every step of the way. We’re going to go back in there and keep fighting.”
A bill introduced in the Iowa House would allow the governor and legislators to reject any negotiated pay and benefit deal with state workers. Today’s rally was meant as a protest against that proposal, as well as a signal of solidarity with Wisconsin unions who’ve been protesting dramatic changes in that state’s labor laws. Marty Hathaway of Coralville, Iowa, works at one of Iowa’s prisons and he’s a member of the AFSCME union.
“We will not let them break our unions. It is up for you and me to decide: is this labor’s last stand or is this labor’s finest moment?”
Reverend Carlos Jayne, a retired lobbyist for the United Methodist Church, told the crowd there are “plenty of references to workers’ rights” in the Bible.
“God bless this state of Iowa. God bless the state of Wisconsin. God bless the U.S.A.,” Jayne said. “God bless all who protest tyrannical action. God bless the union!”
Melissa Spencer, a teacher at Des Moines East High School, went to Wisconsin to protest last weekend and she was at the Iowa capitol today, warning the bill pending in the Iowa House would be a blow to the middle class.
“I went to Madison this weekend because I was inspired by what I saw on TV and what I heard from my fellow teachers in Wisconsin and now, I knew that it could happen here and now it is happening here, so I’m proud to stand with all of you as we fight for our collective bargaining rights,” Spencer said, to cheers from the crowd, estimated at more than 500.
About 50 people gathered an hour before the union rally for a counter protest. Jim Carley of Altoona is part of a group called SOAR, which stands for Save Our American Republic.
“Why am I here today? To protest the protest,” he said. “How’s that sound, huh? Protest the protest.”
Reg Randau has never been to a protest or a counter protest before, but he made the trip from Oskaloosa to Des Moines.
“But after seeing how the state employees in Wisconsin were complaining because they’d actually have to pay part of their retirement and health insurance — I’m self-employed and I have to pay all my insurance, you know, and for them to whine about having to pay five percent made me sick,” Randau said.
Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party movement, railed against the pay and benefit packages for government workers. ”And that is not something that we can take anymore,” Rhodes said. “That’s breaking our government. It’s breaking us, as taxpayers, and it absolutely has to stop.”
Norma Halvorson of Laurens was part of a group of five people who drove from northwest Iowa to attend the counter-protest in Des Moines.
“Everybody needs to have a little common sense,” Halvorson said. “We need to cut corners. Our country is broke and our state is just about as bad.”
Charlie Gruschow of Des Moines — a Tea Party activist who’s started a group called “Iowans for Prosperity” — said Wisconsin’s governor is doing the right thing.
“I’m totally against public employees being unionized. I don’t believe it’s constitutional,” Gruschow said. “They oftentimes get paid more than the private sector gets paid. And, you know, what do we get for it? What do we really get for it?”
A few union workers walking by yelled at the Tea Party group, prompting one Tea Party activist to angrily reply: “Get your hand out of my pocket.”