Democratic presidential hopefuls pitch plans to strengthen workers’ rights in Cedar Rapids

Six Democratic presidential-nomination candidates shared their visions for supporting unions and workers’ rights in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 7.


Katie Goodale

Teamsters member Stephanie Griffin, of Cedar Rapids, ask a question to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

Marissa Payne, Editor-in-Chief

CEDAR RAPIDS — When Stephanie Griffin was growing up, she sometimes rode along in her father Lawrence’s truck as he delivered animal feed to customers over a four-state area. In true Iowan fashion, she says she loved the feed’s smell, and she fondly remembered her dad working hard and with pride.

Over the decades Stephanie Griffin’s father spent truck driving, the Cedar Rapids resident said Lawrence paid into the Central States Pension Fund, one of the nation’s largest multiemployer pension funds geared primarily toward retiring Teamsters, “so that he could retire with pride and dignity.”

But now that the fund is projected to reach insolvency by 2025, she said “that is no longer the future that he sees.” Griffin, a Teamsters Local 238 member herself, said she also has paid into that fund and shares an uncertain future. She wonders what she will do to make ends meet if she doesn’t have that pension.

Katie Goodale
Stephanie Griffin ask a question to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

“This truly is a crisis for our family, and hundreds of thousands of other families who are looking to lose their pensions and their incomes,” she said, choking up as she stood beside her father, a retired Teamsters union worker.

She questioned 2020 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders about his plan to shore up pension funds and guarantee an enjoyable retirement for Americans like her father.

“What is particularly outrageous and disgusting about what happened some five years ago in terms of the legislation that allowed for massive close of people’s pensions is that a promise — a fairly sacred promise made to thousands and thousands of workers — that promise was broken in an incredibly callous way,” the independent senator from Vermont responded.

He and five other Democratic presidential contenders touted their plans to restore rights to American workers at a Teamsters union forum Dec. 7 in Cedar Rapids, condemning an economy and labor laws that they say empower corporations over working people.

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Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million members nationwide, hosted the forum at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids. Around 700 Teamsters from across the country attended to hear the 2020 presidential-nomination candidates discuss key issues facing U.S. union members — protecting pensions and retirement security, strengthening collective-bargaining rights, and bolstering fair trade.

Three of the candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — have campaign staffers whom Teamsters represents.

Booker said he backs the Butch Lewis Act, which aims to help certain multiemployer pension plans, as 1.5 million retirees and hundreds of thousands of workers enrolled in such plans face their retirement funds being at risk.

“Everyone should have dignity and security in retirement,” Booker said. “This is something I will fight for as president. We will do what’s right by our retirees. We will pass the Butch Lewis Act.”

Katie Goodale
Former Vice President Joe Biden looks at members of the audience during the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

In addition to proposing solutions to threats to the union members’ pension plans, Several candidates — including Biden, Sanders, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — called for a $15 federal-minimum wage.

The presidential hopefuls also took aim at employers who violate labor laws and interfere with workers’ efforts to organize, with Biden calling for stiffer penalties for corporations and executives who otherwise retaliate against employees.

Biden supports the House Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act — a bill that proposes to amend the National Labor Relations Act to strengthen workers’ rights and repeal right-to-work laws, which states may enact to determine whether workers are required to join a union to keep their jobs.

“When labor does well, the whole country does well,” he said.

Buttigieg aligned with Biden’s stances on penalizing employers who violate their workers’ rights and said he would enact multimillion-dollar fines as president to incentivize employers to care about safeguarding their workers’ rights, adding that current fines don’t “have any teeth, and so they just keep doing the same thing.”

“I stand with organized labor in order to build an economy that works for all and so that one job is enough,” Buttigieg said.

Businessman Tom Steyer said corporations have gained too strong of a hold on U.S. government and suggested his fellow candidates call President Trump out for his failures as a businessman.

Steyer said Trump runs for reelection on a message of, “You can’t get rid of me because I’m good for this economy.” For a Democrat to take back the White House, he said the party’s presidential-nomination contenders need to talk about “growth, prosperity, and a strong, competitive, vibrant private sector.”

Klobuchar criticized Trump’s conservative judicial appointments to federal courts and Supreme Court decisions such as the Janus ruling, which limits public-sector unions from collecting members’ mandatory dues, saying Americans need judges who will protect workers’ rights.

Katie Goodale
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., laughs during the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

The Minnesota senator boasts a union-family background — her father was a Newspaper Guild member, her mother was part of a teacher’s union, and her grandfather was a mine worker.

“Certainly that guy in the White House, despite what he promised people — and there were a lot of members of a lot of unions that actually voted for him because they thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to get this done. He’s going to make things cheaper for me. He’s going to do that stuff’ — those were false promises,” she said.

Unions have tended to back Democrats in the last few decades, but in 2016, 43 percent of union-household voters cast their ballots to elect Donald Trump president, according to Cornell University’s Center for Public Opinion Research.

Teamsters General President James Hoffa said at the forum that for a candidate to secure the union’s support, the presidential hopefuls will have to demonstrate how they plan to help workers — walk a picket line, go to union meetings, and take other steps to show union voters why they’re worthy of support.

“I think they’ve learned from ‘16 that they can’t take labor’s vote for granted,” Hoffa said. “We’ve got their attention.”

View photos from the forum: