OTTUMWA — Not every celebration is full of smiles and laughter. An outdoor get-together Sunday appeared to be a little more serious than the average backyard barbecue.
The South Central Iowa Labor celebration for working families drew members of most unions recognized in this region: United Auto Workers, Teamsters, AFSCME, AFL-CIO and others had members in the crowd of picnickers or up front at the microphone, speaking.
Even the live three-piece band belonged to Iowa's union for musicians. The tension came from the frustration expressed by speakers; rather than honor working families with platitudes, they promised to work harder to get rights restored to the workers.
The theme repeated Sunday afternoon was that with the Republicans in power, labor unions had been weakened; now workers would have less protection.
"We've got no say ... at contract time," announced Steve Siegel of Ottumwa, a retired union negotiator.
In the past, unions could discuss more than just salary with employers. These days, negotiators in some sectors have restrictions on what is on the table, he and others at the event said.
Overtime, health insurance, the grievance procedure; those items aren't up for discussion due to new laws in Iowa.
Siegel is hoping he can have some impact in Des Moines; he's running for the district's seat as state senator.
"Others will be running for the Democratic nomination ... but whoever it is, we've got to get behind them," he said.
Iowa legislator Mary Gaskill had talked about something similar minutes earlier: She needs more union supporters voting in Des Moines. She said some of the new laws are awful.
"My colleagues and I did everything we could," Gaskill said, "but we didn't have the votes."
What the public — even union members — might not realize is that obstacles like those facing the union today have been overcome in the past; not in some big city, said a guest at the celebration, but here, in Wapello County.
"If you want to [prepare] for the future, look to the past," said John McKerley.
As a historian for the University of Iowa, McKerley knows a lot about the state's past — especially when it comes to collective bargaining units. He's often at union events, collecting stories.
"Before this was a meatpacking town, there were the coal miners," he said.
Through a form of solidarity, the miners would make their workplace a little safer. As time went on, that united front survived; the coal mines did not.
"They took the solidarity they learned in the mines and built the unions," McKerley said.
But they learned something, too. That if they wanted their contracts to survive, they had to be heard at more than just the negotiation table: They needed to elect like-minded representatives to local and state government.
And that's what they did, the historian said. The Democratic party became very labor-friendly. And unions helped those they believed in — and who believed in them — get into office. Laws considered to be anti-union were amended.
Ottumwa has faced these obstacles in the past, his studies show — and won. Working families, he said, can do it again.
Gaskill said union members can bring about a change.
"We need your help to take back of those seats in 2018," she said.
Reporter Mark Newman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @couriermark.