Unions Often Under-appreciated for their Positive Impact on the Quad Cities Community
Ask Dino Leone, the president of the Quad-City Federation of Labor, what unions have done that goes unrecognized by most people and he answers with a list of accomplishments that is staggering in its scope.
“Legislatively, we have been able to pass laws that have benefited all workers, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, public education, workers’ compensation, FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act), minimum wage, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the Fair Labor Standards Act, prevailing wages, civil rights and the list goes on,” says Leone, who is also regional director of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31 that serves the Quad-City region.
In addition, says Jeff Hartford, the president of Local 105 of the United Steelworkers (USW) in the Quad-Cities, many take for granted “just the day-to-day support of our communities – from spending money at local businesses to supporting the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, athletics and education and so forth. We are the fabric of our local community and help the median income rise above the minimum. Go to any decent-size manufacturing facility that’s located within a mile or so of Alcoa or Deere and inquire about those workers’ wages. They are not paying minimum wage.”
Leone agrees, saying that unions “contribute millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations through financial contributions and volunteer hours of skilled labor.
“The labor movement is the only effective voice for all working families, unionized or non-unionized. Legislatively, politically, economically and socially, we have helped shape this great nation by building the middle class.”
Many victories won by organized labor were accomplished before the dawn of the 21st century, but both men stress that unions are just as vital to the Quad-City region and the nation as a whole as they ever have been.
Hartford says the role of unions has changed during his career that began in 1994 as a production employee at the Alcoa Davenport Works in Riverdale, Iowa, near Bettendorf.
“Unions in the QCA have done an incredible job promoting themselves, from volunteering their time to making donations to those less fortunate. We are not the union thugs portrayed by many media outlets. We are not greedy, either. All we are trying to do is maintain the standard of living of all our members – active and retired – and provide a safe workplace.”
Leone, who began his career in labor as a part-time maintenance worker while still in high school 37 years ago, says, “The role of the union is just as important and in some cases even more important than ever before. It has always been the role of labor to make sure that workers have a voice in the workplace and at the bargaining table for the betterment of working families when it comes to the issues of wages, hours and all conditions of employment. But more importantly, when it comes to having a voice in politics, legislation and overall social and economic justice, the union is more important than ever.
“What has heightened this all is the unprecedented amount of money spent in politics” due to the “Citizens United” U.S. Supreme Court decision. “In my earlier years, I recall learning in college courses that corporations were able to outspend labor as high as $7 to $1 in elections. Now that ratio is out of sight – there is no ratio – and the playing field is completely unbalanced. So, without the labor movement, all working families, union and nonunion, would be virtually powerless and have no voice. Through programs such as Working America and other AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) programs, we can somewhat even the playing field. “
Both men are passionate about unions and their longtime role in them.
Hartford graduated from Western Dubuque High School in 1986 and served in the U.S. Air Force before beginning work at Alcoa and immediately joining the USW. Now in his late 40s, he has been president of Local 105 for 3½ years.
Leone was only 16 and a high school sophomore in 1978, when he began working five four-hour days per week for Rock Island County. He was later promoted to a full-time job as a maintenance technician. At the time, there was no county employees union and no collective bargaining law for public-sector employees in Illinois.
“A couple things happened to inspire me to start an organization drive in Rock Island County,” he says.
The first was the disparaging treatment of his fellow workers. The second was the way wages were determined.
“Officeholders were given a lump sum of money to give out how they saw fit. Unfortunately, this allowed political cronyism, whereby family members and friends would benefit most. This created a lot of animosity among the workforce. Shortly after being hired in May of 1978, we successfully unionized and got our first collective bargaining agreement in 1979, prior to the state law that passed in 1984.”
Leone’s first role within the union was as chief steward of AFSCME Local 2025 in 1982. He gradually worked his way up to regional director for Council 31 in May 2014, about 16 months after becoming president of the Quad-City Federation of Labor, which serves Scott, Muscatine and Louisa counties in Iowa as well as Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties in Illinois.
Besides some similarities in their backgrounds, the two men share disappointment with the lack of knowledge that young people have about unions in the present day.
In fact, Hartford said, “Absolutely not,” when asked if young people and young members understand the importance of unions to modern-day life as well as the history of hard work and sacrifice made by past, retired and older current union members.
“We live in the me, me, me world, and instant gratification is expected. Last year was our 20th round of bargaining with Alcoa, so many of the young people don’t understand where we came from and how we got to where we are. Things like bereavement, overtime, vacation, profit-sharing and so forth, these issues were bargained at the table and not just given to the employees by the company,” he added.
“Unfortunately, labor history is barely taught, if taught at all, at the high school and college levels,” Leone said. “This obviously hampers people’s knowledge of history and what labor organizations have been able to do in this country’s history.
“But I have noticed a trend among those 35 years of age and younger, especially with college-educated students, that they are reaching out to labor as they are finding out in the working field that even with a college education, the wage levels are so low that unless you are in a union organization, you can hardly pay your college debt. I see some growth in the future, but our current status of employment laws does hamper union organizational drives.”
Hartford also believes that there is a learning curve involved, saying, “It’s an educational issue for young people and employees who have never worked in a unionized facility. Since I have hired into Alcoa, we have had two fatalities. We are not making pop cans here, and almost any product we pick up with a crane weighs as much as a car. We have had two major labor disputes over the years, and, when settled, neither side really won anything, but both sides suffered through the loss of wages and loss of profits.”
Leone says he can both agree and disagree with the notion of young people understanding what their predecessors went through, “but there is nothing like living through the struggle. I believe in newly organized units, where you come into the workforce making a poverty wage and you organize your first union and get workers’ rights — that experience is second to none when it comes to understanding the importance of organized labor. In contrast, when you come into a previously organized unit that has been around for decades, it is hard for a new employee to understand the accomplishments that their brothers and sisters have made, but it isn’t inconceivable for them to understand.”
BY THE NUMBERS
33,000 – People, including retirees, represented by the Quad-City Federation of Labor within its six-county bi-state jurisdiction covering western Illinois and eastern Iowa.
78,000 – Union members represented statewide in Illinois by Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. (Dino Leone says the number of private-sector employees represented has fallen while the numbers in the public sector have risen.)
1,920 – Employees represented by United Steelworkers Local 105. (Jeff Hartford believes peak hourly employment was about 2,500 at one time.)