Iowa Press Special: Coronavirus | Employee rights

May 1, 2020  | 57 min  | Ep 4736 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

Haga clic aquí para Español.

On this Iowa Press Special: Coronavirus, a panel of labor experts participate in a discussion of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on Iowa workers, as well as issues of workplace safety and employee rights. The panel also answer viewer questions submitted prior to recording.

The panel includes Jennifer Sherer, director at the University of Iowa Labor Center; Joe Henry, board member for the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa Council 307; and Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO. Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table is Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

------------------------------------------------------------

COVID-19 Legal Information Hotline
800.332.0419
Provided by: Iowa Legal Aid, Iowa State Bar Association, Polk County Volunteer Lawyers Project
Help with evictions, foreclosures, employment, domestic violence, child custody, living wills, business issues, and more.

File a Consumer Complaint
Web form: www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov
Phone: 515.281.5926 or toll-free 888.777.4590
Email: consumer@ag.iowa.gov

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

A global pandemic has stretched into the month of May as states begin to reopen parts of the economy. We focus on returning to work in Iowa and the pressure on employee rights and safety on this special hour-long edition of Iowa Press.

(music)

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

(music)  

(music)

(music)

Celebrating nearly 50 years of public affairs coverage on statewide Iowa PBS, this is an Iowa Press special edition on the coronavirus pandemic. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: A national shutdown of schools and businesses as a result of COVID-19 has now become a patchwork of states forging ahead with their own decisions. Here in Iowa, Governor Reynolds has called for a gradual reopening of certain businesses in 77 of Iowa's 99 counties. But for Iowans in essential positions in hospitals, in food service or in meatpacking plants, many workers have never left their status on the front lines. Yet ongoing outbreaks at workplace locations and a renewed push to open up more businesses has placed renewed focus on employee rights in the coronavirus era. To discuss these issues we're joined by Jennifer Sherer, Director of the University of Iowa Labor Center. Joe Henry, Board Member for the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC. And Charlie Wishman, President of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO. Welcome to you all. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Thank you.

Yepsen: We've expanded our format to a full one hour to accommodate the many questions we all have on these issues and we've added some social distancing barriers to our conversation at the Iowa Press table. Now also joining us in the studio is Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Let's begin with a discussion of the meatpacking industry. Charlie Wishman, the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is calling for the government to break up what it calls a monopoly in the industry. Would that resolve some of these issues?

Wishman: Look, I think that the first and most important thing that we need to have when it comes to, and this is not to say the UFCW is wrong on that particular point, but it is essential and it is long past due for this Governor to set not just OSHA guidelines but we need enforceable OSHA standards that relate to this pandemic. There's so many things that were not even in our vocabulary a month and a half ago. Social distancing. Who was talking about PPE? All of these things are new and the current OSHA statutes may not apply. And so we need to have some guidance, we desperately need leadership from the state of Iowa or the federal government or both to make sure that we have worker protections in place that specifically are going to protect workers in these meatpacking plants, but the issue is much larger than meatpacking plants. It may be meatpacking plants today, but it could be any number of industries or factories or workers tomorrow. So to keep our workplaces safe that is the first thing, it needed to be done a long time ago. And we're calling on Governor Reynolds and the Labor Commissioner to do that. They can do that through emergency rules and they can do that today.

Henderson: Jennifer Sherer, if you could give us sort of a history of the meatpacking industry. It's a dangerous occupation. And what is your view of the current regulations that Charlie Wishman just referenced?

Sherer: Yeah, we knew prior to the pandemic, and I would recommend to folks checking out any of the number of human rights reports that have been issued in the prior decade and a half about injuries and deaths in the meatpacking industry before we had a pandemic hit. So what the pandemic is doing is accelerating and intensifying that is an already dangerous work environment with not enough outside regulation from OSHA and turning that into a national emergency and certainly an emergency for Iowa. Right now worker health is public health and to go back to Charlie's point about the distinction between standards which are enforceable requirements that we ask all employers to live up to, what we've had in this moment of crisis is an absence of any enforceable standard related to how employers should respond or treat the COVID-19 environment. And I have to say it's a very challenging moment to be somebody responsible for educating Iowa workers about their rights. I can certainly tell people what their rights are on paper, but the more important part of the work that we often do as educators in person all year round in person in normal times has to do with how we make those rights a reality. And I'm not able to say at this time that the rights on paper are going to be enforced unless folks are willing to stand up for them and enforce them in some way by taking matters into their own hands essentially. And I think since a lot of us are at home with our children right now for extended periods of time there is a distinction that people can really relate to which is the difference between discretionary guidance, which we have had some of that issued from OSHA on the federal level, I'm glad we have at least that because it's something we can give people and say, yes your employer should be. If they're being proactive and we have had a lot of proactive employers in Iowa, they should be commended for that, taking all the steps that are listed in those documents. And then we've had others that are just far too slow. We're hearing both ends of that spectrum from workers. And the difference between me saying to my kids today your chore is unloading the dishwasher and if you don't you're losing your iPad versus I think you should consider unloading the dishwasher if it's feasible, that literally is the kind of language that we're hearing from the agencies right now. And so it's really just up, to each individual employer to decide what steps they're going to take.

Henderson: Joe Henry, you and LULAC have been critical of the meatpacking industry, particularly the facility in Perry and asking for it to close down. What in your view is an appropriate close down?

Henry: Let's be closed down until that facility is safe. There has to be distancing between the workers, not inches, but feet. The line speed needs to slow down at a safe rate. Workers, I received calls right before I came here, workers are wearing their hard hats, PPE masks over at JBS in Marshalltown, they are literally sweating because of the fast pace they're working as the line speed moves thousands of pork is being cut every day by these workers. Their sweat is being poured onto the meat as it is being cut. They are running into the human resources office demanding for help. They are being told by human resources at JBS you should be lucky you have a job, you should feel fortunate you're getting an extra $80 a week. They are in tears and many of these workers are also women and they're very concerned because they have families who are also getting infected. And let me say this too, that in 1978 meatpacking workers in Mason City at the Decker meatpacking plant were making $17 an hour. Today, meatpacking workers 42 years later are making $16 an hour. What's wrong with that? Farmers back in the '70s were able to sell their hogs and their other livestock meat, beef, poultry, on a daily rate and then the meat processing plants had to negotiate and pay whatever the rate was that the farmers wanted to provide their livestock at. That's not existing anymore. So both workers and farmers are being held hostage by this crazy system that has strapped all of Iowa who is in the meat processing and in the farming sectors, these workers and these farmers are not being treated fairly. And we need to fight back.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, the industry would say we've heard that, we're taking steps now to try to slow down the line, to clean it up, they're closing these plants temporarily, I'm just telling you what they're saying. And the administration has said they have ordered this to be done, Secretary Perdue. Now, how does an individual who isn't, how does an individual sort out who is right here?

Henry: Well, they need to speak to Iowans who work in the plants. They can tell you what is going on. These workers have these stories about their exploitation, the speed of their work, they are being forced to go to work while sick, they're not getting paid time off. We have to realize that. These workers are being told that if you're off for a week or two you have to file for unemployment. JBS, Tyson, Smithfield National Beef, Cargill will not pay for time off. On top of that, if you're in the hospital for any length of time you're going to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. We have workers on ventilators right now who have paid up to $40,000 for several weeks in the hospitals.

Yepsen: Charlie Wishman, workers, the state officials, farmers will say we have to do this mechanized processing of meat because Americans want cheap food, that if you want to be able to afford that kind of protein we have to have these industrial methods and that there's hazard in any industry. What do you say to that?

Wishman: Well, there certainly is hazard in any industry but as Jennifer has pointed out and Joe as well, several things have happened over the years that definitely have gotten us to the point where we are. I don't think that many Iowans, unfortunately, or many Americans have really thought about the workers that supply this food to their dinner table. When they eat bacon they're not thinking about who it is that is processing it. Just this morning I read that Senator Smith from Sioux City is calling for an independent investigation. We shouldn't be having Senators having to call for an independent commission to talk or to go in and see what's actually going on in your plant. To your question to Mr. Henry, this is the responsibility of the state of Iowa and I do not mean for this to sound like a partisan attack, but we are seeing a failure of leadership at the state of Iowa when it comes to enforcement of OSHA standards, not guidelines, but standards that are going to actually make people safe. And yes we do have to slow down the lines, we do have to -- there are a number of things that we have to take. People can survive through a pandemic without certain kinds of pork but people can't survive with no safe working conditions.

Yepsen: Jennifer Sherer, what do you say to all of this? Hasn't this pandemic served to focus on the needs of these essential workers? It has struck many of us that some of the most essential workers in our society, people who put meat in front of us, are some of the poorest paid. Why is that?

Sherer: Absolutely it has. It's because workers have lacked the power to level the playing field in that industry and really in many others that right now are being considered essential. And I want to situate the question you asked a bit ago. Really in the long history of occupational safety, which is rooted in the history of the labor movement itself, that message that we're hearing  I think from some corners right now that we can't possibly solve this problem and we can't possibly slow down the production lines because people must have cheap meat, that's the same message that railroad workers were given in the 19th century when they tried to stand up and say, I don't think that over 50% of us should be losing limbs if we work for a railroad for a couple of years. It's the same thing that garment workers were told in the early 20th century about the safety conditions in their workplaces. We have figured out, and occupational safety experts will tell you, that hazards can be eliminated. It's a matter of whether we have the will as a society and as an economy and the public to set the expectation that work that needs to be done can be safely. I'm not sure that you can't mitigate this hazard even though it's a new one that is challenging to deal with.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Folks, there has been a discussion this week among Iowa policy makers about unemployment and those who have been unemployed because of enduring this pandemic and are called back to work. Mr. Wishman, what is your advice to a worker who may be reluctant to return to work but doesn't meet some of the guidelines that state officials have said would allow you to not return to work?

Wishman: Well unfortunately, Kay, we've had conflicting messages throughout the week. And I was happy to see at least some clarification of that I believe on Thursday in the Governor's press conference. But bottom line, your health and safety is paramount. And so are the people in your family. Let's talk about real world scenarios where what's really going on in say a packing house scenario. You get 7 people living in a house. One person who is working at the plant comes down with it. They may not have the same, there's no way to quarantine in a small house with five, six, seven people or maybe even less. They don't have the same sort of support network that maybe some of us do. And so somebody has still got to go get the groceries, somebody has still got to go get gas. And when it comes down to it there are exceptions and I'm glad because at the beginning of the week it sounded as though the message being put out by Iowa Workforce Development was return to work or else. And that's not, they clarified that and said, if you are in imminent danger of your health or safety, talk to your employer about that.

Yepsen: Excuse me, I want to get Jennifer Sherer in this conversation since you folks do a lot of work with this issue. To Kay's question, what should a worker who is called back do when they don't feel like they can go or they don't feel safe? What should they do?

Sherer: I think we have to fall back on what we would do any time work was considered unsafe based on an employee's assessment. And if you have a union you should be talking to them and trying to get worker's voices at the table and minimizing or ideally eliminating exposures that are occurring. You've got to tailor that to whatever the workplace is. I've want to refer people to our website because we have tried to the best of our ability to put up as many fact sheets on this as possible and drawing from whatever has come out on a weekly basis from the CDC and the OSHA guidance on steps that employers can begin taking if they haven't taken them already. If you don't have a union then it's a matter of taking your concerns ideally, again, with your coworkers, to assess -- the reality is front line workers know where exposures are possible and where exposures might occur because they know the work process. They know every area of the facility. And I think we're having to tell people to advocate for themselves essentially.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, excuse me Jennifer. I want to ask you, one of the reasons these rules exist is employers say employees are gaming the system, that Iowa is now one of the highest paid unemployment benefits when you take, this is according to the New York Times, when you take the state unemployment check with the federal stimulus money that has been sent they're earning 120%. And employers say we have to be tough, I'm just relaying their position to you, employers say people are gaming the system. They think workers say we're not coming back because we can make more staying at home drawing unemployment and this federal money. What do you say to that?

Henry: Well, first of all that's not true. Again, we can use the meatpacking workers who are being told by the employer, file for unemployment. If you're sick file for unemployment. It's going to take a week or two before that kicks in, it's not going to cover what they need to pay the bills. That is an outright lie. And I've got to say that again, workers -- we at LULAC we know that labor unions are doing this, we applaud the elected leaders in Waterloo, Iowa who did file the OSHA charge against Tyson. We were the first ones to do it on April 1st against JBS. We would say to workers as we've said to meatpacking workers, if you feel unsafe call in sick, but at the same time contact us so we can file charges. Now, OSHA has some revised recommendations, which we are fighting to make mandatory. OSHA manual 3990, which takes in what is happening with the virus about social distancing, about what needs to be provided with safety here. We are asking for those things and that is our call to action this month is to make sure that OSHA is beefed up, no pun intended, that we make sure those suggestions, those recommendations become mandatory here in this state and across the country.

Yepsen: Charlie Wishman, and I want to ask all three of you this question, Governor Reynolds said the other day that there's not a safe level of this coronavirus, until we get a vaccine this is just a risk we're going to have to learn to live with. What do you say to that?

Wishman: I think that is very, very short sided.

Yepsen: We don't have a vaccine so what are we supposed to do?

Wishman: We don't have a vaccine but what we have to do is ramp up testing to an extreme amount and we may not be there yet. But we have to get testing before people actually get into the plant whatever it is whether it's a meatpacking plant, which is where we're seeing the most horrific things right now, or some place, whatever workplace. And the reason why is because when people are asymptomatic you may not be showing symptoms to maybe day five or day six and when people are asymptomatic, we don't know a ton about this virus yet but what we do know is when you're not showing symptoms or when you're asymptomatic that is when you are shedding and spreading the virus and a temperature check going into a workplace isn't going to stop this. A questionnaire about where you have been is not going to stop this. We need to have widespread testing before people get into the plant and spread it around and opening up three-quarters of the state when there has been the invention of the automobile for a heck of a long time, this is not, this is unfortunately I think a recipe for disaster.

Yepsen: Jennifer Sherer, what do you say to the Governor's point that we don't live in a risk free world here? There's no vaccine. Jennifer, what do we do, just shut down the meat plants for several months or a couple of years until society gets a vaccine?

Sherer: I think we make the work safe. What I'm hearing over and over again from Iowans is they want to get back to work and they want that work to be safe. And they expect that work to be safe. And there are ways to do that, there are steps that every employer and all of us as members of the public can support being taken right now. And it's linked to your question about unemployment. The reason and the logic behind the extension of unemployment now is that we are in a public health crisis. The absolute best thing we can do, the number one occupational health and safety measure that we can take is to have people out of the workplace because it's better for our safety and frankly it's better for the quicker reopening of our economy because we're buying the time we need to make the workplace safe before people come back and until we get testing and vaccines that we need.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, I want to get you in this. We don't live in a risk free world. Do you shut down those plants for a couple of years?

Henry: We have to shut down those plants as has been stated for as long as it takes.

Yepsen: That could be a couple of years.

Henry: In the 1970's we had local meat processing facilities, we had meat lockers, we had where farmers could take -- every city had a meat locker. Every city in the 1970's had a meat locker. We still have those. But now we look at this, we have over 22 facilities that are mostly meat processing facilities in the state instead of the 970 communities with meat lockers. We have to move back, we do have family farmers who have livestock who can sell it directly. But clearly this is a crisis that has been in the waiting for several decades. Meat processing facilities are just like the hog confinement centers, they are the places where are the incubators for the virus. We're talking about lives. We need to look at this fact. When we warned Marshalltown back in March that people were getting infected at the JBS plant, the local newspaper said no, no, that can't happen, they're safe. So two weeks ago we find out 35 people were infected at the plant. What did I see in the news this morning? 500 people are now infected in Marshall County. If we do not take care of this, we have to search for solutions, farmers have those solutions and workers have those solutions.

Yepsen: Joe, I've got way too many questions and not enough time. Kay?

Henderson: Charlie Wishman, David introduced you a few minutes ago as the President of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO. Congratulations. Because it's recent, correct?

Wishman: Yeah.

Henderson: Just a few minutes ago, right?

Wishman: This would be today. Thank you.

Henderson: How does one become the president? How do you win such an election?

Wishman: Sure. So I've had an extremely great mentor and a great friend and brother in Ken Sagar who comes from the IEBW. He brought me over to the Iowa Federation of Labor and I was the Secretary/Treasurer there for probably eight or nine years. Time flies. And I had been re-elected all of those times. And Ken had had this retirement plan for quite some time and unfortunately it had to come for him during a global pandemic.

Yepsen: So what are your goals -- go ahead, Kay.

Henderson: What are your goals? Are you going to try to repeal the changes to the collective bargaining law that was enacted in 2017?

Wishman: Oh, so first things first is right now during this pandemic is to keep workers safe and if there aren't safe workplaces, to make those workplaces safe for those workers and to communicate with as many people as possible about how to do that and to work with folks like the University of Iowa Labor Center and to work with groups like LULAC and others to try and do that. So that is the first things first is to make people safe and healthy. But as far as a to do list, we have a pretty long to do list.

Yepsen: What are the one or two most important things you want to do to strengthen the labor movement in Iowa?

Wishman: Well, we definitely need meaningful collective bargaining back for public sector employees. That is probably the top of the list. What happened in 2017 was unnecessary and there was absolutely no public policy reason to be doing that. It was purely political. But secondly, and this goes back to what we're talking about now is I think we need to change the work comp laws that were passed in 2017. Tyson Foods was a huge supporter of those along with the Association of Business and Industry, I could go on and on. But one of the biggest pieces of that was a change in shoulder injury compensation and that is because of the line speeds and that is because of the repetitive motion that is going on there and that Tyson does not want to deal with work comp injuries.

Henderson: Jennifer Sherer, if you could share with us how many union members there are in Iowa? What is the breakout? How many work in the private sector? How many work in the public sector?

Sherer: Like most of the country we hover between 8% and 10% in the last couple of years of workers being covered by a collective bargaining agreement in Iowa. And that number is a little bit lower in the private sector than it is in the public sector. I think that has really been an issue that has also come to the forefront in the pandemic and in this question about worker health and safety. We can ask a lot of questions, we should ask a lot of questions in the disparities that we're seeing in how workers are treated. Who is at work versus who is laid off? Who gets safety measures implemented? Who gets PPE and who doesn't? Who has the ability to take sick leave? Who can or can't get health care? And who can speak up if their conditions are not safe and who can't? And folks who have a union can and in many cases people who don't feel that they're too intimidated to speak up.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, do you sense a renewed interest in starting new unions and in more people joining unions? Labor membership has been going down for a long time. And now as a result of this crisis anecdotally we see stories about workers at Amazon, for example, wanting to organize. What is your sense of that issue?

Henry: Well, clearly workers want to organize. We see this in the Latino community and the immigrant community due to these old exploitive laws, right to work here in Iowa, which as a matter of fact was a reason why these meatpacking plants broke some of the strongest unions in meatpacking. Back in the '80s Iowa Beef was the one who was aggressive with these long-term strikes, bringing in people from other parts of the country. So yes, workers want to join unions, they want representation, they want a living wage, they want the things that we used to have in this country.

Yepsen: So do you expect to see union membership in Iowa go up as a result of this pandemic crisis?

Henry: It will, it will. And with leaders like Charlie here who are kind of leading the way we're going to be able to have him and other progressive union leaders. We're hoping that the UFCW also really works hard. We have the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction that is unorganized right now. Those workers did not want to go back to work after Tyson opened up. So we need organizing over there.

Yepsen: UFCW, United Food and Commercial Workers. Kay?

Henderson: Charlie, the word union sort of means together. In the gig economy where people may be working in their living room or at the dining room table, they're not working for a company "together", they're in these disparate places. How do you convince people that a union can form in that kind of environment?

Wishman: I think that interestingly enough when the pandemic hit and all of the "gig workers", let's call them 1099 employees or whatever, found out that they didn't have unemployment, they didn't find out and they're suddenly like oh my gosh, what am I going to do for unemployment? And this is what we've been arguing for a long time is that many of the app based companies and misclassification that happens that is rampant throughout the construction industry, those folks are really employees and these companies are really cheating their employees and gaming legit businesses by saying, we're not going to pay unemployment, we're not going to pay work comp, we're not going to take care of our employees' health insurance or pay them a living wage. This is, I think this is, again to Joe's point, I think this is the time where workers have the opportunity to rise up. And again, we're seeing this at Amazon, we're seeing this at all different kinds of places. But when they see that they weren't eligible for unemployment and then finally were, that is one maybe light bulb that went on in people's heads.

Yepsen: Jennifer Sherer, what are some new ideas that you're hearing or thinking about to improve the lives of essential workers? We know for a fact that the collective bargaining law in this state is not going to change until there is a new Governor and a new legislature. And so that is an issue that voters can decide in November and in 2022. But what are other things that can be done that might get a broader public consensus? I'm thinking the Governor of Michigan suggested that we create a GI bill for essential workers, that first responders who do not have degrees could in fact, the state would pay for that. Now that might be something that would get a little more traction in Iowa than these labor law changes. What do you say to that?

Sherer: I would say we're seeing an amazing array of not always new ideas but old ideas returning and out of necessity people on the enterprise level or the local workplace level in some cases or the community level coming up with quick solutions that work and in some cases that means let's throw out the attendance policy we've had here for 10 years because it's punitive and nobody got sick leave and the way we keep people healthy right now is we want to make sure they're home when they're sick. Well guess what, maybe that punitive policy was never a good idea in the first place and we should restructure going forward. The question of wages, right, the calls for hazard pay or bonus pay right now I think are linked to the reality that the inequality in our system and the depression of wages for front line workers has gotten to a point where as a society should we be expecting people to do this work whether they're exposed to a dangerous virus or not without some more substantial compensation. We're seeing people bring those ideas forward and in some cases implement then, at least on the micro scale. And I do see an opportunity for all of us to be asking what should the world of work look like going forward?

Yepsen: Joe Henry, what is your answer to that question? Is there something specific other than organizing labor? Are there other things we can do in our society to improve the lot of essential workers?

Henry: We have to improve labor laws. That is what it comes down to. That is what has gotten us to the place where we are right now. So the GI thing, what you're indicating would be a good move, but changing the laws, changing the laws here in Iowa are very important, nationally we need people to speak up. I think Americans are with us on this. They know things need to happen. So protect our workers, protect our food supply. This is a time that we can discuss labor issues. People will listen because labor produces all the things that are necessary right now.

Sherer: Can I throw in one more idea that I just ran across this morning that I think is equally interesting because you're absolutely right in your question to note that in times of past crisis and particular historical tensions between workers who are being asked to do dangerous work and large employers, part of our solution has been unions and collective bargaining to bring those voices together to come to some agreement. In the short-term we can experiment with all kinds of other ways to bring worker voices to the table and we need to be doing that whether it is through informal at the local level, community tables where we can figure out what expectations for employers can be or at the state level. We need to get worker perspectives and needs into these discussions immediately.

Henderson: Joe Henry, one of the reasons that the collective bargaining law was changed was because republicans won the election, they won majorities in the House and the Senate, they had the Governorship and it was a priority of the Republican Party to make that change. If you and your allies want to make changes in the other direction you have to win elections. You have been involved in organizing. There was a huge effort to turn out Latino voters in 2016. It didn't manifest itself as much as some were predicting. What is it going to take?

Henry: Well, it's going to take a coalition effort. And clearly the republicans have now hurt their constituents because what is happening now with the workers is also hurting the farmers. So we have this crisis in the meatpacking plants which is forcing farmers to be held hostage with what to do with their livestock. And so if we do not save the workers we can't help the farmers. So clearly the republican strategy is not working. So it needs to be now a call for action to make sure we have safety in the workplace, make sure we protect our food supply, protect our family farmer, take away these restrictive contracts that the meat processing plants have forced upon livestock farmers. They should be able to sell their livestock on the daily rate of whatever they can negotiate with these processing plants. So there is a call to action. It will take a coalition. But I think now during this crisis farmers, workers, social justice folks, other conservatives will realize that we're all on the same plate here in that we can move forward. So we can do this.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, the Latino experience in America seems to me to be an awful lot like that of the Irish and Chinese, other Asians, immigrants come here, they do the jobs that other people don't want to do, that Caucasians don't want to do, and then they go up the economic ladder. Are we going to see the same thing in our society eventually with Latino-Americans?

Henry: Well, Latino-Americans are doing the work that is important. Yes they're doing the work that the Irish did before, so forth and so on. They're helping rebuild Iowa in many Midwest states right here we're seeing this. There has been white flight out of the state but at the same time our population has been above 3 million. It hasn't dipped below 2 million due to the fact that we've had Latinos and immigrants come to the state, doing the stuff in agriculture, in the essential industries that we have right now.

Yepsen: Jennifer, is the Latino experience one that we're seeing that happened to the Irish, the Chinese? This is not a new story and eventually Latinos, their lot in life will improve?

Sherer: I think Iowa is a state that was built by waves of migration of people from across the globe and continues to be today. The meatpacking workforce is incredibly diverse and includes in some cases 20 or 30 different languages within a particular plant. We're talking about people from Latin America, Central America, Asia and several African countries in many cases are keeping all of us fed right now. So absolutely.

Henderson: Charlie Wishman, the union movement was by and large opposed to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, worried that jobs would go to other countries. There is now a discussion led in some respects by President Trump saying, let's bring stuff home, we shouldn't be depending on China for the swabs that we need for these COVID-19 tests. Won't that be again an appeal to union voters in 2020?

Wishman: Well, most certainly. I have to say in 2016 the President, then candidate Trump, picked up on a message that the labor movement has been saying for 30, 40 years. It's just unfortunate that it was picked up by somebody who, when we saw the initial draft of NAFTA 2.0 it really was NAFTA 2.0. We had to fight very, very hard to make that better than what the original agreement was.

Yepsen: Do you have any reason to believe that democrats, blue collar democrats who voted for Donald Trump are going to vote for Joe Biden in this coming election, any evidence that has changed?

Wishman: Well, yeah, actually I think people just need to look at what is going on and the situation at hand. Right now our teamsters, truck drivers are dealing with Dr. Pepper who are trying to take away health benefits right now.

Yepsen: But won't some of those same teamsters be voting for Donald Trump? My question is --

Wishman: Most certainly. There's always going to be people of all persuasions that are going to be voting for Donald Trump. But let's look at another group, law enforcement and fire employees. We have 50 cases of, at least 50 cases of firefighters around the state right now who are COVID positive and we need to have immediately this being, their health care coverage being taken on by the state and they're not eligible for work comp but it needs to be a line of duty injury. There's things that these voters can see that are going on and they can see the failure of leadership that is happening whether it is at the federal government with the carnival clown barker President that we have or they can see the failure of leadership at the state that we have.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, what do you see changing that is going to bring blue collar democrats back home?

Henry: Well, for us in the Latino community 60 million Americans we are, 32 million eligible voters from our community. We're going to be voting against hate. That is clearly what is going to happen in this election. So the issue isn't whether or not Biden has this or whatever. The fact is we're having to fight this hate. We've been fighting this hate even before Trump got into office. So 60 million, 1 out of every 6 Americans, we are going to be united on this, only 5% of our registered voters here in Iowa in the Latino community are registered republican. The rest are registered democrat and non-party. So clearly we're going to be voting on the issues by voting against hate.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, I've covered politics a long time in this state, I've heard Latinos say that time and again. Why is this year any different?

Henry: It's important because we're fighting against hate. We've seen this attack on immigrants, which is also an attack on Latinos.

Yepsen: So that is going to mobilize turnout in a way that hasn't happened in the past?

Henry: What's interesting versus 2016 is that our median age is 24 in Iowa and about 27 across the nation. So we have young Latinos who have come from mixed status families, who have seen their parents abused, who have seen their parents maybe not have the opportunity to vote, they are voting, they're being very outspoken.

Henderson: Jennifer, if I could ask you to provide some perspective on the generational reaction to the pandemic and perhaps the generational reaction to belonging to a union. Is there a difference among millennials and Gen Z in both of those cases compared to Baby Boomers and the older generation?

Sherer: I think yes, that is what polling data is telling us, especially the last few years is that favorability among younger generations continues to increase toward unions and interest in becoming part of one increases statistically. And the more interesting polls that I have seen, especially come out in the last two years, are when people also ask the follow up question about, if you could have a union in your workplace tomorrow would you want one, you get majorities across the board, across generations saying yes. The problem is the obstacles that people face to going through the various legal hurdles that have been put in place in recent decades.

Yepsen: I want to broaden the conversation. I apologize all the time, Jennifer, for cutting you off. That's the nature of this hook up. How do you each see society being changed by this pandemic? I'll start with you, Jennifer. This is seen as a seismic big deal event in American history. In the past, in the Depression, World War II and the Civil War, American changed, became a different place. Look into your crystal ball and tell me how you see not necessarily how you want it to change but how you see it will change as a result of this pandemic.

Sherer: It's a kind of fork in the road. We can feel and see that already I think. I think we're in a war of expectations and I also think that means that there is a role for everybody no matter what your occupation is right now to think about what expectations are we setting, what will work look like in the future? If we don't have clear and enforceable standards right now then what expectations are we setting in our own workplaces? What expectations are we setting as members of the public or as customers or community members? It took generations of struggle to establish the basic communal, collective expectations that workplaces should be made safe. We haven't talked a lot about the history of OSHA today, but 1970, that's pretty late in the 20th century for us to have formally, finally passed a law mandating some expectations of employers across the board on health and safety. And the existence of OSHA in its first few years and how strongly those standards will be enforced has continued to be in contention. One important thing I think for people to know is just last week a report came out documenting that we're at the lowest number of inspectors in the federal OSHA agency since the agency's inception. So how are we going to set higher expectations going forward --

Yepsen: Charlie, how do you see America or Iowa being different as a result of this pandemic?

Wishman: Sure, absolutely. Things are always going to be different. But the one constant for us that has always been true, and you can go back centuries, is that people have always been messed with at work by the bosses. You can go back to the century's old trade guilds and so every single generation of workers is going to figure out a way to rise up and make things better for them and for their families. What the labor movement looked like in the '70s and what it looked like in the '80s and what it looked like in the '90s and the 2000's is going to be looking different after this pandemic. But I guarantee you if there was a law that came along right now that wiped out every single labor union or every single worker's rights union or group, I guarantee you, David, that my grandkids and Joe's and Jennifer's would find a way to come together and make things better for themselves and their families.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, how do you see the world changing?

Henry: There has been this erosion of regulations or deregulation run rampant over the last four decades. So regulation, health care for all, things that help protect workers, protect farmers, protect Americans. Bernie Sanders was talking about a Green New Deal. That's going to become even more clear. Yang was talking about $1000 a month, $2000 I guess with some others. So you're going to hear about that because people have seen what could happen, what could happen with this crazy deregulation where corporations run rampant, they're in charge of everything. It has, again, held workers hostage, held farmers hostage. Farmers can't sell their livestock at a price that the can survive on. So things need to change and people are speaking up and they want to see the government on their back.

Henderson: Jennifer, a unique question just for you. In 2018 there was a proposal to close down the Labor Center at the University of Iowa and a series of budget cuts. That did not happen. This week the Board of Regents, which governs the state universities, announced tens of millions of dollars in losses in dealing with the pandemic and providing refunds to students for tuition and fees and those sorts of things. Should the University of Iowa Labor Center be targeted for closure what would be your argument for keeping it open?

Sherer: Well, I don't know that I need to make an argument because Iowans across the state made that argument quite effectively in 2018 which led to the decision to maintain the Labor Center. And I'm afraid under worst case circumstances the pandemic unfortunately has reinforced the argument. I want to credit my talented, very dedicated staff because there has been no time like the present to remind us why Iowa workers need a Regents university unit dedicated to workplace research and education. But I also would just say the Regents system and the public education system as a whole are going to be under a threat and all of us who value those systems are going to have to advocate for maintaining them strongly going forward. The Labor Center in particular I will say I'm not concerned about because we're not drawing on any general fund or state dollars at the present moment. So I will be helping to stand up for and defend quality education for any other units who are --

Henderson: Charlie Wishman, you lobbied for retaining it. Given what seems to be ahead, some states are facing budget cuts in the range of 15% or 20%, we do not know yet what the range will be in Iowa. But how will you make the case that this should continue?

Wishman: We have business schools across all of our Regents universities. I don't see that it is inappropriate whatsoever to have one small but very, very important piece of state government at the University of Iowa that is going to be there to help inform workers like they are right now of facts, not opinion like I am or like Joe is expressing, but of facts that help workers. I don't think that is too much to ask of our state government to have one tiny piece but very, very important piece. And as Jennifer pointed out, there's no general education fund money going into this, into the Labor Center. I think that the Labor Center if it went away it would be a tragedy, it would be a tragedy, and I don't believe that it's going to go away because people need it.

Yepsen: Joe Henry, switch gears, we've got just a few minutes left. This pandemic, there's going to be winners and losers. As you look at what is happening, who are going to be some of the winners? For example, aren't big box stores going to be winners at the expense of small businesses? Big box stores were able to stay open, small businesses had to close even though they were selling much of the same stuff. How about that? Other ideas?

Henry: Well, I see if this struggle, if we do things right and if we fight hard then I think that farmers and workers can come out of this with new laws. And I think when it comes to businesses clearly we need to decentralize the food processing industry. So we need to get back to those meat lockers, those local grocery stores ,that sell directly from farmers to the meat lockers to the people who want to consume beef.

Henderson: Charlie Wishman, what would be your answer to that question?

Wishman: Who are the winners and losers? Right now unfortunately workers that are essential and are being put in harm's way but are being treated as expendable, they're the losers right now, and there's far too much of that going on. Even in our own state government there's not enough PPE in corrections from what I understand, there's not enough PPE for people in DHS, we have an outbreak at the Iowa Veterans Home and as far as I know Governor Reynolds has not picked up the phone and called President Homan of AFSCME to say how do we solve this, how do we fix this?

Yepsen: Charlie, there's going to be a diminishment of tax revenues, we've talked about that. Do you expect to see major layoffs of public employees as a result of that?

Wishman: I haven't seen -- I think your question is going to naturally probably play out in that manner. But I think we don't know at this point really what the Revenue Estimating Committees are going to come up with and what the budget --

Henderson: But wouldn't it be more likely in counties and cities which have smaller budgets and may be taking an even larger hit?

Wishman: Absolutely we've been seeing this for years, we've seen with the commercial and industrial property tax cut years ago that was a bipartisan thing, we've seen this over and over for the past few years, we've seen the state pushing more and more of the tax burden onto cities and counties and school districts and that is why there is a squeeze on residential property tax owners and there is a squeeze on essential services such as all the things that public employees do at the city, county and state level.

Yepsen: Charlie, I have to cut you off. We're out of time. Jennifer Sherer, thank you very much for joining us. I again apologize for having to cut you off on occasion. Thank you for being with us. And thank you both for being here too. We'll be back next week on Iowa Press, Friday night at 7:30 with a rebroadcast at Noon on Sunday morning. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

(music)

(music)

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa