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Vol. 74/No. 45      November 29, 2010

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Solidarity march supports
locked-out unionists in Iowa
Militant/Lisa Rottach
Grain millers locked out by Roquette America and supporters march November 13 in Keokuk, Iowa. Workers are fighting attempt by company to impose union-busting contract.

KEOKUK, Iowa, November 13—For the second time since Roquette America locked out 240 grain millers on September 28, hundreds of union supporters marched on Main Street here today in a spirited show of unity and solidarity.

Steelworkers, school workers, and meat packers were among those marching in support of the locked-out members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 48G. Store owners and employees cheered on the demonstration and passersby constantly honked from cars.

“They woke a sleeping giant,” said Wade Kehler, a locked-out worker. “The time is right for unions to help each other out. What happens to us has a direct bearing on other contracts. The community is behind us. When you stand up to a big entity like Roquette, you have to have numbers.”

Workers at Roquette overwhelmingly rejected the company’s last minute contract offer in September, which many here called a union-busting contract. It would have given the company the ability to undermine seniority, bring in temporary workers, cut the pay of new hires, and jack up health insurance payments by workers. While contract negotiations have taken place since the lockout began, the company has not budged from its “final” offer.

The march of 350 people on a cold and blustery day was only one of many examples of solidarity. Several religious figures in the area have launched a food drive for the union workers, called “Helping Hands for the Communities,” with a goal of raising $10,000 to supply food and personal items to those in need. Donations of money, food, and firewood for the picket lines have poured in from both unions and individuals.

“We are fighting for the wages of new hires to not be cut. This is for our sons and grandsons,” said Greg Milligan, a member of Local 48G who used to work for Case New Holland in Burlington, Iowa, assembling back hoes. He took part in a union fight against a lockout by that company in 2004. “We set up picket lines 24/7 and held strong. After five months we got our jobs back, but the pay for new hires was decreased by five dollars,” he said.  
Union solidarity
Scott Hanson, a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 617 at Pinnacle Foods, came to the march with 20 other members of his local. “If this can happen to them it can happen to any one of us,” he said. “Our contract comes up in two years.” Pinnacle workers organized a 50-50 raffle to benefit Local 48G. The winner of the raffle gave back his prize money to help the locked-out workers.

Solidarity reached the locked-out workers from across the Atlantic Ocean this week. Leaders of the union representing Roquette workers in France, where the company is based, sent letters of support. “The FGA-CFDT strongly condemns the lockout decided by management,” wrote Bruno Vanonni, national secretary of the French food processing union. In a separate letter, Francis Courbois, a representative of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), wrote, “We support our American colleagues and will not hesitate to help them by any lawful means.”

Marchers gathered at the Keokuk Labor Temple, which houses a meeting hall, bar, and the offices of several local unions. Over a megaphone, Pat Mahoney, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2005, which organizes school workers in Keokuk, told the crowd, “We believe in the old union concept, an injury to one is an injury to all! If you pick on one, you pick on all.”

“This is nothing but union busting!” shouted Pat Courtney to the rally. Courtney is a state senator and retired member of the United Auto Workers union.

David Rosenfeld, who was the 2010 Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor of Iowa, was invited to speak to the crowd after the march. He reported that his Steelworkers union local at the Firestone plant in Des Moines would conduct a gate collection for the locked-out workers.

“During my campaign, whether on radio or TV, at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, or at Iowa State University, I explained that this fight is the most important thing happening in Iowa,” Rosenfeld told the crowd. “Not only because the workers at Roquette are standing up to union busting. But because of the solidarity of other workers and unions who are standing up with them.”

“We need to build a fighting labor movement. One that fights for all workers. One that inspires all workers,” he concluded to applause. “The only place to start doing this is where workers stand up and fight back.”

Steve Underwood, the president of Local 48G, told the Militant that the company “claims they are meeting production demands.” But according to Underwood, picketers report that the combination of salaried employees and replacement workers has been unable to produce more than a fraction of pre-lockout production levels.

Two days after the start of the lockout, union workers learned that the company had cancelled their health insurance. After six weeks on the picket line, many workers have begun looking for other jobs. They are finding that to be a difficult task. Lee County, home to Keokuk, has an 11 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the state of Iowa.

A bake sale after the march raised $450. Marchers were encouraged to join a fund-raising hog roast and a benefit concert later in the week. Messages of support and donations can be sent to: BCTGM Local 48G, 301 Blondeau Street, Keokuk, IA 52632, or e-mailed to Phone: (319) 524-1249; Fax: (319) 524-1751.

Alyson Kennedy contributed to this article.
Related articles:
On the Picket Line  
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