Candidates slam labor lawbreakers at Iowa Teamsters Forum
Sen. Cory Booker, Dem. N.J., reiterated support for Medicare For All at the Teamsters Forum in Cedar Rapids. | Teamsters website.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—In his strongest language yet, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., castigated GOP President Donald Trump for racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, exporting his own firm’s jobs, and even for hypocrisy about undocumented people.

Sanders’s blast came in his closing statement before an overflow crowd of 700-plus Teamsters and family members at a Dec. 7 union presidential forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The 3-hours-plus evening session attracted five other contenders: Sens. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, financier Tom Steyer and former Vice President Joseph Biden.

All, plus other hopefuls who did not attend, are vying for votes in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Feb. 3 – the first chance any voters will have to, literally, stand up and be counted about whom they prefer.

The five others also criticized Trump, but not in such strong language and often not by name. Booker was the notable exception, saying that if he wins the White House, he would spend his time uniting the country, not dividing it as Trump has.

Sanders wasn’t so gentle.

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“We have a president who is a fraud, who is a pathological liar, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a religious bigot, a president who went to the American people three years ago and who said ‘I’m going to stand with the working class of this country. I’m a different type of Republican,’” the senator, marching around the stage, declared.

“’I’m not going to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,’” Sanders continued, citing another Trump campaign promise. “Remember he said that? Take a look at his budget: Massive cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security as well.”

“And he says, ‘I, Donald Trump, am going to provide health care to everybody.’ Then he pushes legislation which, if had gotten one more vote” in the Senate “we’d have thrown 32 million people off the health care they have now” by repealing the Affordable Care Act.

After blasting Trump’s hatred of undocumented workers “while using undocumented workers on his own estates,” Sanders slammed Trump’s pledge “to create jobs in America” by noting Trump’s “own companies are manufacturing products in Turkey and elsewhere.”

“Hey, Mr. President Trump, you want to create jobs in America? Bring your own production back to the U.S.!” Sanders got a partial standing ovation and chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” from committed supporters in the back of the room.

Answering questions, all six stuck by and large to debate topics the Teamsters poll called for: Labor law reform and enhancing collective bargaining, and what to do about so-called “free trade” pacts and about financially shaky multi-employer pension plans.

Biden and Buttigieg said, correctly, that current penalties for labor law-breakers are so low that corporate bad actors brush them off. Both want to levy heavy fines against such firms – along with criminal charges, too, says the former vice president.

And Biden adds the fines and charges should hit individual law-breaking bosses and managers.

As for labor law reform, all but one of the hopefuls – Steyer – endorsed the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the comprehensive labor law reform legislation crafted by union legislative directors and pro-worker lawmakers. Steyer said one of the Pro Act’s key provisions, repeal of so-called “right to work” laws, should be left to the states.

Sanders told the crowd that he not only backs the Pro Act, “but I’ve walked on more picket lines than all of my rivals, combined.” He said he’s introduced legislation “that’s even stronger than the Pro Act,” because it declares “that if 50% of the workers +1 sign a card saying they want to have a union, they have a union,” among other provisions.

The Pro Act would increase fines for labor law-breaking, mandate arbitration if bosses refuse to agree to a first contract, outlaw “right-to-work” laws, and ban boss-run “captive audience” meetings and other repressive measures, among other things.

Biden said the Pro Act is needed against corporate bad apples.

“When you’re strong, you’re the only ones that keep the barbarians out,” Biden said of the nation’s unions. And comprehensive labor law reform should not only strengthen unions but also hit their enemies where it hurts. “They only understand power,” he said of workers’ corporate foes.

“We should think about criminalization” of labor law-breaking, Biden, one of the leaders in national opinion polls, told Ian Bharath of Local 817 in New York City, whose question was televised into the Cedar Rapids session. The crowd cheered. “They should be subject to significant fines.”

Significant fines, for Biden, would go beyond the Pro Act. The act, now pending before the Democratic-run U.S. House, includes a $50,000 fine for the first labor law-breaking offense and $100,000 for second and following offenses. “But for a major corporation, that doesn’t mean a thing,” Biden said.

“Want to get somebody’s attention? Take it out of their pocket,” Biden declared, twice.

“And if in fact, it becomes a serious, serious offense, we should thank about criminalization.” He would impose the fines not just on firms, but on those corporate officers who are “putting it (law-breaking) together.” Only a few such criminal cases would get corporate attention and force changed behavior, Biden predicted.

“If you’re engaged in trying to prevent people from voting in a polling place in a regular election, what happens? You can be held criminally liable. What is the fundamental difference between saying that a powerful employer can intimidate workers to not get engaged and vote for a union, that you have a right to vote for?”

Buttigieg proposed multi-million dollar fines on firms that break labor law or misclassify workers as “independent contractors,” thus denying them worker rights, unemployment insurance and workers comp, while forcing them to shoulder their own expenses, plus employers’ shares of Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes.

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“When a company is breaking the law, whether it is misclassification, or interfering with union elections, or not offering equal time on company time” for stewards to do their jobs “or whatever it is, we need to have multi-million-dollar penalties,” Buttigieg told trucker Josue Alvarez, a misclassified “independent contractor” by his employer, XPO, at the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach. The Teamsters have waged a years-long campaign to organize those truckers.

Not only is there a lack of labor law enforcement, the South Bend, Ind., mayor said, but “even when there’s a violation, the fine doesn’t have any teeth.”

“That will end when I’m president,” he declared. “The penalties will be harsh enough to make them change their act.”

On other issues, both Sanders – its author – and Booker reiterated their support for Medicare For All, the comprehensive government-run single-payer health insurance plan. Klobuchar criticized it, saying that “on page eight, it says right there that private health insurance will be taken away.”

Buttigieg again touted his “Medicare For All Who Want It” alternative, saying workers should get to choose between Sanders’ plan and their own health insurance. Biden favored strengthening the ACA, including enacting a “public option,” seen as a weaker form of Medicare For All.

And the lawmakers plus Buttigieg endorsed legislation by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to solve the problems of troubled multi-employer pension plans through long-term low-interest federal loans. Brown’s legislation would mandate such plans present viable plans for getting back on their feet without cutting payouts to current beneficiaries by “30 or 40 or 50%,” as Klobuchar put it.

The Teamsters Central States plan is the largest of those in trouble and Teamster members have lobbied lawmakers for more than a year for a solution for the legislation. Current law, which one hopeful said the GOP-run Congress passed “literally, in the dead of the night five years ago,” lets financially shaky plans keep themselves alive by making such cuts, with Treasury Department approval.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).