Solidarity in the Gate City
March 28 marked the six month anniversary for Roquette America locking out roughly 240 union workers in Keokuk. Hundreds of people from throughout the Midwest met in the southeast Iowa city over the weekend to stand in solidarity with the union. The event also served as a rallying cry for the working class.
Supporters honked their car horns as more than 400 people marched along Main Street in downtown Keokuk.
The demonstrators marched from the Keokuk Labor Temple to the intersection of 14th and Main and back, carrying signs and chanting.
Todd Miller organized this latest rally. It is the third to be held since he and his fellow members of BCTGM, Local 48G were locked out by Roquette America on September 28, 2010.
Miller was impressed with the turnout on a day when temperatures were in the low 30's.
"Very nice to see so many people supporting us and supporting the working class of America," says Miller.
Miller is a 3rd generation worker at the plant so the lockout is especially personal to him.
"I feel betrayed by my company for doing this to me after my 32 years of service, my dad's 45 years of services, and my grandpa's 40 years of service," says Miller.
That sense of betrayal turns to pride when Miller talks about his fellow union members.
"When you are in a situation like we are," says Miler, "sometimes you get down. This kind of event (though) just uplifts a person's spirits and makes them feel better. It also makes them that there are people supporting them, not only from this town or this state, but also from other states."
The rally portion of the event lasted about two hours. More than a dozen people took to the microphone to lead chants or to encourage people to stick together during the lockout.
Buzz Malone writes the Iowa Political Jumble blog. He says what is happening in Keokuk is happening throughout the United States.
"It's not just little attacks all over, it's a war against the working class," says Malone, "On all of us, every one of us. What Roquette America has done here, what Governor Walker has done in Wisconsin, and what "Bumstad" (Iowa Governor Terry Branstad,) has done here in Iowa, it's part of a war. It is like they busted through a window like thieves in the night and try to steal food of your families plates."
Malone says he is tired of waiting for politicians to do something. He says it is time for the working class to stand up and take over.
Wilbur Wilson says there is only one way to do that. The retired steelworker from Des Moines says pro-union changes start on Election Day.
"You need to vote and you need to take someone else with you, dragging and screaming, to the polls," says Wilson, "Grab them by the belt and get them to the polls to vote. Because we are under assault here people. This is not merely a one-time deal, this is a long term plan.)
Wilson repeated the call for the working class to stick together especially the locked out union members in Keokuk.
He says that means helping a union brother or sister with groceries or simply giving another member a hug when they're feeling down.
Darrell Lillie says the road ahead may seem long and difficult for the locked out workers in Keokuk He believes progress is on the horizon.
Lillie is the president of a union whose members have been locked out for nine months in Metropolis, Illinois. He believes progress is on the horizon in Keokuk because of recent developments in Metropolis.
"We went 8 months and the bargaining was none," says Lillie, "it was either their way or the highway. I can tell you all now, about three weeks ago, we went to the table and they said, we see you are not going to give up on your seniority,' and we said no, we were not.' Since then, we started talking about seniority and are in the process of writing up the language."
Just getting back to the table is the challenge right now in Keokuk.
It's been more than one month since union representatives and Roquette America met and no future meetings are scheduled.
I asked Roquette America for an interview as part of this story. The company declined.
Instead of an interview, Roquette America released a brief statement reiterating its focus on six core contract goals and that the workers cannot return without a signed contract.
Todd Miller says, despite everything that has happened, he is ready to go back to work.
"We want our company to be prosperous and we want our company to make money," says Miller, "but all we ask in return for our hard hours of services is to be treated fairly."
The locked out union workers in Keokuk were reminded over the weekend that until they can return to work, there is plenty of support for them at home and throughout the Midwest.