October 26, 2017

There are two ways of looking at Democratic candidate for governor Nate Boulton’s strong ties to unions — from a rural Iowa voting point of view.

One perspective is potentially encouraging, the other devastating to the Terrace Hill ambitions of this indisputably bright, 37-year-old rising star in the Iowa Democratic Party.

Much of rural Iowa, certainly the vast sweep of west-central Iowa we cover, has little in the way of private-sector unions. The vast majority of the people working in non-government jobs in Carroll and Greene and Guthrie counties are not represented by unions.

In Carroll, where I’ve been involved in business and economic development for more than 20 years, I rarely encounter a union representative at key meetings involving decisions on most anything outside of government activity. In fact, I can think of few union leaders other than, again, the Teamsters and AFSCME (which represent government employees) that we have even had occasion to quote for local stories.

Unions involved with people in the private sector (with some exceptions for certain trades and meat processing and packing) are just not part of the rural Iowa economic dynamic and haven’t been for some time. They aren’t at the table or in the discussion, and rural Republican voters, whether small business owners or employees of larger manufacturing facilities, would most assuredly rank unions on a favorability scale somewhere between transgender bathrooms and Michelle Obama.

That considered, Boulton, a state senator from East Des Moines who has been endorsed by a raft of unions, said he would like to see more private-sector unions representing rural Iowa employees, at large business where there are now no unions.

“Yeah, I’m someone who comes from a family where my grandfather was a UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Union steward in a meatpacking plant, had a good quality of life because of the wages and benefits that came with that job,” Boulton said in an interview with this newspaper Monday. “My father came out of a tire plant in Muscatine that was a union tire plant, had good benefits, good wages.”

So does Boulton, an attorney, think, specifically, it would be good for Carroll to have more private businesses with union employees?

“I think so, yeah,” Boulton said. “I think that helps drive the economy, helps drive competition in terms of making sure employees are getting adequate benefits. One of the biggest threats to Iowa’s future is stagnant wage growth, and not seeing working-class Iowans and middle-class Iowans being able to sustain a quality of life that they should be able to expect in a state like Iowa.”

Introducing more unions into the employment landscape of rural Iowa is, in this day and age, a radical idea sure to be met with hostility from a variety of power centers, from chambers of commerce to traditional Republican voters to independents fearful that union organizing would chase businesses out of already-struggling rural Iowa to the South.

Ronald Reagan famously joked that one of the most frightening sentences in the English language is: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

And here comes Boulton with some version of: “I’m here in rural Iowa to help unions help you.”

We’ll see.

On the other hand ...

Boulton makes the case for the importance of government jobs, union-represented teachers and county and local employees, in Iowa’s rural reaches. These positions, and the benefits they bring, the opportunities to have good, off-farm jobs, are central for vitality in many small towns, Boulton said.

Boulton served as the floor manager in the Iowa Senate for the opposition to the revised collective-bargaining bill — a position that vaulted him into higher profile with labor groups.

“It should be rural Iowa that sees that threat more than anyone else,” Boulton said. “You want to talk about a successful family farm or family business in rural Iowa, most of them are going to count on that off-farm job, or that outside-that-small-business income, and benefits from working at the school, at the county clerk’s office, or something where those facilities are absolutely necessary to sustaining our rural community. We talk about underfunding education or changes in the public sector bargaining, we talk about the deterioration of health benefits or Iowa Public Employees Retirement System, that impact in rural Iowa is going to be very, very harsh.”

There’s no going back for Boulton at this point. He’s all in. His campaign lists endorsements from 28 labor unions.

That’s terrific for Boulton in larger and some mid-sized cities in Iowa — and in certain rural places like Wilton, where there is a steelworkers presence, for example.

Of course, Boulton has messaging beyond the union tie, but it is the central thread of his campaign and his own values system.

The question is: Can a union-backed Democrat from East Des Moines (with roots in Columbus Junction) connect in rural Iowa with such a prominent flying of the union label?

For better or worse, most business owners I know in rural Iowa would rather install a transgender bathroom (building it themselves on a Saturday) than deal with union employees.