Crowds gather at Iowa Capitol to fight for First Amendment rights

Protestors gather for the ‘We Are One’ rally, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, in front of the State Capitol at Des Moines. Photo: Karuna Ang/Iowa State Daily

Kaleb Warnock

“Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain,” chanted a crowd of nearly 1,000 people who gathered to reaffirm the foundation for what some people have decidedly labeled the “Labor Movement.”

Despite the 20 degree windchill and residual threat of rain, members of the Tea Party and people from nearly every workers union in Iowa gathered at the state capitol to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO joined in an effort to rally support for their Wisconsin counterparts and inform Iowa legislators that they are not willing to give up any of their rights without a fight.

“These people are fighting for their constitutional rights for freedom of assembly and freedom of association,” said Wilbur Wilson, former Firestone employee and union member. “Today is either the end or it’s the beginning. If Wisconsin falls, the labor movement is going to fall.”

People of all demographics gathered around the podium in the natural amphitheater of the capitol steps. The backdrop of the pillars of the building on one side and the Des Moines skyline on the other made for an impressive display that could be observed from miles away.

The crowd chanted phrases such as “kill the bill” and “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The crowd emphasized the importance of forming a union of people for common rights and support of the working family.

Meanwhile, a small but dedicated group of around 30 Tea Party members stood at the bottom of the hill to rally against the wishes of the labor unions and their ambitions for the Iowa Legislature.

“The ordinary taxpayer is tired of being pushed to the side when powerful unions are actually lobbying against the taxpayer,” said Gregg Cummings, founder of the “We The People” Tea Party of southern Iowa.

Cummings also questioned the integrity of the unions and was critical of their motives.

“My response is for unions to turn around and look at their own leaders,” Cummings said. “When our state legislators are getting something like $25,000 a year on average, and then have them turn around and look at their own leaders that are getting $200 to 400 thousand a year, I think it’s time to make their own cuts and give it to their own people before they go out and try to milk our system.”

However, not all Tea Partyers were against unions.

“I’m not against unions. I think unions are a good idea, however, I don’t like it when unions get involved with government,” Tea Party member Vincent Compos said. “Same thing with business. I don’t like it when businesses get involved with government.

“That’s what the problem is and that’s why we have that problem that we have today.”

Although there were some heated confrontations between Tea Party members and union organizers, the attitude remained peaceful and both groups were glad they could exercise their rights.

“I’m just thankful that this many Iowans came to stand up for workers’ rights. I’m very happy and this is a good sign,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

Sagar also alluded to a new era of politics, calling on those present to be inspired by the day’s events as inspiration to make changes at home.

“I hope that there’s energy that comes out of today and that people go back to their communities and realize that they can’t just sit back and let politics as usual work,” Sagar said. “It has to be a level of involvement that maybe people haven’t been accustomed to or comfortable with. I said democracy is not a spectator sport and I was serious. You gotta be involved.”

As the rallies disbanded, the sun finally broke through the clouds and those present joined in song to the theme of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” led by guitarist, Guitar Guy.

“Solidarity forever. Solidarity forever. Solidarity forever,” the crowd sang. “The union makes us strong.”