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Local union leaders, workers celebrate 'our day' with annual picnic
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Local union leaders, workers celebrate 'our day' with annual picnic

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SIOUX CITY | Hundreds of Siouxlanders spent their Labor Day afternoon enjoying free food, games and a little bit of politics at the annual Labor Day Picnic in Riverside Park. 

The event, held each year by the Northwest Iowa Central Labor Council, is a Labor Day tradition that dates back more than 70 years. 

"It's our day," said council president Rick Scott. "It's the union members' day. We created this holiday, and that's what makes it special for all of us."

Political speakers Monday included Democrat Kim Weaver, who is running to represent Iowa's Fourth Congressional District, and Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. Other events included a K-9 demonstration by the Woodbury County Sheriff's Office and a free photo booth. 

Ernie Colt, business representative for the Carpenters Union Local 948, which represents 21 counties in Northwest Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, said the picnic is about families, not just the workers. 

"It's about bringing working people together and bringing families together," Colt said. "We all have a history behind us, and to bring everyone together to celebrate is what I come for."

Colt said Local 948 currently has 225 members. While union membership in the building trades is down overall, he said, it remains important. 

"The major thing for us is a decent wage with benefits," Colt said. "We work with the contractors, we work with the end users, we try to work together now. It's not us against them."

Iowa reported a slight decrease in union membership from 2014 to 2015, the most recent year with data available.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 138,000 Iowa workers, or 9.6 percent, belonged to a union in 2015. That number was down a full percentage point from the 156,000, or 10.7 percent, reported in 2014.

During that time, Nebraska and South Dakota both saw slight increases. 

Union workers in Nebraska increased from 64,000 to 68,000, a rise from 7.3 to 7.7 percent.

In South Dakota, union membership increased from 18,000 to 22,000, a rise from 4.9 to 5.9 percent. 

Overall, union membership in the U.S. numbered 14.8 million workers, or 11.1 percent, in 2015. The number showed nearly no change from 2014.

Scott said Iowa compares well to other states and national totals, although he would like to see the numbers continue to rise, not drop. 

"The strength here in northwest Iowa is pretty good," Scott said. "I think in this area we're strong middle-class. We understand the importance of unions."

National union numbers are overall down from 30 years ago. In 1983, the first year with comparable union data available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, or 17.7 million union workers.

Jay Smith, an attorney for Smith and McElwain Law Offices in Sioux City, which represents the Northwest Iowa Labor Council and approximately 40 labor unions throughout Iowa, eastern Nebraska and southeastern South Dakota, said he believes strong labor unions are essential to a strong middle class. 

"It's democracy in the workplace," Smith said. "It gives workers a voice collectively to speak out. I think that's important."

BLS data show median weekly earnings of non-union workers total $776 per week, while median weekly earnings for union members total $980.

At 24.7 percent, the state of New York has the highest union membership rate, while South Carolina had the lowest at 2.1 percent.

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