DES MOINES -- A picketing president? Bernie Sanders said it could be him.
“Yeah, I might. That’s right. Why not?” Sanders said after addressing AFSCME union members on Saturday in Altoona, Iowa.
The day before, Sanders picketed outside a Cedar Rapids plant that produces specialized starches alongside union workers engaged in a battle with the plant’s parent company, Ingredion, over new contract negotiations.
To a crowd of 400 last Thursday in Burlington, Iowa—an old, union town hit hard over the last three decades by shuttered factories—Sanders emphatically stated: “The bottom line is: For millions of American workers, wages in this country are just too damn low.”
Since announcing his candidacy, Sanders has zeroed in on blue-collar voters, consistently addressing low wages, unemployment issues and the country’s trade policies in stump speeches—pushing back against the notion that the economic recovery is as strong as often touted.
“I assumed I would be a Hillary supporter—and rightly or wrongly, probably because I feel like in the last 20 years, the greatest time we had between financial stability was during Bill Clinton’s run,” said Ron Lowe, 52, of Grinnell, Iowa.
But Lowe said he will caucus for Sanders in February. He drove 45 minutes with his mother-in-law last Thursday to see the Democratic candidate at a rally.
“I feel like he’s not a filthy rich millionaire,” Lowe said. “He wants to take on the rich, powerful people that seem to make all these decisions without any regard to the people in the middle to lower class. And it’s so obvious that the rich keep getting richer.”
Lowe, a father of four, is unemployed after losing his job three months ago. He worked in Grinnell’s Donaldson plant—since the age of 24—manufacturing mufflers for agricultural equipment. But over the years, the company moved jobs to Mexico and other states, where Lowe said non-union facilities gave the company a cheaper option. Its last employees are expected to be out of work by the end of the year.
At a time when Democrats tout the economic recovery, Sanders harps on the economic data point of real unemployment, a point often used by his Republican counterparts. Despite a decrease in nationwide unemployment to 5.1%, the unemployment rate does not account for individuals who are underemployed, have given up looking for work and others who are working part time but would like to work full time. Including those individuals, the unemployment figure is 10.3%.
“It is absolutely imperative that we stop the hemorrhaging of decent paying jobs because of our disastrous trade policies,” Sanders said. "You are looking at a Senator and former congressman who voted against [North American Free Trade Agreement], against [Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement], against permanent trade relations with China. And you’re looking at a senator who is going to do everything he can to help defeat this disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Sanders provides a contrast to Sec. Hillary Clinton on trade—without naming her directly. Though she hasn’t taken a stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton helped kickstart the negotiations, and Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law.
“To simply blame the Republicans for that would be unfair,” Sanders said on Saturday. “Democratic presidents have been involved in that trade policy. It has been bipartisan. It has been wrong.”
Matt Richards, 56, of Newtown lost his job in 2007 when the town’s Maytag plant closed, putting more than 2500 employees out of work. Richards worked at the facility for 23 years as an oiler, doing jobs like greasing conveyer lines.
“It’s a whole different town now. There was a lot of money here when Maytag was here,” Richards said. “The crazy part of it is these jobs—for a small town like we are—was awesome pay, good benefits, you had some vacation time … It makes it tough in this small town.”
Richards—though not ready to fully commit to a candidate—says Sanders’ message resonates.
“A lot of people like Bernie. He has a lot of good ideas,” Richards said. “And what he talks about, getting our wages up there, you got to let a guy make a living wage to take care of a family. You know, nine bucks an hour isn’t going to cut it or ten bucks an hour. You’ve got to let a guy get to where he can make some money.”
Last month, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, called Bernie Sanders “a warrior” at a labor forum hosted in Iowa.
“I want to say thank you for being a warrior for working people—not just lately but for your entire career,” Trumka said to Sanders in front of 200 union workers. “All of us are living a little bit better because of that. And we want to say thank you for those efforts. You’ve earned them.”
Trumka, however, made it clear on "Meet the Press" Sunday that he will not personally endorse a candidate and likes both Clinton and Sanders.
Another former Maytag employee and United Auto Workers union member, Lonnie White, 66, a porcelain sprayer at the time, sat in the back row of Sanders’ event on the Meskwaki Settlement in central Iowa on Thursday.
“I think that he’s what the Democrats used to be,” White said. “I think the Democratic Party used to be exactly what he represents. Taking care of each other. I think we’ve gotten away from that and gone to the middle.”