Solidarity Makes Us Strong: A Labor Struggle In Dubuque

In Iowa, a so-called “right to work” state, we know our employment is subject to the whims of our boss. As in so many states across the country, workers in Iowa are increasingly under attack. Last year, Republicans in the Iowa legislature fast-tracked passage of a bill that restricted collective bargaining rights. Consequently, unions can no longer bargain for necessary conditions such as health insurance, evaluation procedures, staff reductions, and leaves of absence for political purposes. Restricting public bargaining to base pay alone struck a significant blow to public-sector unions and the workers they represent.

Additionally, the state has restricted the ability of municipalities to enact their own minimum-wage laws or to pass other local initiatives such as paid sick leave. The legislators who passed these laws claimed that they were simply trying to clarify the existing state code, but the impact on workers is widely felt across the state. Several counties that previously fought to pass their own higher minimum wage laws have since had those laws stripped away.

Dubuque is the home of Iowa’s oldest craft organization, the Dubuque Typographical Union No. 22 established in 1855. Workers continued to form unions throughout the next several decades, including a dramatic increase in union participation due to the organizing work of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. 1903 marked the height of labor power in Dubuque, including a streetcar worker’s strike that stopped the city’s transit system for seven weeks and union participation making up an estimated two-thirds of the Dubuque workforce. Unfortunately, as manufacturing companies moved out of Dubuque, union membership declined as well. Over 100 years later, many workers in Dubuque are struggling to make ends meet in a system that favors tax breaks for businesses over fair labor practices for the rest of us.  

This past December, the precariousness of our positions as workers became even clearer. A local lawyer contacted the Dubuque Democratic Socialists about a client he was representing who was being sued by her former employer for violating a non-compete agreement. He knew us from our advocacy on local housing issues, and was hoping we would be interested in learning more about his case in order to possibly take action against the employer.

We held a special meeting for our chapter so the lawyer could share more details about the case with our membership. His client, Julia, was a cook who had moved to Dubuque just prior to starting work for a local pizza place through a temp agency. When she started working there, her boss had her sign paperwork and told her that they would definitely hire her when her temporary contract was up. Excited to start her new job, and trusting her employer’s word, Julia signed all the paperwork — including a non-compete agreement that the boss advised was a minor formality.

Six weeks later, the boss decided to not hire Julia and promptly terminated her. She worked at a few places before settling into a job at another pizza place in town. One day, her old boss came into Julia’s new place of employment and saw her. A week later, Julia was served a lawsuit for violating her non-compete agreement — to the tune of $10,000 in damages.

Non-compete agreements are a mechanism employers use, ostensibly, to prevent employees from taking proprietary information to a company’s competitors. Today, employers increasingly use them to control the movement of low-wage workers. By denying employees the possibility of finding jobs at competing businesses after they leave or are fired, these companies effectively lock in employees at lower wages. In cases where the employee does leave and violate the agreement, the consequences can be devastating.

That was exactly Julia’s predicament. When she was served the papers for her lawsuit, she was surprised to learn she had signed the agreement at all. But when she read the text of the actual agreement, she was incensed. In an egregious example of capitalist overreach, her non-compete clause demands the following:

Employee agrees that at any time during the Employee’s employment or upon termination of his or her employment for any reason, Employee will not enter into, work for, solicit for or engage in any way, directly or indirectly, as an individual, employee, officer, partner, manager or other business associate of any proprietorship, partnership, association, corporation or other business enterprise engaged in the pizza restaurant business, pizza food truck business or fast casual restaurant during the Employee’s employment and for a period of eighteen months from the effective date of termination within a fifty mile radius of Dubuque.

The ramifications of such an agreement are absurd. Simply by setting foot in a grocery store or gas station that sells pizza, Julia would technically violate the agreement. In her case, as a trained line cook who enjoyed the pizza business and needed to find a job immediately, the agreement’s restrictions meant she could not work anywhere she was qualified within an hour of her home. And now she was being sued by her old boss for damages. The court case had been pending for half a year before we met her, and the stress was taking a serious toll on her well-being. Dubuque is a small place and she was afraid of going anywhere she could run into her former employers. Although her new boss was initially supportive, he became more concerned that his own position would be compromised as the lawsuit dragged on and Julia opted to leave.

The members of our chapter jumped at the chance to defend Julia in what was such a clear example of the struggle between the working class and capitalist class. During our discussion we quickly came to a consensus on an approach that had previously worked in our housing activism: the escalation campaign. Those of us familiar with Julia’s former boss knew that nothing would motivate them faster than negative attention — they are very protective of their reputation in town. Using an escalation campaign that began with a demand letter gave them the chance to do the right thing first, but it also promised that not cooperating would have swift, negative consequences for their reputation.

We immediately sent the business a letter through certified mail, which included the following:

As Democratic Socialists, we stand and act in solidarity with workers, and we are particularly concerned to defend the moral rights of precariously situated workers who do not enjoy union representation. We view the inclusion of the non-compete clause in your manual as a predatory and dictatorial practice that seeks to unjustly inhibit the mobility and livelihoods of the low-wage laborers in your employ.

We demand (1) the immediate withdrawal of your lawsuit; (2) a formal written commitment from you that you will strike the non-compete clause from your employee manual; and (3) that you pay [Julia]’s legal fees in relation to your lawsuit. If you do not agree to these terms, we will pursue all legally available forms of direct action against your business, including, but not limited to, picketing, boycotting, leafleting, and organizing a social and traditional media campaign.

We advised the business they had three business days to respond. Then we waited.

On the third business day, a few of us conducted a short video interview with Julia. As she told us her story, the frustration, fear, and anger in her voice were clear as day. Living our lives at the whims of capitalists, fearing their retribution when we step out of the lines they’ve drawn for us, is killing us. We were ready to fight.

When the interview was over, both Julia and I realized we had messages from her lawyer — Julia’s lawsuit had been dropped. While we were open to continuing our pressure campaign until all the conditions were met, Julia was eager to leave the nightmare behind her.

Julia is not alone. Across the country, businesses are trying to use non-compete clauses as a way to discipline low-wage workers. In many cases the agreements are so broad as to be unenforceable, yet many workers are in no financial position to seek legal counsel to fight them. However, in 2016 the attorney general of New York, in conjunction with the attorney general in Illinois, successfully pressured the fast food franchise Jimmy John’s to eliminate their non-compete clause from employment contracts.

Additionally, in 2018 the New Jersey attorney general along with attorneys general from ten other states and D.C. began taking aim at eight fast-food companies: Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Little Caesars, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Popeyes Louisiana Chicken and Panera Bread. In a letter to these companies, the attorneys general accused them of executing franchise agreements in their states that subject their employees to unfair non-compete agreements. It is encouraging to see these agreements receive greater scrutiny, but much more needs to be done.

Our chapter walked away from this campaign animated by the opportunity to stand in solidarity with Julia, and steeled in our commitment to struggle for workers’ rights. Because of the municipal pre-emption laws passed last year, we cannot seek a city-wide ban on non-compete agreements. Consequently, our Workers’ Rights Working Group began investigating whether we might pursue a statewide ban instead.

This campaign would face significant barriers in our state. Republicans currently have a super-majority in the Iowa legislature, which has made it extremely difficult to pass any pro-worker legislation. Before we have any hope of seeing such legislation pass into law, DSA chapters would need to organize throughout the state to elect lawmakers who prioritize the rights of workers. While we absolutely want to see more pro-worker legislators in the state house, up to now our local has been reluctant to become very involved in Democratic Party politics.

Since our beginning in 2017, our work priorities have been guided by two main principles: where is the most deeply felt need and what issues are other organizations in Dubuque unwilling or unable to take on. Those principles have led us to establish the Dubuque Renters’ Union and to engage in more confrontational tactics than are commonly seen in Dubuque. That activity is what led the lawyer to contact us in the first place, and it has served us in landlord and tenant negotiations as well. So far, the principles have not aligned with electoral work.

However, regardless of whether we take on this campaign at this point in time, it makes sense for our local and for other Iowa DSA chapters to develop some of the skills, relationships, and infrastructure a campaign of this nature would require. First, we ought to be building relationships with labor unions and workers in our communities as well as discussing these agreements and how they restrict our freedom to find the jobs that suit us best. Second, in all of our conversations we can learn how to effectively listen to and agitate people who don’t yet identify with the working class. As we agitate, we can become more effective in onboarding new folks into our ongoing projects and help them to develop their own leadership skills. And third, we can continue to cultivate strong relationships between chapters so that when we need to coordinate at the state level we have some infrastructure already in place.

All of this groundwork will be useful for any other large-scale campaigns we will need to pursue as we try to build out the socialist society we are all fighting for. As we experienced in this case — and as we continue to learn as we see chapters across this country celebrate their victories — when we fight, we win.

Christine Darr is a member of Dubuque DSA.