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Bernie Sanders’s Multiracial, Working-Class Base Was On Display In Iowa

Through dogged organizing and a class-based message, Bernie Sanders cleaned up among young and nonwhite voters in last week's Iowa caucus. It’s proof that the coalition he’s assembling has the multiracial working class at its center.

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders cheer during his caucus night watch party on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On May 14, 1937, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the upstart union federation organizing the country’s mass production industries, awarded the Ottumwa, Iowa local of the United Packing House Workers its first charter for meatpacking employees. Workers had fought a pitched battle with their employer, John Morrell and Co., which sixteen years earlier had used the Iowa National Guard to break their strike and bust their union.

Last Monday afternoon, in a decidedly more subdued environment — the red metal union hall of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Ottumwa local — immigrant workers who toil on the late-night shift at the local meatpacking plant assembled at a “satellite caucus” to deliver their verdict in the Democratic presidential primary.

It was a speedy affair: in less than twenty minutes, the fifteen attendees had filled out caucus cards and divided up into “preference groups.” All but one, an Elizabeth Warren organizer, went for the Vermont senator. And because Warren fell below the “viability” threshold (15 percent), Sanders grabbed all the site’s delegates — the first awarded in the 2020 Iowa caucus.

“Most of the people in here are from Africa, there was a guy here from Bosnia,” one caucusgoer, Tarik, told me after the event (he requested I not use his last name). “We just want someone who’s going to work for us, make America better. We want to have the best future for everybody.”

The face of the Iowa working class has morphed since the heyday of the CIO and the Packing House Workers union. In those years, Ottumwa was almost entirely white, with meatpacking workers mostly of English, Swedish, and German descent. These days, nearly a quarter of the city is nonwhite. Ottumwa isn’t an anomaly. While Iowa remains about 90 percent white, many pockets of the state boast relatively high numbers of nonwhite residents.

In the months leading up to the caucus, Bernie Sanders, more than any other candidate, made it a point to court these workers — even organizing for the “satellite caucuses” aimed at nontraditional voters that other presidential hopefuls wrote off. It worked. According to exit polls, the democratic socialist won 38 percent of nonwhite caucusgoers — trouncing his next closest competitor, Joe Biden, by 21 percentage points — and 32 percent of participants with a household income under $50,000. (That number jumped to 43 percent for those making under $25,000.)

Iowa, by dint of its first-in-the-nation status, became the testing ground for Sanders’s audacious wager: that he could build a multiracial working-class base to power a political revolution. With the results finally in — and New Hampshire set to vote tomorrow — we can safely say he’s in the early stages of delivering on that bet.

The Changing Face of Iowa Workers

From the late 1930s until the early 1950s, Local 1 of the United Packing House Workers was synonymous with shop floor militancy. Ottumwa’s meatpacking workers, many of them schooled in the tactics of worker solidarity in Iowa’s south-central coal mines, repeatedly spearheaded job actions to prevent the company from speeding up work and foisting imperious managers on them.

In one characteristic action in 1938, Clarence “Bronc” Poncy, a “beef kill” worker, initiated a sit-down strike to challenge the pace of slaughtering. He convinced the rest of his crew to join, leaving the foreman and department supervisor little choice but to concede. A new pace was established. “Morrell workers’ solidarity,” Wilson Warren writes in his history of the local, “would result in the creation of one of the most dynamic CIO union movements in the meatpacking industry.”

But by the 1960s, a “structural revolution” had hit the meatpacking industry: “Between the early 1960s and mid-1990s,” Warren writes, “dozens of old-line, medium and large-city midwestern, unionized plants closed. [Companies] replaced them with new, nonunion beef and pork processing facilities.” Iowa Beef Processing, founded in 1961, was a leader in stoking the shift. The company bought animals directly from farmers, deskilled the work with automation, and deployed a “total managerial strategy of low-wage labor at all costs.” The unions that were able to hang on struggled to secure good contracts. Meatpacking became less lucrative and more dangerous.

An important part of the new normal was hiring immigrant labor, which companies often actively recruited to ruthlessly exploit. In small and medium-sized towns across Iowa, Latinos became the archetypal packinghouse worker. The 1980 census recorded a Hispanic population of less than 1 percent; the most recent figures place that number at more than 6 percent. Between 2000 and 2018, the size of the Hispanic community shot up by 136 percent. Three counties now have Latino populations of more than 20 percent, and several others are in double digits.

The larger numbers didn’t translate into political or economic power. Companies refused to concede basic rights to the new workforce and banked on the country’s immigration system keeping workers afraid and in line. In 2008, the northeast Iowa town of Postville (population 2,000) was ripped apart when immigration agents raided a meatpacking plant and rounded up four hundred workers. Before it was over, about a fourth of the town had disappeared. (The company’s CEO ultimately served prison time, but President Trump commuted his sentence.)

Immigrant workers in meatpacking and other industries learned to keep their heads down, contributing much to their local communities without raising a stink. Iowa’s major business owners no doubt thought they’d gotten a great deal. But many of those same immigrant workers (and especially their children) now form a crucial part of Bernie Sanders’s socialist campaign — one of the most ambitious efforts to roll back corporate power in years.

Bernie’s Working-Class Base

Last Monday night, Spanish-language caucusgoers piled into a room at a community college in Muscatine, an eastern Iowa town sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River. About one-fifth of the city is Hispanic, and Bernie Sanders’s campaign was out in full force. Scores of volunteers and organizers with shirts touting the presidential hopeful (“Tío Bernie,” “Unidos con Bernie”) dwarfed the offerings of other campaigns.

After representatives from four candidates (Sanders, Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigeig) made their pitches, attendees were asked to move to their preferred candidate. The whole room stood up — and a wave of people surged to one corner. The first tally put Sanders at seventy-two. Everyone else (undecideds included): twelve. With no other candidate reaching viability, Sanders snatched up all of the site’s delegates.

After the caucus, Jesus Martinez, a seventy-eight-year-old retired factory worker, explained why he favored Sanders: “I think he offers programs for all Latinos, like Medicare, and taxing the rich more to help the economy and the poor.”

Sabina Calderon, a seventy-six-year-old childcare worker, put it more simply: “I like his way of thinking.”

Sanders’s strength among working-class Latinos was no accident. More than any other presidential campaign, Sanders staffers and volunteers fanned out across the state, organizing in cities and towns, big and small. Satellite caucuses were a main point of emphasis.

The campaign’s approach was to focus not just on immigration, “but actually getting deep into the inequalities that people face, the pain and fear from not having health care, and talking to people genuinely at the doors and through relational organizing,” said Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, a Sanders volunteer who helped push for the Spanish-language satellite caucuses.

In central Iowa, home to the state’s capital of Des Moines, the Sanders campaign put on an entirely Spanish-language party for New Year’s Eve and hosted an organizing event at a Des Moines high school that featured indoor soccer. “Events were always very genuine, at places that the community knew and trusted, with music and interpretation and a deep sense of welcoming and inclusion,” Marcano told me. On caucus night, just like in Muscatine, Sanders swept the Spanish-language satellite caucus at a YMCA on Des Moines’ South Side.

He replicated that success across the state: in many Latino-heavy cities, the New York Timesprecinct map turned locales into a sea of blue, indicating Sanders’s robust showing. Only in one — Sioux Center, located in the far northeast of the state — did the democratic socialist perform poorly. He did much better in Marshalltown, where JBS — the same meatpacking company in Ottumwa — is a major employer. In the city of 27,000 residents, about 30 percent of whom are Hispanic, Sanders won the majority of precincts and ran strongest on the east side, which skews poorer and more Latino.

In many cases, Hispanic-heavy towns proved the exception to Sanders’s otherwise underwhelming support in rural areas: In West Liberty, the first majority-minority town in Iowa, Sanders won 45 percent of the second alignment vote. In nearby Tama, he bested Biden to capture the most delegates in the city. All told, Sanders hoovered up 52 percent of the vote in the top thirty-two high-density Latino caucus locations and a stunning 67 percent in majority-Latino caucus sites, according to a UCLA study.

Sanders also performed well in black and white working-class precincts. Shortly after results began trickling in, Iowa politics writer Pat Rynard summed up the presidential aspirant’s base in Des Moines: “precincts with younger voters downtown, the African-American precincts on the North Side, Latino neighborhoods on the East Side, and [white] working-class precincts on the South Side.” The blue-collar river town of Dubuque, which is about 90 percent white, went heavily for Bernie on caucus night. In Waterloo, the city with the highest percentage of African-Americans in the state, Sanders cut into Joe Biden’s much-touted backing among African-American voters, running well in the city’s black-heavy east side. Davenport, another working-class city with a relatively large black population, proved a wellspring of support, too. Sanders won or tied for most delegates in nearly every precinct, performing particularly well in places with more black residents.

Writing in the Intercept, journalist Ryan Grim relays another caucus night story that calls into question the impermeability of Joe Biden’s black support:

At a largely black working-class precinct in central Des Moines, held at King Elementary School, Joe Biden had a level of support that was startling in comparison to his healthy polling numbers among African Americans. Of the 133 caucus-goers at Precinct 36, Sanders won 69 — more than half — while Biden was backed by just 25 percent.

On top of his appeal to working-class voters, Sanders continued to draw young people in droves. College towns were awash with Sanders stickers — as one high-level campaign staffer told me last year, the students are still with Bernie, even if the professors are partial to Warren — and the Vermont senator garnered an impressive 64 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year olds.

Put it all together, and Sanders managed to stitch together the very coalition he’s been trying to assemble from the start: young people and workers, immigrants and those shut out of the political process.

A New Way of Doing Politics

In the wake of the caucus, the Sanders campaign — eager to cut through the obfuscating swirl of Democratic Party incompetence and Mayor Pete opportunism — rightly trumpeted its showing in Iowa. Sanders netted the most votes on the first and final alignment and, without the bizarre math of the Democratic Party, would have walked away with the same number of national delegates as Buttigieg.

But if there was one hitch in Sanders’s plan, it was turnout. While young caucusgoers showed up in higher numbers, overall figures were closer to 2016 than the record-setting year of 2008, and the percentage of first-time caucusgoers dropped substantially. “Was this really what the political revolution is supposed to look like?” Pat Rynard asked.

It’s a fair question. Despite the campaign’s impressive organizing operation — sending streams of supporters to door knock throughout the Hawkeye State, relying on volunteers where other campaigns leaned on paid staffers — Sanders didn’t ignite the explosion that would have augured an impending political revolution. The candidate himself acknowledged as much, telling Ryan Grim the day after the caucus that turnout was “not as high, frankly, as I would’ve like to have seen.”

Part of the reason for the smaller caucus crowds is that many would-be voters have a bad case of political jaundice, and justifiably so: after the soaring rhetoric and crushing reality of Obama, after the quadrennial promises of prosperity and decent programs, why should ordinary people believe that Sanders, unlike every other presidential candidate in recent decades, will actually wrest power and resources away from the haves and give it to the have-nots? For these voters — and there are millions of them — Sanders will likely have to be in the White House enacting aggressive pro-worker measures before they consider dropping their well-earned skepticism. Energizing them will be the real work of the “political revolution” — and the key to fundamentally realigning the political system a la 1932 or 1980.

Still, Sanders had plenty of evidence on caucus night to suggest he’s reshaping the way this depoliticized, class-phobic country does politics. A bigger share of young people showed up to caucus than in 2008 and 2016 (it was older voters, to Joe Biden’s chagrin, who stayed home), and working-class voters of all complexions, despite not flooding to caucus sites, favored Sanders.

Most dramatically, there was the amazing tableau of the satellite caucuses: Bhutanese and Bosnian and Mexican immigrants holding aloft caucus cards scrawled with the name “Bernie Sanders”; Muslim voters at Des Moines’ 42nd St mosque, stickers and signs mingling with hijabs and prayer rugs, turning out near unanimously for the Brooklyn-born Jew; instructions read in Nepali, Swahili, French, Spanish, Lingala, Kirundi, and Kinyarwanda at an eastern Iowa elementary school — and attendees promptly handing all of the site’s delegates to Sanders.

It’s hard to claim this is an ordinary presidential campaign.

We’re decades removed from the apex of the CIO, when industrial workers, even in relatively conservative states like Iowa, remade the political terrain. Like other places around the country, an increasingly diverse working class in Iowa is constantly beset by business assaults. Union density has plummeted, and workers are disorganized. Corporate power appears untrammelled, with businesses dominating small towns and big cities alike.

But inside the UFCW union hall in Ottumwa on caucus day, there were glimmers of an alternative. As immigrant workers caucused, exercising democratic rights unthinkable in the US workplace, a blue-and-yellow sign hung on the wall: UFCW Local 230 — “una VOZ para los trabajadores” (a VOICE for workers).

Maybe workers like these — aided by the connective tissue of the Sanders campaign — will be able to beckon us toward a different, more humane, future. Perhaps even a political revolution.