Dan Kelley, a founder and president of UE Local 893, Iowa
United Professionals, died Dec. 19 at his home in Marion after a long and
valiant fight with colon cancer.
Kelley was born in the small town of Sigourney in Keokuk
County and moved to Iowa City when he was about five. As he explained to an
interviewer last year, his grandfather, a construction worker and "a real
patriarch," decided that Iowa City would boom following World War II. It
was a fateful decision. "It was a great place to grow up," Kelley
said. "I was from a working-class family. I had opportunities that were
denied to most people in my class. I had a university right there on our
doorstep. I never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for
Kelley attended the University of Iowa, but, as he admitted,
"college wasn’t my real focus. If it was a question of a demonstration
against the [Vietnam] war or finishing that course, well... The course could
always wait." He completed his studies in eight years.
Kelley eventually found a state job; as he explained,
"Iowa City is a company town, and the university and the State of Iowa
are the company." The state helped pay his way to graduate school in
Chicago, but in the late Sixties, Kelley said, "there were far more
important things to do than get a Master’s degree." The State of Iowa
didn’t see it that way. In the end, Kelley agreed to complete his schooling
in exchange for a job in the Department of Human Services.
That was in 1973. He would spend nearly three decades working
as a child abuse investigator.
'ALWAYS BELIEVED IN UNIONS'
Kelley quickly became involved in the state employees
association. "I’d always believed in unions," Kelley told the UE
NEWS. "My family believed in unions. You’re supposed to join the
union when you get a job. I joined the union. It was kind of a joke."
In part, the problem was that public employees in the Hawkeye
State didn’t have the right to bargain collectively with their employer in
those days. Kelley made it his job to transform the association into a union.
He became actively involved in, as he puts it, "dragging people to
chapter meetings," and pushing the association to fight for a
public-sector collective bargaining law. Although dismayed by the 30-year-old
activist’s long hair and beard, old-timers tapped Kelley as chapter
president. Within a year, Kelley in 1974 became president of the state-wide
organization. He quickly began recruiting young people, driving out the
anti-union forces — and joining the teachers in lobbying for a collective
The lobbying paid off. Iowa state employees gained collective
bargaining rights, as well as the attention of the nation’s largest
public-sector union. Kelley and his allies endorsed the affiliation of the
state employees association with the American Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to gain more effective union representation.
Kelley briefly went on the AFSCME staff as the union launched a major
organizing effort throughout the Hawkeye State in 1976. "We brought close
to 20,000 workers into the union," Kelley recalls. "It was
incredible. And most of them paying dues." (Iowa was then, as now, a
so-called "right-to-work" state.)
Kelley became the first president of AFSCME Council 61. But
the relationship with the big AFL-CIO union was short-lived and stormy. Early
in the process, AFSCME Pres. Jerry Wurf told Kelley: "We don’t like
large unions that function like yours do."
Kelley and his co-workers were outraged as grievances
backlogged in the hundreds and AFSCME made deals for larger units that
sacrificed the interests of social service workers. Factionalism and
corruption plagued AFSCME’s Iowa organization within just a few years,
leading to plummeting membership rolls. Kelley played a key role in developing
a plan to leave AFSCME and set up an independent union, the Iowa United
Professionals (IUP). Without money, only idealism and determination, Kelley
and colleagues achieved the near-impossible.
The new union, modeled on UE, quickly became a visible and
progressive force in the workplace and in the community. In and out of a
variety of offices, Kelley was involved in virtually every aspect of the life
of the union, from negotiating contracts with the State to torching a banner
on the statehouse steps during a demonstration.
While IUP enjoyed steady growth throughout the 1980s and into
the 1990s, Kelley and others believed that the organization’s survival would
be guaranteed by affiliation with a national union. He was outspoken in his
belief that IUP should affiliate with UE, and worked hard to achieve the 1993
affiliation vote. Kelley then put his considerable energies into building UE
Kelley was diagnosed with cancer early in 1999 and told he
might have as little as a half a year left. Nevertheless, in August of that
year Kelley traveled by bus to the UE Convention in Burlington, Vt., where he
reported on the successful affiliation of the Keokuk school workers union to
Local 893 — which Kelley had helped make possible.
CONTINUED TO WORK - AND FIGHT
He continued to work full-time as a child abuse investigator
while carrying out his responsibilities as president of the statewide,
amalgamated union in spite of the destructive, exhaustive illness. In his
final weeks he met with other Local 893 leaders to prepare for 2001 bargaining
with the State (as pictured in the November
edition of the UE NEWS online).
Kelley is survived by his wife Sylvia and children Deirdre,
Kathleen, Colleen, Brendan and Molly.
UE News - 01/01