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Dan Kelley, Local 893
Founder and President, Dies


Dan Kelley

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 that."

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.


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 bargaining law.

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 in Iowa.

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.


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

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