In a remote upper floor of the Quaker Oats complex in Cedar Rapids, journeyman sheet metal worker Steve Devereux and his co-workers were excited about the chance to bend some metal into a force for good.
The workers were crafting a five-and-a-half-foot-tall replica of a Salvation Army kettle that will be used to attract attention for the not-for-profit's annual holiday kettle donation drive.
"I like the opportunity to use the skills I've developed for the community," Devereux said.
It was also, he acknowledged, an interesting detour from his usual work — making purely functional objects that provide a safe environment for food production and fellow workers.
The kettle was so large that the journeyman sheet metal workers and machinists were contemplating a system of chutes to channel donations to a removal hatch on the side. That way, volunteers wouldn't have to risk injury climbing inside the roughly 400-pound kettle to retrieve donations.
Lt. Michael Sjogren of the Salvation Army had seen several of the giant kettles used to publicize kettle campaigns in other places.
"This looks more to scale than anything I've ever seen," Sjogren said, admiring the craftsmanship.
Last year, Devereux and other union workers at the world's largest cereal mill made a large plaque to honor military veterans in Quaker's work force. As it did with the Salvation Army project, Quaker Oats provided materials and tools for the workers in the plant's three main crafts unions — Machinists Local 831, Sheet Metal Workers Local 263 and Millwrights Local 1039.
"It helps build morale in the shop to have these kinds of things," said Steve Boardman, who oversees maintenance at the plant. "They could build anything."
Giving back is one of the unsung stories of the union movement.
"I don't think people realize what a great relationship we have with the nonprofit agencies within our community," said Rick Moyle, executive director of the Hawkeye Labor Council, a confederation of 40 labor union locals with about 8,000 members in seven counties. "We're helping them help people — and not just union folks."
When His Hands Free Medical Clinic had to find a new home for its free health clinic in 2011, it turned to the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council for help.
The free clinic acquired four connected storefronts at 400 12th St. SE for its new quarters, but the floors were all found to be on different levels. Clinic leaders thought they'd just use a system of ramps to make it all work together, but the building unions came up with a plan to bring all the floors up to the same level.
The project brought together apprentices, journeymen and retirees from 11 area unions, which are marketed as the Building Pros. Two apprenticeship training programs also provided volunteers.
"They are just good guys and gals," said Sharon Patten, His Hands Free Health Clinic executive director.
The free clinic tried to keep track of all the people who worked with a sign-in sheet so that it could thank everybody later. It didn't work.
"They all had keys and they would just come in when they needed to get something done," Patten said.
The volunteers returned to help out when His Hands Free Health Clinic needed work done to open a dental unit in February, and recently poured fresh concrete pavement in the front and back of the building.
There have been other activities. The Hawkeye Labor Council started a Union Community Outreach Day earlier this year that has worked with the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program to package food for distribution to needy households.
During a Day of Solidarity on Aug. 25, the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council held a motorcycle poker run to raise money for the Veterans Association and Domestic Violence & Prevention Program. The Hawkeye Labor Council held a golf outing to raise funds for Eastern Iowa Honor Flight.
Labor council members always participate in the massive annual food drive of the Letter Carrier's union, and the United Way Day of Caring. The labor group has a United Way of East Central Iowa liaison, and participates in annual union bowling fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association that earlier this year raised $18,000.
The Hawkeye Labor Council's Moyle said the projects are just one layer of union support and philanthropy in the community as most individual unions also have projects. Many of them revolve around skills unique to a particular trade or craft.
Retired members of the Sheet Metal Workers union rose to the occasion last year when the city of Cedar Rapids asked if its members would consider helping restore a Statue of Liberty replica that had been damaged in the June 2008 flood.
After using their skills to meticulously restore the Cedar Rapids statue, the Sheet Metal Workers were again approached by the Iowa City public schools. This time, it was a Statue of Liberty that had been even more badly damaged by moisture because it was filled with cement years earlier following vandalism repairs.
"As far as we're concerned, that Statute of Liberty is as important as the American flag," said Jerry Hintz, retired apprenticeship coordinator for the Sheet Metal Workers.
Moyle said it's characteristic of union volunteers not to make much ado of the fact that they're with the union."We have a tendency to do these things, but unannounced as a labor person," he said. "We don't do it to get recognition. We do it because we're your neighbors."