EAST MOLINE — As U.S. senators, members of Congress, state representatives, aspiring politicians and a crowd of hundreds gathered for a Labor Day picnic Monday, a voice of dissent boomed across the Rock Island County Fairgrounds.
The 52nd annual Rock Island County Democrats' annual picnic was supposed to be a united gathering of Democrats, a time to celebrate Labor Day and recognize labor unions while rallying to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.
But Quad City Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO President Dino Leone had other plans.
Leone got on the stage and took aim at local county leaders. The picnic's theme was "Salute to Labor," and Leone was there to remind local Democrats what that meant while referencing a proposed sale of the county-owned nursing home.
"We want some security. These workers have given their lives for 25 and 30 years to take care of the elderly in our community," Leone yelled. "They deserve a union contract; they deserve to be recognized by their employer. Some are choosing to say no. They don't care if they recognize the workers; they don't care if they recognize the unions.
"Are we going to let them get away with that? Hell, no, we're not going let them get away with that! Each and every one of them needs to be held responsible."
Leone was not happy with the county board's decision in June to sell Hope Creek Care Center, the county-owned nursing home at 4343 Kennedy Drive, East Moline. Selling the home to a private, for-profit company could affect care of the county's elderly and poor, he said.
He said he also is concerned about union workers currently employed at the nursing home and wants a guarantee they will not lose their jobs if and when the facility is sold.
Monday's lineup of speakers included four presidential candidates, the most in the picnic's history: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and spiritual adviser and author Marianne Williamson.
During Leone's five-minute rant, Gabbard was shaking hands and posing for photos with supporters. Bennet was meeting with staffers behind the stage, and Klobuchar was on her way. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was nearby, waiting for her turn to speak.
Williamson was about 50 feet away from the stage, answering questions from members of the local and national press. Her voice was difficult to pick up on microphones directly in front of her as Leone shouted from the stage, drowning her out.
Leone set his sights on Rock Island County Board Chairman Richard Brunk, County Administrator Jim Snider, and county board member Kai Swanson, going after them for their roles in putting Hope Creek up for sale. County leaders have said it will be nearly impossible to overcome the facility's $7.5 million of debt.
"Brunk hired Jim Snider," Leone said to the Labor Day crowd. "Snider is the administrator of the county you all pay for. He could give a damn about the workers at Hope Creek, and he doesn't want them to have a union contract when they sell it. No chairman that's a friend of labor should stand for that! (Snider) should have been fired on the spot!"
A smattering of applause came from some of those listening. Others shifted uncomfortably in their seats, while most stared in silence.
"And then we've got Kai Swanson, a guy that works for Augustana College and is a servant to them instead of serving the people of Rock Island County," Leone continued. "He's another one who doesn't want the union recognized. I asked him three weeks ago to give a commitment to a (union) successor agreement. To this date, he has not gotten back to me!"
"Listen, we have the responsibility to hold politicians' feet to the fire," Leone said. "If we don't, we all lose. Make sure your politicians are truly Democrats and not wolves in sheep's clothing."
Leone said Tuesday he was invited to speak by Rock Island County Democratic Party Chairman Derek Jones, who also presented Leone with an award acknowledging his ability "as a leader in labor to further the principles of the Democratic Party."
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And Leone said that was the point behind his speech. He believes some Rock Island County Democrats are not following basic Democratic principles of taking care of the community's working-class families, the sick, the elderly and the poor.
"It's up to all of us to voice those principles," Leone said Tuesday. "When those principles are being dismantled, it's up to us to explain our stance to people. It's unusual to hear a speech like that at a Democratic function, but it was necessary. At least 50 people came up to me afterward and thanked me. It's important we stand by the principles of our party."
"The foundation of why I am a Democrat is we take care of the elderly, the poor, the working class and the community," Leone said. "I was brought up on the principle of this being the Democratic party. They understand labor is an important example of working people. We have to challenge our own to stay true to our principles.
"It's labor's job to make sure politicians don't tell us one thing and do another. Brunk said he is opposed to contracting out of public services and privatizing the nursing home. I am challenging that. You can't tell us those are your principles. I called it out because it needed to be called out. Otherwise people get disgusted with politicians. In my 40 years as being a labor leader, I've learned you have to hold politicians accountable," Leone said.
On Tuesday, Leone said he also was upset by recent problems at the Rock Island County Health Department involving former chief nursing officer Shari Ornter, who was terminated Aug. 19 after months of formal complaints of discrimination and harassment being filed by union employees. A lawsuit was filed April 12 by a former employee against the health department involving Ortner.
Leone said the situation at the health department could have been resolved with discussions between county and labor officials.
"But it turned into several lawsuits instead," Leone said. "And they're very good lawsuits."
Leone said he wants an employee successorship contract in place guaranteeing union employees at Hope Creek will keep their jobs.
"If we care about the elderly in our community, you create an ongoing care plan of (Hope Creek) residents," Leone said. "So no matter who the owner is, you've got a smooth transition. When the workers suffer, the public suffers. I am very disappointed that all this suffering has to go on because of failed management.
"I've talked to Derek Jones. He knows how I feel about some of these board members and the way they operate," Leone said. "Elected officials are in charge of the public trust."
Swanson, who was present at the Labor Day picnic, responded Tuesday to Leone's onstage comments.
"I think after the comments (Leone) made publicly, I am inclined not to call him back," Swanson said. "I don't think he's interested in discourse."
Swanson said he has told Leone he is "uncomfortable with successor language" for union employees at Hope Creek Care Center.
"I have always been proud as a Democrat to seek the option that does the best for the most people, and that means to resist the encouragements of small special-interest groups, no matter how loudly those encouragements are delivered," Swanson said.
Swanson also said he was not happy to hear Leone mention his employer — Augustana College — during his comments.
"What interest would that employer have other than making the Quad-Cities as attractive as can be?" Swanson said.
"I couldn't be prouder to be a Democrat," Swanson said. "I have always respected Dino, and I will look for other ways to advance Democratic principles in partnership with him."