State of Iowa, employee union contract talks head to binding arbitration

Two sites hope to reach agreement on new two-year contract

Negotiators for the state and its largest public employees’ union have gone to binding arbitration in hopes of hammering out a new two-year collective bargaining agreement beginning July 1.

Officials at the state Department of Administrative Services confirmed Tuesday that arbitration meetings are under way with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61.

State negotiators previously reached a voluntary agreement with the State Police Officers Council (SPOC) bargaining unit on a new two-year labor pact that calls for the roughly 600 members to pay more of their health insurance costs and provides for one-time base salary increases totaling 1.5 percent for each of the next two fiscal years running from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015.

Under that ratified agreement, all members of the SPOC bargaining unit will pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, but those participating in a wellness program could lower their insurance rates through financial incentives. The new contract does not give any across-the-board wages increases, but provides for a 1 percent bonus in July and January in both fiscal years 2014 and 2015, as well as implementing merit-based step pay increases in each of the next two fiscal years.

Gov. Terry Branstad called SPOC’s voluntary contract a fair agreement that he hoped would serve as a pattern for the other two state employees’ collective bargaining agents still negotiating two-year pacts to take effect July 1. However, an arbitrator was called in this week to consider unresolved issues when AFSCME and state negotiators could not reach a voluntary settlement.  March 1 is the deadline for the arbitrator to rule on what wages and benefits state workers should receive.

AFSCME is Iowa’s largest state employees’ union with about 20,000 members. Its bargaining team made an initial offer that requested a 1 percent across-the-board pay increase in the contract’s first year and 2 percent in the following year. The union also asked to maintain annual 4.5 percent step increases for employees who qualify based on their date of hire, but did not propose any changes to its health-care coverage.

State negotiators countered by proposing a freeze in base pay and wage “steps” for AFSCME members the next two fiscal years, as well as a requirement that state employees start paying 20 percent of their insurance premiums, which would be a first for many state workers who have paid nothing for coverage in the past. Branstad has contended that requiring all state employees and officials to pay 20 percent of their health insurance costs could provide a $116 million “cost avoidance” in the state budget.

Along with freezing wages for two years and calling for state employees to shoulder more of the cost for their health-related benefits, the state’s offer to AFSCME also sought to diminish or eliminate some workplace rules governing grievances, change bumping and transfer rights, revisit discipline and discharge issues, stop collecting dues for the union’s political action committee, and delete four additional holidays for employees eligible for overtime.

On the eve of contract talk in December, AFSCME President Danny Homan accused Branstad of “demonizing” state workers and employing a double standard where he wants to freeze their wages and raise their health insurance costs while handing out financial “goodies” to his managers and corporations from the state’s hefty surplus. He said state employees are being unfairly attacked and being asked to make major concessions at a time when the GOP governor is paying “massive” bonuses to department directors and providing liberal tax credits to businesses pledging to create jobs in Iowa.

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