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University of Iowa health care union sues Board of Regents

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The union that represents 3,500 health care professionals at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics announced Friday it’s filed a lawsuit against the Board of Regents, accusing it of failing to recognize an agreement the union ratified before lawmakers changed Iowa’s collective bargaining laws.

“This is an attack on all workers at the University of Iowa,” Service Employees International Union, Local 199, President Cathy Glasson said in a statement. “SEIU members overwhelmingly voted to accept UIHC’s final contract offer weeks before the law was signed.”

The board began contract negotiations with SEIU — along with the UI graduate student and University of Northern Iowa faculty unions — last fall. All parties exchanged initial offers and began negotiations — even while rumors swirled that lawmakers were considering a major collective bargaining overhaul.

Once a bill was proposed that would strip the state law of all mandatory bargaining topics except wages — leaving that issue in a limited capacity — union members went public with accusations the Board of Regents was refusing to continue talks until the new law passed.

UNI’s United Faculty union and UI’s Campaign to Organize Graduate Students filed “prohibited practice” complaints with the state Public Employment Relations Board accusing the board of bargaining in bad faith. AFSCME Iowa Council 61 — which represents 40,000 state employees including some at Iowa State University — also filed a complaint and went further by filing a lawsuit declaring the state law unconstitutional.

SEIU, which didn’t file a complaint like the others, instead voted to ratify the board’s original offer before the law passed. But union members never heard back. After the law’s passage, the board restarted negotiations with its unions — although Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman said SEIU didn’t respond to the board’s request to do so.

SEIU’s lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, hinges on the union’s decision to ratify the board’s earlier two-year offer, which guarantees raises, flexible schedules, and “voice on the job,” according to a news release.

“By doing so, the parties have a valid contract from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2019,” according to the union.

The lawsuit asks the court for a declaratory order directing the regents to comply with the contract they ratified “and make employees covered by it whole for any losses suffered due to the regents refusal to abide by it.”

The new law, according to Glasson, “was rammed through by self-interested politicians in the state legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad using corporate-backed language that undercuts the freedom of employees to join together and have a say at their workplaces.”

UIHC registered nurse Ann Byrne, in a statement, said she and her colleagues honor their commitment to patients every day.

“We call on the regents to honor their promises to us,” she said. “They are playing politics with the lives of the dedicated people who take care of the state’s sickest patients in order to prove some point about how much they dislike public employees. The bottom line is that it was their offer. It certainly wasn’t everything we might have wanted, but we recognized the realities. So we accepted it.”

UNI’s United Faculty earlier this week voted to ratify the board’s new two-year contract offer — which cuts everything from their original deal except the offer of a 1.1 percent pay raise. UI’s graduate students have failed to reach an agreement with the board — following its new offer — and they’re working with an arbitrator.

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