Government

Union membership declines in Iowa

Drop follows Legislature's changes in collective bargaining

Members of Laborers and Operating Engineers union display posters expressing their opposition to proposed changes in Iowa’s laws governing collective bargaining between Iowa governments and public employee unions before a public hearing Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, at the Capitol in Des Moines. Rod Boshart/The Gazette
Members of Laborers and Operating Engineers union display posters expressing their opposition to proposed changes in Iowa’s laws governing collective bargaining between Iowa governments and public employee unions before a public hearing Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, at the Capitol in Des Moines. Rod Boshart/The Gazette

The number of Iowans who are members of labor unions dropped sharply in 2017, according to new estimates from the federal government.

The decline comes a year after the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature significantly reduced the collective bargaining rights of most public sector workers in the state.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that 104,000 Iowans were members of labor unions in 2017, down from 129,000 the year before.

It estimated 7 percent of wage and salaried workers in the state belonged to unions in 2017, down from 8.9 percent the year before.

The figures, which account for both public and private sector unions, aren’t exact totals but estimates derived from a survey of a quarter of 60,000 nationwide households that take part in the government’s monthly Current Population Survey.

This isn’t the first decline in union membership in recent years. Membership in Iowa labor unions has fallen in Iowa since 2014, according to the survey.

However, the estimated drop last year was sharper than it had been previously.

Public unions have felt under siege since the Legislature’s changes, but it’s not clear whether their membership totals have suffered.

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The state’s two largest public unions, the Iowa State Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees do not release membership figures.

Union officials, though, did point to recertification elections to demonstrate they still have support.

Of 481 recertification elections held last fall, only 31 unions were not recertified. That came despite new rules requiring unions to get a majority of people covered by their contracts to support recertification, rather than a majority of those voting.

“They still believe unions have a role,” AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said Wednesday.

Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of ISEA, also pointed to the success in the recertification elections but noted the effort diverted resources from typical union activities.

“I think that’s exactly what the Legislature wanted to happen,” she said.

The federal figures estimated 127,000 Iowans, or 8.6 percent of the wage and salaried employees in the state, were covered by union contracts, down from 153,000, or 10.5 percent, the year before.

In 2014, 184,000 Iowans were covered by union contracts, according to the survey.

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