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GOP strips powers from public workers

Iowa Republicans gut state's collective bargaining law

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DES MOINES — After days of contentious debate and protests, majority Statehouse Republicans used procedural moves Thursday to cut off discussion and secure approval of sweeping changes to stifle the powers of public unions.

GOP Gov. Terry Branstad was expected to sign by Friday the measure to unravel the collective bargaining rules that have guided negotiations involving teachers, prison workers, secretaries, university faculty and thousands more since 1974. Iowa has 184,000 public employees at the state, local and school district levels.

“In my 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like this — ever,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who said Republicans used a “mean-spirited, rigged system” to circumvent the legislative process. “This is absolute drunk on power.”

Minority Democrats and independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan predicted working Iowans will not forget how four decades of relative labor-management harmony was “gutted” by “unprecedented” fast-track maneuvers to force votes after a debate that spanned three days and, in the Senate, went through the night.

Supporters of the measure say it benefits taxpayers who have long footed the bill for generous benefits — especially for health care — that public employees enjoy.

“Obviously, they’ve had a lot of debate on a lot of things and I think everybody’s had the opportunity to express their opinion,” Gov. Branstad said of the debate and the move to end it. “It’s a way to finally get to a vote. Otherwise, you could have a filibuster that can go on and on and on with the same people speaking again and again.”

Republicans cut off talk Thursday in the House at noon and the Senate at 2 p.m. and voted to send the governor legislation that scales back the rights public-sector workers have to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with entities like school boards, cities and county and state agencies.

Representatives voted 53-47 — with six Republicans joining 41 Democrats in opposition — to approve House File 291 and send it to the Senate. There, it passed 29-21.

Under the procedural measure, majority-party leaders were able to call up amendments for up-or-down votes without debate. After the Senate vote, Democrats shouted “shame” and people in the gallery booed.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the law’s rewrite amounted to “a bait and switch” by Republicans, who countered it was an effort to bring local control to contract talks, streamline the process and give taxpayers a seat at the table.

“You feel that it’s inappropriate to work through the night,” argued Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. “You feel that what we’re doing is somehow rushing it through, except that the Senate procedures — the Senate time line — has been followed without exception.”

He said opponents had tried to “stall” the process by “papering” the measure with amendments and spending hours on each issue.

“We’ve said we’d like to get the work of the people done,” he said.

After November’s election, Republicans gained control of the state Senate, now giving the GOP sway over the agenda for at least two years.

House File 291 would limit most public-sector union contract negotiations to base wages, cap rulings in mediation by the cost of living, and eliminate such issues as health insurance and supplemental pay as mandatory items for bargaining. Iowa’s 1974 collective bargaining law currently permits public workers to bargain for wage, benefits, and other workplace issues with impasses resolved by binding arbitration in exchange for employees give up the right to strike.

Iowa’s 1974 collective bargaining law permitted public workers to bargain for wages, benefits, and other workplace issues, with impasses resolved by binding arbitration in exchange for employees giving up the right to strike.

“This is about union busting. That’s what is happening here,” Sen. Johnson said.

Opponents asserted the legislation, unveiled just this month, was drafted without bipartisan input and moved “at light speed” through the legislative process.

“This is a farce. This is disappointing, it’s depressing and it’s disrespectful. What is the rush? This is a joke,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the Senate bill’s floor manager, said majority Republicans agreed to remove grievance procedures, seniority procedures, seniority-related benefits and release times from the list of prohibited items — making them eligible for negotiation if both unions and employers agree. The Republican amendment also clarified that workers would have the right to appeal a civil service commission’s decision in district court.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to expand an exemption provided for many public safety workers, but Republicans changed the threshold for exempted groups to qualify as “public safety” workers from 50 percent of employees to just 30 percent.

The measure sets up two kinds of public employees — those considered public safety workers who will have one set of bargaining rules, and all others who will have a different set of rules.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, defended the legislation from accusations it was written by national conservative advocacy organizations and political donors.

“This bill was written by Iowans, for Iowans,” said Holt, who floor-managed the House bill.

“Why do we need this bill? Because we have listened to those locally elected officials and others, and we have heard how the process has tied their hands,” Holt added.

Holt said the bill would create sustainability and efficiency in local governments, and “unleash innovation.”

But Democrats said they believe there will be backlash to the bill that Republicans will feel in future elections, starting in November 2018 when half of state senators, all House members and the governor’s office will be on the ballot.

“It is mean-spirited, it hurts everyone, and you made a choice to do this,” said Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf.

Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.

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