116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - One day after lawmakers introduced legislation to gut Iowa's collective bargaining law, the union representing about 5,000 professional and scientific University of Iowa Health Care employees announced it's accepting the Board of Regents' last contract offer.
The Service Employees International Union Local 199 began negotiating a new 2017-2019 contract in the fall, and 97 percent of its membership this week voted to ratify the regents' last offer.
In announcing its decision to take the deal - which includes a 2-percent raise in each of the next two years for represented workers, including nurses, social workers, and pharmacists - union heads asked UI Health Care to address reports that the board 'would not honor the offer that it made to these nurses and other health care professionals,” which the employees have now accepted.
'If these reports are true, it would mean UIHC has failed to honor a most basic commitment to its nurses, social workers and other front-line health care workers: a commitment to honest, fair negotiations,” UIHC registered nurse Courtney Buhmeyer said in a statement. 'Is UIHC really not going to keep its promise to these nurses and other workers to honor the contract offer it extended?”
Other unions across the state and university campuses - including those representing UI graduate students, University of Northern Iowa faculty, and some Iowa State University staffers - have accused the regents in bargaining in bad faith by refusing to continue negotiations until after lawmakers take up the proposed collective bargaining changes.
United Faculty, representing 550 UNI faculty members, and AFSCME Iowa Council 61, which represents 40,000 public employees including some ISU workers, last week even filed 'prohibited practice” complaints with the state's Public Employment Relations Board.
SEIU hasn't filed a complaint and said the agreement ratified this week - which also raises annual payment for inpatient nurses by $1,500 a year - was offered in 'good faith.”
'Our members are aware that state lawmakers are about to execute an attack on the freedom of workers like us to have a say at the workplace,” Katy Demeulenare, a UIHC social worker, said in a statement. 'This contract was bargained under current conditions in good faith. We can't control what the legislature does, but it's not right for UIHC to allow nurses' and other dedicated health care professionals' lives and livelihoods to hang in the balance.”
She added the board and UIHC administrators 'cannot hold up a fairly negotiated contract just to see what happens in Des Moines.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, agreed and praised the SEIU for 'pushing ahead.” He said Gov. Terry Branstad has directed the regents not to sign any contract until after lawmakers consider collective bargaining changes.
'They thought they had a deal, and the governor reneged on it,” Bolkcom said. 'It's outrageous.”
‘The last COGS president'
The changes proposed in identical bills filed Tuesday in the Iowa House and Senate, which exempt public safety officials, include limiting the existing law's mandatory bargaining topics to just wages. That means unionized employees would be stripped of their right to bargain for insurance, hours, vacations, holidays, overtime compensation, health and safety matters and other provisions previously negotiated.
Even wage-related bargaining would be limited to increases no higher than three percent or the consumer price index, according to the proposals.
The current collective bargaining law was enacted in 1974 and aimed to 'promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees by permitting public employees to organize and bargain collectively,” according to the law's preamble.
Proponents of upending the law say it's antiquated, but Bolkcom said the changes affectively would end collective bargaining for unionized employees statewide - include public school teachers, public works employees, and many on Iowa's public universities.
'This is a union busting bill,” he said. 'Public unions in Iowa will no longer exist when this bill passes.”
Landon Elkind - president of the UI graduate student union, known as Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, or COGS - seconded that sentiment Wednesday. He said passage will mean 'the death of many unions,” including his.
'I might be the last COGS president,” he said.
But, Elkind added, disarming unions won't stop graduate students from fighting for fair compensation and benefits.
'Even if they pass this law, graduate students are still going to fight for their rights,” he said. 'They're still going to defend things like their health care and tuition scholarships, and stand up for each other. We have a lot of collective power, and we do not intend to stop using it just because some folks in Des Moines signed a few pieces of paper.”
In response to the concerns, Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman released a statement asserting the regents are monitoring the bill.
'The regents have a long history of supporting their faculty, staff and graduate students,” Lehman said in the statement. 'They enhance the quality of teaching, research and service at Iowa's public universities. Providing competitive pay and benefits is key to being able to recruit and retain quality employees and we will continue to do this going forward.”
Elkind said he doesn't want to automatically assume the worst of the board. But, he said, the board remains 'a question mark.”
'I don't know what their intent is after these changes go through, but they are waiting to bargain,” Elkind said. 'They're waiting to bargain until they go through, instead of concluding a quick agreement with us, for example. That leads me to suspect they don't want to leave things just as they are.”
‘I am not wanted here'
As statewide unions continued to reel from the news Wednesday, Elkind and his colleagues rallied on the UI Pentacrest and also planned an evening phone-banking event to call state lawmakers.
On the UNI campus, United Faculty released results of a faculty survey conducted in the last 24 hours revealing nearly 82 percent of respondents 'would consider leaving UNI, either by seeking employment elsewhere or retiring early, if UNI's faculty lose the right to bargain collectively with the Board of Regents.”
Of the 550 United Faculty members, 315 responded to the survey, including members across all academic ranks in all four main colleges.
The survey, among other things, showed collective bargaining is important to moral for 97 percent of respondents.
'We've gone through the shuttering of Price Lab, large cuts in academic programs, continued budget cuts, the loss of President Rudd and now this,” UNI professor and United Faculty President Joe Gorton said in a statement. 'There is only so much that faculty and students can take before they lose confidence in UNI and the Board of Regents.”
Individual, anonymous, comments provided through the survey include:
'I will start
looking for a new position the moment this becomes law;”
'My family has
recently decided to plant roots here and stay purple for life. But if we cannot count on UNI for stable and fair employment, we must look elsewhere. It is extremely disappointing that I must consider a new job search, but the legislature's signal is clear. I am not wanted here;”
'We are currently
in the process of attempting to fill a faculty position. How can we promise benefits in contract negotiations with this legislation looming? This legislative proposal is already impacting the quality of UNI.”
UI graduate students spelled out similar ramifications from collective bargaining changes, including difficulty recruiting scholars to campus and supporting world-renowned graduate programs - like the Writers' Workshop.
John Keller, dean of the UI Graduate College, said he's continuing to advocate for competitive compensation for his students - although he conceded he can't compel the board to action.
'I'm only in the position to be able to say that the university is very very aware of this, and to be a competitive research one institution, we need to come up with a competitive economic package,” he said. 'I don't know what that's going to look like … but to be competitive, we're going to have to have something.”
He stressed many universities across the state and nation - including Iowa State - don't have graduate student unions.
'And they have competitive salaries, they have competitive tuition reimbursements,” he said. 'So there are ways to address these situations without being necessarily under the pretense of bargaining per se from a union standpoint.”
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