116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I’ve always found it ironic that a government which holds such firm authority in the legal matters of its citizens could have such surprisingly little say when it comes to the management of its own employees. Until 2017, Iowa’s public employers, including the state, counties, cities and school boards, were subject to startlingly stringent rules dictating employment policies and procedures.
Much of this was due to generous allowances detailed in Chapter 20, the section of Iowa Code governing collective bargaining rights and public employee relations, which mandated that public employers bargain in good faith with respect to a number of issues beyond salary, including but not limited to seniority, transfer procedures, job classifications, evaluation procedures and procedures for staff reduction.
Some of the arbitration rules could put the squeeze on public employers, who fund their expenditures via the taxpayer (That’s you! And me!). Until 2017, an arbitrator was actually required to consider a state or local government’s ability to levy taxes when determining if they were able to pay the cost of honoring the disputed item in a proposal.
Provisions of the agreement could also tie the hands of the taxpayer-funded employer in the event of layoffs. Many contracts outlined procedures for tenured employees wishing to avoid being laid off to “bump” a less senior worker from their position, regardless of the satisfactory performance of the lesser-tenured employee.
Next month will mark five years since House File 291 was signed into law to balance the power between Iowa’s public sector unions, government employers and taxpayers by updating Chapter 20 of Iowa Code. Predictably, passage of the new law was met with hysteria and fury from Democrats and their union allies. But the changes were hardly unreasonable.
The changes implemented a more practical threshold for initiating union representation by requiring written intent from 30 percent of a unit’s employees, up from a previous (and paltry) 10 percent. A bargaining unit also must now vote on retaining its union prior to the expiration of every contract.
To retain and recertify its representation, a majority of the whole unit must now vote “yes,” instead of just a majority of those who cast a ballot. Collective bargaining cannot truly be a collective endeavor if half the employees are unwilling to participate. But some are not inclined to join due to troubling stories told of union organizing, which have included past tactics of intimidation and bullying, or a politically homogenous culture that is typically very unwelcoming of dissenting opinion. Requiring an absolute majority incentivizes union leaders to promote a more open and inclusive culture of organizing.
Seniority, transfer procedures, job classifications, evaluation procedures and procedures for staff reduction are among the issues no longer permitted as part of negotiations, giving especially the smaller local government employers better ability to assign and evaluate employees as it works best for all parties, without being limited to the stipulations of a contract.
And while there have likely been some cases of sticker shock with insurance coverage, for which the right to collectively bargain is also now excluded, public employers may not be as financially hamstrung if they were previously having to pick up the slack for employees’ unusually low insurance premiums.
Full-time employees represented by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) previously paid only $20 per month for the least expensive option for either a single or family plan, recently retired Gazette reporter Rod Boshart reported in 2018. The Department of Administrative Services website lists the most expensive group coverage premiums through Wellmark for 2022 at $342 for a family, still well below what the average family in Iowa pays, while saving the state money through more reasonably priced employee premiums.
"Dues checkoff” and PAC deductions are also prohibited under the 2017 law, meaning a public employer cannot act as a clearinghouse for union dues and voluntary contributions to the union’s political action committee in the form of payroll deductions. Importantly, payment of dues must now be handled directly between the employee and the union — and so must the remittance of political contributions.
This is an especially big deal considering the amount of political cash expended by public sector unions. While it’s quite typical for interest groups on both sides of the spectrum to donate to politicians who support their causes, the cozy relationship between some of Iowa’s largest public employee unions and the Democratic Party is obvious.
Take AFSCME, for example. Its PAC is named PEOPLE: Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality. But while the contributions to actual legislative candidates made by Iowa’s AFSCME Council 61 are usually between $250 and $1,000 each, vast sums totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars were contributed directly to the Iowa Democratic Party in 2018, only some of which was designated toward legislative campaign funds. (Six-figure contributions were also made to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell.)
The Iowa State Education Association, the statewide union for public school teachers, did even worse in 2020. According to campaign finance documents, only $250 from its political action committee was contributed to a legislative candidate, State Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. That same year, $615,000 went from the ISEA PAC directly into the coffers of the Iowa Democratic Party. In 2021, despite making endorsements of local school board candidates in a hot year for school board elections, the ISEA PAC made no direct contributions to their chosen candidates, instead continuing to send its political contributions straight to state Democrats.
I have no doubt that many of the public employees who protested the changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws raised their concerns in earnest. But the intertwining of AFSCME, the ISEA and the Democratic Party — which offers two seats to labor leaders as a constituency represented on its state central committee, one of them with voting privileges — suggests additional motives behind the anger expressed by Democratic leaders and union activists who see some bargaining units potentially declining to recertify as a threat to their political power.
The conduct of some of those opposed wasn’t always honorable. One week before HF291’s passage, an email was circulated among dozens of teachers at Des Moines Lincoln High containing the names of 13 Republican members of the Iowa House, with the word “DOUCHE” next to their names and contact info. “Feel free to call them multiple times and use different voices …” the email read. “If they have been labeled a ‘douche,’ just have some fun with them (remember prank calling when we were younger?)”
Given the lengths to which some proved they were willing to go to antagonize anyone who favored the collective bargaining changes, it’s not surprising that supporters of the reforms weren’t as vocal. Out of all the public employees who’ve spoken with me about their distaste for the enormous influence wielded by Iowa’s public sector unions, none are willing to go on record out of fear of backlash from their own colleagues. “I have to keep quiet,” a teacher at a 4A school in central Iowa told me.
But despite the angry claims from Democrats and their allies, the sky has not fallen. The vast majority of public bargaining units in Iowa have since recertified their unions, having engaged a true majority of members in the representation of their collective interests. Salaries continue to be negotiated. Employees continue to be represented. And Iowa’s workforce continues to rise to the occasion.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org