Legislature

Unions outraged as GOP fast-tracks 'tweaks' to Iowa labor law

Gov. Terry Branstad counters unions have 'routinely won over taxpayers' interests'

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Labor activists’ anger overflowed at the Iowa Capitol Tuesday as majority Republicans unveiled legislation they described as tweaking Iowa’s 43-year-old collective bargaining law.

“I am beyond angry today. I’m actually mortified (and) floored by the disrespect and animosity that drove through the authors to introduce such a punitive piece of legislation, said Tammy Wawro, a Cedar Rapids teacher and president of the Iowa State Education Association.

The source of her anger was House Study Bill 84 and Senate File 213, bills American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Danny Homan called “purely a political attack on unions.”

Sponsor and House Labor Committee Chairman Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, called the 68-page bill a “deliberative approach to look at some changes, but at the same time still allow unions to have some of the current rights they have now.”

In general, the bills seek to limit the subjects that non-public safety workers can bring to the bargaining table, change arbitration rules, alter how unions are certified and eliminate the longtime practice of gathering dues through payroll deductions.

Gov. Terry Branstad backs the legislation, which he said would accomplish changes he been trying to make to the “antiquated” bargaining process for years.

“For too long, unions’ special interests have routinely won over the taxpayers, especially on the issue of health care,” he said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference with legislative leaders. His goals are “to put the taxpayers’ interests in a position of being treated fairly, to reward the good employees and ensure we can remove an occasional bad employee.”

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Despite the governor’s rhetoric, it still sounded like “union-busting” to Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids.

“The answer is right here,” he said pulling a copy of the Republican Party platform out of his pocket. It states that, “We call for legislation that would eliminate all public sector unions.”

“That’s what their real goal is, how they’re doing it,” Taylor said.

Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, however, called the bill “a major update and modernization” of public employee collective bargaining law.

This bills recognize that it’s been 40 years since the Legislature addressed law, and “we have a different Iowa, we have a different United States and circumstances are different, and I think this more closely serves Iowa and today’s needs.”

The bill will restore more control and discretion to local elected officials, Schultz said.

“We want the people who are handling tax dollars to be the ones who are most answerable to the people who elected them,” he said.

Besides, if Republicans wanted to bust public employee unions, Chairman Deyoe said, “What we would have done is rip Chapter 20 (on collective bargaining) right out of the (Iowa) code book.”

But AFSCME’s Homan wasn’t so sure that’s not what Republicans, especially Gov. Branstad, have in mind. He predicted Republicans will try to fast-track the bills to get them to Gov. Terry Branstad’s desk before he leaves to become ambassador to China.

“After all, his vendetta against public employees dates back many decades,” Homan said, noting Branstad voted against the Chapter 20 collective bargaining bill when he was a legislator.

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Branstad countered that he is representing his constituents’ interests then as well as now, and he rejected the idea that there is anything personal about his support for the proposals.

“I want to make sure that people are treated fairly and that we have a system that treats everyone fairly,” he said. “I am just very proud we have a Legislature that is willing to address an issue like this and that they are not going to be intimidated by Danny Homan or anyone else.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said House and Senate rules will be followed as the bills are fast-tracked.

A House Labor subcommittee will get to work on HSB 84 at 8:45 a.m., Wednesday, and the full committee will take it up at 3 p.m. Both meetings will be in Room 103 of the Capitol.

In between, the Senate Labor Committee will have a hearing on its bill from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Room 116.

Schultz and Deyoe said the bills will be debated by both the Senate and House next week.

The legislation appears to make little change to the law as it pertains to what items public safety employees, such as firefighters and police officers, can bring to the bargaining table. However, for non-public safety workers, the Republican proposal limits them to just “base wages and other matters mutually agreed upon.”

The law currently lists a range of items that are subjects of bargaining, including wages, hours, vacations, insurance, holidays, leaves of absence, shift differentials, overtime, supplemental pay and transfer procedures.

Those items would be maintained in the proposal for bargaining units that represent police and firefighters.

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The House proposal also would change the rules for arbitrators, who settle disputes between labor and management. The bill says that for non-public safety employees, arbitrators, where they can, also should consider wages and working conditions in the private sector when settling disputes.

The law at this time says that arbitrators are to choose from the last positions offered by labor and management and to consider other public-sector practices.

The bill also would prohibit an arbitrator from considering past collective bargaining agreements or from considering the ability of government to pay for benefits by raising taxes and fees.

Critics of the current system say that arbitrators too often have favored unions, and they have long chafed at the idea that government’s ability to raise taxes is considered.

Regardless of how Republicans choose to describe their proposals, Homan called the bills a “complete and total gutting of the public employees’ rights.”

“Let me assure you, the fight does not stop here,” Homan promised.” It won’t stop until we regain the rights for working men and women across this state to have input into their jobs.”

Reporters Rod Boshart, Ed Tibbetts and Erin Murphy contributed to this story.

l Comments (319) 398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

What’s in the bill?

Identical bills filed Tuesday in the Iowa House and Senate would bring dramatic changes to how the state’s public employees collectively bargain. Here are some of the key pieces of the proposal, much of which exempts public safety officials — state troopers, firefighters — from the proposed changes:

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• Non-public safety employees would be able to collectively bargain only for wages. No longer would they be able to bargain for insurance, hours, vacations, holidays, overtime compensation, health and safety matters, and other provisions previously negotiated.

• An arbitrator ruling on a case involving non-public safety employees would be required to consider comparable wages, hours and working conditions of other public employees doing comparable work. Also, to the extent adequate and applicable data is available, an arbitrator would be required to consider comparable wages, hours and working conditions of private sector employees doing comparable work.

• An arbitrator ruling on a case involving non-public safety employees would be required to consider the financial ability of the employer to meet the cost of an offer in light of the current economic conditions of the public employer.

• An arbitrator ruling on a case involving non-public safety employees would not be allowed to consider the public employer’s ability to raise taxes to increase revenue, nor would the arbitrator be allowed to consider past collective bargaining agreements.

• Public employee unions would be required to recertify by a majority vote of its total membership — not just of votes cast — and if a bargaining unit fails to secure a majority vote, it would be decertified.

• No longer could union dues be automatically deducted from paychecks.

• A public employee could be fired without the employer establishing proper cause.

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