Government

Iowa justices uphold controversial collective bargaining changes

In two rulings, closely divided court rejects public union challenges

The Iowa Supreme Court at the judicial branch Building in Des Moines on Friday afternoon Sept. 21, 2018. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
The Iowa Supreme Court at the judicial branch Building in Des Moines on Friday afternoon Sept. 21, 2018. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

A closely divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld a 2017 law that strips collective bargaining rights from most of the state’s public sector unions, a measure that sparked widespread protests but backers said was necessary to help local governments and control costs.

Statehouse Republicans, who had pushed for the changes, cheered the rulings handed down in two related cases. Democrats and public employee unions, despite the setback, vowed to continue fighting for workers’ rights.

Union leaders argued that the changes to Iowa’s Chapter 20 unfairly classified different kinds of public workers with different sets of rights, and wrongly raised barriers to collecting dues and set unreasonable requirements for recertifying the bargaining units.

In separate lawsuits filed by AFSCME Iowa Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, the court ruled 4-3 Friday in the state’s favor in both cases.

AFSCME represents 40,000 public employees in Iowa and the ISEA is the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Under the changes, public employees not working in public safety are unable to bargain for insurance, hours, vacations, holidays, overtime pay and health and safety matters unless their employers agree to negotiate those items. Public employees still are able to bargain for wages.

But unions that include public safety employees are allowed to bargain for more.

In the ISEA decision, Justice Thomas Waterman wrote that the legislation reflected “lawful policy choices.”

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“The 2017 amendments did not infringe on a fundamental right of speech, association, or equal protection that could justify judicial intervention,” he wrote. “The plaintiffs’ remedy lies in the elected branches or at the ballot box.”

The measure was signed into law by then-Gov. Terry Branstad. Both of successor Kim Reynolds’ appointees, Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Christopher McDonald, agreed with the majority opinions written by Waterman, as did Justice Edward Mansfield.

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel dissented.

Cady wrote that while the legislation seeks to give more rights to public safety workers, it creates some bargaining units that include both public safety employees and non-public safety employees — yet confers the additional rights on both types of workers.

“In this case, the legislation offends our constitution,” he wrote.

Politicians react

Gov. Reynolds said in a statement she appreciated the court “standing up for the rule of law.”

Other Iowa Republicans celebrated the decision, including Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, who said he was not surprised.

“Since its implementation, I have heard story after story of school districts and local governments implementing creative solutions to improve the education of Iowa’s students and the provision of services Iowans need,” said Whitver, R-Ankeny. “This reform is about returning power to locally elected officials and giving them the ability to pay more to great teachers and employees, fire the occasional bad actor and protect Iowa taxpayers.”

A floor manager of the legislation, Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, echoed Whitver in a statement and said he was grateful for the decision, which “affirms our commitment to providing local governments with flexibility and giving taxpayers a seat at the table.”

Democrats said they were disappointed and will continue to stand with the ISEA, AFSCME and other unions.

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“By taking away the rights of teachers, firefighters, nurses, correctional officers and other public servants, Republican politicians have done harm to all Iowa workers,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said in a statement. “Working Iowa men and women are the real victims of the assault by the Branstad/Reynolds administration and Republican-controlled Legislature.”

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and a former state legislator, said she was “heartbroken” for Iowa workers.

Unions NOT giving up

The ISEA and AFSCME vowed to continue fighting for workers.

“The ISEA has been working to protect the rights of Iowa’s working men and women for 165 years and nothing will stop that march forward,” ISEA President Mike Beranek said in a statement Friday. “As always, we will continue to fight for our members to ensure they receive the same rights and privileges enjoyed by other employees. We also will continue to advocate for the students in our care. Our professional environment is their learning environment.”

AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said in a statement his organization would not be deterred by the court decision and would launch new efforts to mobilize public workers “in ways never before seen by the State of Iowa” in the next few months.

“Today’s ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court was a disappointing step backward on the long walk toward justice for public service workers,” he said in a statement. “But those who keep our communities safe, healthy and strong are undeterred by this attack.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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