DES MOINES — Attorneys for Iowa’s two largest public employee unions asked the state’s highest court Wednesday to strike down changes in collective bargaining laws they say unconstitutionally treat some union members differently than others in contract negotiations.
In separate cases, thousands of members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to consider whether the revised collective bargaining law passed and signed in February 2017 violates the Iowa Constitution by establishing different bargaining rights for units with fewer than 30 percent public safety employees, and by prohibiting payroll deductions for union dues while still granting provisions for professional or trade organization deductions.
However, Matthew McDermott, the attorney representing the state in defending House File 291, said the changes enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad present a “legitimate public policy decision” by a separate branch of government that should be upheld by the six justices who heard the arguments Wednesday. Justice Daryl Hecht, who plans to step down Thursday for health reasons, did not participate.
“The state reformed our collective bargaining system in a way that conceivably and rationally gave state and local governments more flexibility to control their budgets and balance the state’s legitimate interest in preserving public safety,” McDermott told the justices.
“The Legislature has a very wide berth in deciding what is in and what is out. It’s up to the Legislature to make that call,” he added. “We have a system in government in Iowa that works and it is the separation of powers and we believe that the statute that was enacted here is certainly one that meets the rational basis test and for that reason we ask that this court affirm the District Court,” which had rejected the unions’ arguments.
However, AFSCME attorney Mark Hedberg said the new law violates provisions of the state constitution by granting greater bargaining rights to some public employees but not to other identically-situated workers. Because it grants different rights to different bargaining units, the law unconstitutionally infringes on members’ rights to associate with and be represented by their union, he argued.
“We don’t have a right to bargain, but when the state is granting out a privilege, it can’t do so based upon the association that a person has with various groups; and in this case, we believe they gerrymandered the statute,” Hedberg said.
The law is grossly over- and under-inclusive in its application toward various union workers and “has taken away their collective bargaining rights and desperately affected their ability to bargain for terms and conditions of employment,” he said.
Outside the Iowa Judicial Building, Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, told reporters that “we’re here to finish what we started, what I promised we would do on Feb. 16 (2017) when the Iowa Legislature passed the gutting of Chapter 20. I promised that we would take this to the Supreme Court. Today is the fulfillment of that promise.”
ISEA President Mike Beranek told reporters the state Supreme Court “is the next step in our fight to win back the rights taken from our members by the Iowa Legislature.”
He said the changes in HF 291 have diminished the roles in their school districts of his union’s 33,000 members.
The new law, he said, has reduced the scope of bargaining to only wages, and many school districts have removed past contract language and replaced it with an employee handbook.
No longer can most public employees collectively bargain over health insurance, vacation policy, workplace safety issues and myriad other benefits and policies. Essentially, most public employees now can collectively bargain only for base wages unless both sides agree to include more topics.
“There are a lot of people upset about this,” Homan noted. “What Republicans told us is that nothing would change, that in a year we’d all see that this is a great bill. It’s not a great bill.
“We have employers across this state that are taking contracts and cutting them down to one page, putting nothing more in them than base wages,” he said. “Inside our state institutions, we decide who gets to go on vacation by putting names in a hat and drawing out a name. People get laid off or transferred based on whether or not they brought the supervisor cookies and doughnuts. We have regressed in state service back before 1974. This is a travesty.”
The court will issue a ruling later.
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