Legislature

Iowa's public-sector unions brace for impact of new collective bargaining law

But union leaders hope it won't be as severe as seen in Wisconsin

Supporters of collective bargaining gather in a room following a vote on a bill limiting public-sector unions at the State Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Supporters of collective bargaining gather in a room following a vote on a bill limiting public-sector unions at the State Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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If Wisconsin is any guide, Iowa’s public-sector unions are facing a precipitous decline in membership even as their leaders vow to survive the effects of the overhaul of the state’s 43-year-old collective bargaining law.

In the five years after Act 10 was approved in Wisconsin, membership in two of the three councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union dropped by 70 percent, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The union representing teachers in Milwaukee lost 30 percent of its members.

Overall, union membership in that state is down nearly 40 percent since 2011, according to the latest federal data.

In the immediate aftermath of the Iowa Legislature’s passage of the collective bargaining legislation, which Gov. Terry Branstad signed Friday, labor leaders said they are were determined to fight back.

Danny Homan, the president of AFSCME Council 61, said there would be a lawsuit challenging the legislation in court. And other labor leaders, including in the private sector, pointed to the outpouring of support from union members over the past week, as well as from allies in the state who think the legislation is not fair.

“Our people are jacked up right now,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

Still, House File 291 undoubtedly will make it tougher for public-sector unions. The bill strips the ability of unions that represent predominantly non-public safety workers to bargain on such important items as health insurance. It forbids unions from using payroll deduction to collect dues. And it requires regular certification elections — forcing public unions to get 50 percent of the vote of all its members to be recertified, not just a majority of those who cast votes.

In that way, there are many similarities between Iowa’s action and Wisconsin’s Act 10.

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Labor experts who studied the situation there say that restricting the ability to raise money and limiting the scope of bargaining had a serious impact on unions.

John Ahlquist, a former associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, pointed to the prohibition on deducting dues from a member’s paycheck. This is no small change to a union’s operations, he said.

“Local unions generally have limited budgets, and they don’t have huge reserves of cash,” he said.

Once the regularity of their cash flow is upset, that proved a significant impact especially on smaller locals in rural areas, said Ahlquist, now an associate professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Iowa union officials say comparisons with Wisconsin don’t necessarily apply to Iowa.

Iowa historically has been a “right to work” state, union officials say, meaning people don’t have to make payments to a union if they’re covered by a contract.

“Our members choose to be here,” Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said last week after the House and Senate passed the legislation. “And right now, what has happened to them, we are feeling the love from our membership right now. Let me be pretty clear on that.”

In Iowa, public-sector unions have been a bastion in the downward swirl of overall union membership in the state.

Even as Iowa’s private-sector unions have shrunk, their brethren in the public sector have held their own.

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The percentage of Iowa workers in a union declined from 15.2 percent in 1989 to 8.9 percent last year. But 29 percent of the state’s public-sector workforce belonged to a union in 2016, roughly the same percentage as it was in the late 1980s, according to researchers Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University, who use government data to publish annual estimates of union membership in both the public and private sectors.

If public-sector union membership in Iowa follows the Wisconsin track, it will have an impact on more than just labor unions and their members. It also has the potential to reshape political campaigns.

In fact, unions and their backers say the aim of the collective bargaining overhaul is a naked power grab by the Republicans, aimed at hobbling their rivals. Republicans have denied this, saying the legislation was aimed at leveling the playing field between management and labor.

Unions play a pivotal role in Democratic politics. Their members are grass roots volunteers, staffing phone banks and passing out literature. The unions also give campaign money.

In the 2016 election cycle, AFSCME and ISEA gave $1 million to the Iowa Democratic Party, which raised $9.2 million overall, according to filings with the Iowa Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board.

Loss of membership has the potential to affect labor’s role in politics.

Still, Iowa Democrats warned last week that a newly energized chunk of the electorate will not forgive or forget what has happened.

“These folks have long memories, and they vote,” Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said on the House floor.

Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he feared a loss of union membership as a result of the new law, and he added that steep losses would force the party and labor to more strategically target whom it recruits for volunteers.

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Still, he thinks the legislation won’t have the political impact Republicans are expecting. Sterzenbach said the protests surrounding the early part of President Donald Trump’s term and the steps the Republican-controlled Legislature is taking in Des Moines are creating an energized electorate he thinks has the potential to return union rank and file who sided with Trump.

“I think it’s going to make it that much easier to bring them back to the Democratic Party,” he said.

One Republican consultant, however, said he thinks the collective bargaining legislation will reap dividends for taxpayers and therefore for the lawmakers who voted for it.

Brian Dumas, a Davenport-based strategist who consulted with state Senate Republicans in the 2016 election cycle, said GOP candidates campaigned on more efficient, cost-effective government.

“They went out and did what they were supposed to do,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it was good legislation for Iowa. And I think Iowa Republicans will be rewarded at the ballot box.”

He also said he thinks the intensity surrounding the legislation’s passage will die down.

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