Collective bargaining changes in Iowa could stoke legislative passions

DES MOINES — The process by which Iowa’s state troopers, correctional facility staff and teachers — among others — negotiate their wages and benefits with the state appears destined for changes in 2017.

One of the options being discussed in the Iowa Capitol — which is now under complete Republican control — that would have a significant impact would be to require unions and other organizations that represent public employees to hold annual certification votes among its members.

A similar measure was included in the package of collective bargaining laws passed in Wisconsin in 2011. Since passage of that law, there are 132,000 fewer union members in Wisconsin, and the share of union members as a share of the workforce has fallen by almost half, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“What you’ve got now is you have unions that got certified in the 1970s and it’s never been looked at since. So I think what Wisconsin said is, wait a minute, let’s let the employees make that decision every couple of years. I think that’s something the (Iowa) Legislature is seriously looking at, yeah,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Thursday in an interview with the Globe Gazette Des Moines Bureau.

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 Iowa teachers, said such a law would not have a dramatic impact on the organization because its members enroll each year.

But that doesn’t mean Wawro is supportive of such a law, and she said she suspects it could be an act of political retribution against an organization that for the past six years has pressed Republican state legislators to provide more state funding to public K-through-12 schools.

“I’m curious as to how many constituents of the governor have asked him, when they door-knocked (during the campaign) or talked to people in main street, that having unions recertify every year is something that the public wants,” Wawro said. “I think we have fought hard for public school funding and maybe that’s coming back as a backlash. But if we can’t be the voice for our public schools, there isn’t another voice.”

In the past, any such legislation would have been stopped by Democrats in control of the Iowa Senate.

But as a result of the Nov. 8 election, Republicans have complete lawmaking control at the Iowa Capitol for the first time in 20 years, and they plan to use that newfound authority to make changes to the state’s collective bargaining laws during the upcoming legislative session.

Any debate over collective bargaining issues is likely to create some legislative fireworks.

Democrats, now in the minority in both the Iowa House and Senate and thus incapable of stopping the GOP’s agenda, have pledged to be vocal opponents of any proposed changes to collective bargaining.

They have in the past.

In 2015, when majority Republicans in the Iowa House pursued a bill that would have tweaked one portion of the state’s collective bargaining laws, minority Democrats used legislative maneuvers — some of them rarely invoked — to drag out the debate over nine hours and two calendar days.

“We’re preparing for an all-out fight to ensure that Iowa’s workers are at the table and have a voice in the decision-making here in the state of Iowa,” said Mark Smith, leader of the minority House Democrats. “We believe that there are important issues that affect the well-being of workers and that theirs are voices that need to be heard as well.”

Republican leaders say collective bargaining changes are needed to protect Iowa taxpayers.

“The goal here is to make sure we have the taxpayer at the table and people are mindful that resources do come from somewhere and those folks have a voice in this as well,” said Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. “And then I think just trying to find some common-sense approaches that make sense to people would be a good start.”

The state already has delivered a clear signal of at least one planned change to collective bargaining laws. When making initial contract proposals to the various unions that represent the state’s employees, the state did not offer specifics on health insurance because of expected changes to the law that may come during the legislative session.

Branstad has said since the election results swept Republicans into power that he would like to explore a master contract for all state employees’ health insurance.

“We’re looking at, is there a better, more efficient way that we can deliver health care,” Branstad said. “We want to make sure that we provide quality health care for all our employees. But right now, it’s being done on a very ad hoc basis, not just the state but also school districts, counties, cities. I’d like us to look at, could it be much more efficient if we had one master contract as opposed to all of these individual ones?”

The bill that sparked Democrats’ outrage in 2015 would have altered the way collective bargaining disputes are mediated.

When the state and a public employee union cannot agree to contract terms, an arbitrator picks one side’s final offer. The 2015 bill approved by House Republicans would have given arbitrators flexibility to pick a midpoint between the offers. That proposal could resurface this year.

Upmeyer said Republicans may again consider that proposal, Branstad’s master contract for health insurance and possibly others.

“We’re certainly hopeful that we can have good conversations and work hard to allay what I think is sort of unnecessary fear (over potential changes),” Upmeyer said. “We appreciate what (public employees) do, so our goal is to create sustainable kinds of environments where we don’t find ourselves in a position to not be able to continue to do health care or salaries because we just don’t have the resources.”

Dan Homan, president of the state’s largest public employee union, said he is disappointed by the state’s initial contract offers and thinks attempts to change collective bargaining laws are simply an attempt to make wages and benefits cheaper for the state at the expense of its employees.

“It’s clear to me that this governor has a different vision than what I believe everyday Iowans have for the hard-working state employees that provide needed services to them,” Homan said. “I guess time will tell on just exactly how bad a particular (political) party wants to wreck the Iowa that most Iowans love.”