February 23, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
Des Moines, IA – USA The union representing 40,000 Iowa public employees filed a lawsuit in state court here Feb. 20 arguing that the new law drastically restricting their collective-bargaining rights violates the state constitution.
The law, signed by Gov. Terry Branstad Feb. 17, amends Iowa’s 1974 collective-bargaining law to prohibit public-sector workers other than police and firefighters from bargaining over anything but base wages, excluding benefits, scheduling, overtime, staffing, safety, and working conditions. It also eliminates dues checkoff for unions, and requires them to seek recertification before they can negotiate a new contract—and to do that, they’ll need to win a majority of all workers in the bargaining unit, not just the ones who actually voted.
All that, AFSCME Iowa Council 61 contends in the suit, will make it “almost impossible for public employees to secure and maintain representation through an employee organization” and leave unions with “no effective ability to collectively bargain.” The union is asking the state court to declare the law unconstitutional and issue an injunction preventing the state from enforcing it. It’s also asking the court to act quickly, because many state workers’ contracts expire June 30, and talks are already underway.
The bill was passed Feb. 16 almost completely along party lines, with no Democrats voting for it and only six GOP House members voting against it. House Republicans denied that they were “aiming to disenfranchise unions.” “If the goal was to ‘union-bust,’ Majority Leader Chris Hagenow said in a statement, “then the plan would entirely eliminate any collective bargaining rights for government employees, which is the case in several other states.”
On Feb. 17, the day Gov. Branstad signed the law, his administration gave Council 61 a final contract offer that only addressed base wages.
AFSCME’s main legal argument is that the way the law separates “public safety employees” from other public workers violates Article 1, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution, which says that “all laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation” and not “grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
Under the law, bargaining units that are at least 30% public-safety workers are exempt from the ban on bargaining over issues other than wages. That, AFSCME claims, unconstitutionally divides public workers into a “favored class” and a “disfavored class.”
The four plaintiffs represent different aspects of that claim. Two, a corrections officer at the state prison in Clarinda and a campus police officer at Iowa State University, say that their jobs involve responsibilities and risks similar to what police officers face, but they will be excluded from the privileges the law gives public-safety employees. A third, a motor-vehicle enforcement officer, is classified as a public-safety employee, but is in a unit where less than 30% of the members are. The fourth is a drafter at the University of Northern Iowa.
Council 61 President Danny Homan called the measure “Wisconsin on steroids” before it was passed, referring to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 law that slashed public employees’ bargaining rights. Two Wisconsin unions won a lower-court ruling that the law was unconstitutional, but the state Supreme Court reversed it, holding that collective bargaining was a privilege, not a right.
The Iowa challenge may have a better chance, because it’s based on a specific provision in the state constitution