Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law Feb. 17 dramatically reducing the power of public-sector union members to negotiate with the state. 

Defenders of Iowa’s public unions rally at the state capitol opposing changes to Chapter 20, the law allowing public sector workers in the state to organize.

The law passed the previous day by Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature, takes away public sector workers’ ability to negotiate, among other things, working conditions, benefits, evaluation procedures or staff reductions.

On Jan. 20, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61 filed public sector unions filed suit requesting the court to enjoin enforcement of the new law.

Some public safety and public health workers will be able to negotiate on a wider set of working conditions but the rule prevents workers from negotiating dues payments through paychecks and unions would need to win a recertification vote prior to every contract negotiation.

“This is the union assassination law,” said Eleventh District International Representative Frank Gusta, the Iowa political coordinator for the IBEW. “There’s no public interest served by this bill. It is just an attempt by the state’s right-wing to gut the Iowa working class.”

The bill passed in the House 53-47, while the Senate gave final passage 29-21. Only Republican legislators voted for the bill and only six Republicans voted against it, all in the House.

The IBEW represents more than 400 public sector workers in the state of Iowa, and half of them are line workers and members of Des Moines Local 55.

“Twenty percent of our members are in the public sector but this affects all of us right now,” said Des Moines Local 55 Assistant Business Manager Shane Nelson. “On a basic level, an injury to one is an injury to all, but this law is designed to and will hurt union density which is a factor in contract negotiations. As public sector workers lose benefits, it will be harder to defend our own. [Republicans] will do everything they can do. They are a freight train right now.”

The law is similar to the one signed into law by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2010, which dramatically curtailed bargaining rights for most public sector workers. The result is that no state has lost more union members than Wisconsin since 2011, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found, 132,000 in all.

"This bill is morally indefensible," said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls. "This isn't the Iowa way. We didn't have to go down this path."

Although Iowa was one of the first states outside the south to pass right-to-work legislation when it became law in 1947, Republicans in Iowa were not always united against collective bargaining, Gusta said. The law allowing Iowa public sector workers to collectively bargain –known as Chapter 20-- was signed in 1974 by a Republican governor.

But when Republicans won a trifecta in the November election, controlling the House, Senate and the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly two decades, gutting public sector unions was one of their highest priorities.

“They never talked about it in the campaign,” Nelson said. “When they took over the Senate, I knew they would make some changes to the law. I didn’t see them going this far.”

Things could have been even worse for state employees if not for last minute amendments made by the state Senate. The bill passed by the House made all state employees “at-will” who could be fired at any time for any reason. The final bill requires cause for a state worker to lose his job and allows unions to negotiate grievance procedures, and seniority procedures and benefits, but only if employers agree to discuss them.

“What we are seeing in states across the country is the result of working people voting for politicians who aren’t looking out for them,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “A lot of people liked what Trump said about jobs, about trade, about changing the rigged economy. I don’t think this was the change most of them were expecting or wanted. It is a dark day for Iowa.”

The Iowa legislature is now considering bills that would forbid state, municipal and county contracts from including project labor agreements, stop local governments from raising the minimum wage, allow foreign steel on Iowa public works projects, make it harder to receive unemployment benefits and limit Iowa OSHA from issuing fines.

“To stop the bleeding, we have to take one of the three branches of government in the next election. To fix it, we have to take all three,” Nelson said. 

Photos courtesy flickr user: Phil Roeder