Iowa Moves To Restrict Collective Bargaining For Public Sector Workers

Feb 14, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 10:30 am

Lawmakers in Iowa began debating a bill Tuesday to dramatically change how public sector unions negotiate their contracts, part of a wave of legislation in statehouses across the country to roll back union rights.

The bill, similar to a 2011 law in Wisconsin, is high on the state's legislative agenda and comes as Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's mansion for the first time in nearly 20 years.

About 180,000 state and local government workers would be prohibited from negotiating over issues including health insurance, seniority and extra pay. The legislation also leaves in place a provision that prevents workers from going on strike. And it includes provisions that would make it more difficult for unions to collect dues.

Public safety employees, such as law enforcement officers, would be exempt from certain provisions of the bill. Critics say exempting public safety workers divides unions.

Ahead of hearings on the leglslation, teachers, teamsters, firefighters and other union members demonstrated at the Iowa Capitol Monday night, breaking into chants of "Kill the bill."

"Enough of these misguided politicians and their billionaire buddies trying to take our voice and our rights!" shouted Becky Pringle, of the National Education Association, to the crowd from atop a folding chair.

The state's Democrats are trying to slow down debate on the measure, which is expected to last several days.

"This is a major change and policy shift," said state Sen. Nate Boulton, a Democrat. "It is disappointing that we had no voice in this process."

Republicans countered that they were ending a period of deadlock and divided government in Iowa by acting on their priorities.

"Normally the frustration I hear from folks at home is that we don't get anything done," said state Rep. Steve Holt, a Republican. "So we are acting decisively on a bill that I think is great for Iowa and great for efficient government."

More than 1,100 people signed up to speak against the bill, but only 33 got the chance. State correctional officer Lindsey Herron said she left her previous job, which paid well, for the better benefits that state employees receive.

If the bill becomes law, the risks of working in a prison are "no longer worth it," said Herron. "You may think that's fine until those offenders end up living next door to your family and they learn nothing in prison because they no longer have professional educated staff working there."

Herron said she was upset about voting for Republican candidates last fall. "If this bill passes, don't think in 2018 I'm going to forget what you've done to my family."

Just four people spoke in favor of the bill, including representatives of the Iowa chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit political advocacy group funded by conservative donors David and Charles Koch.

Copyright 2017 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Six years ago, other states watched a bitter fight play out in Wisconsin between the state's Republican leaders and government workers. The workers lost that fight. Now the same thing might happen in Iowa. Lawmakers there are considering overhauling how public sector unions negotiate contracts, and they are likely to succeed, as Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: For the first time in nearly 20 years, Republicans here have control of the House, Senate and governor's office, and they've put the state's more-than-40-year-old collective bargaining law in its crosshairs. Last night, teachers, Teamsters, firefighters and others packed the Capitol in protest. Chants of kill the bill rang through the rotunda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

MASTERS: The bill was introduced last week and would affect 180,000 state and local government workers in Iowa. It would be prohibited from negotiating over issues including health insurance, seniority and extra pay, and it also leaves in place a provision that prevents workers from going on strike. Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, stood on a folding chair to rile up the massive crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BECKY PRINGLE: Enough of these misguided politicians and their billionaire buddies trying to take our voice and our rights. (Chanting) Enough, enough, enough...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Enough...

MASTERS: Four people spoke in favor of the bill, including Drew Klein with the Iowa chapter of Americans for Prosperity. That's the nonprofit political advocacy group funded by conservative donors David and Charles Koch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DREW KLEIN: It's not the strength of the unions that makes our state a great place to live. It's the quality of our friends and neighbors and their willingness to tackle tough problems head-on.

MASTERS: More than 1,100 people signed up to speak against the bill, but only 33 got the chance. Lindsey Herron says she left her old job with good pay to work as a correctional officer at a state prison for better benefits. If the bill becomes law...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY HERRON: The risk is no longer worth it. You may think that's fine until those offenders end up living next door to your family. And they learn nothing in prison because they no longer have professional, educated staff working there.

MASTERS: This bill is modeled on legislation that passed in Wisconsin six years ago. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the architect of that law. Last night, he tweeted that Iowa Republicans have the chance to pass big, bold reforms. The debate is expected to last days. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT SONG, "BUSTELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.