DES MOINES — Elections are under way, and the future of collective bargaining for Iowa’s public employees is being determined by the state’s teachers, sheriff’s deputies, nurses and bus and plow drivers, among many others.
Under a law passed earlier this year by former Gov. Terry Branstad and the Republican-led Iowa Legislature, union bargaining units that represent the state’s public employees must hold elections at the end of each contract to determine whether the bargaining unit should continue to represent its workers.
Some of those elections concluded Tuesday; nearly 500 more elections affecting more than 34,000 public workers will take place over two weeks in October.
Eventually, all of Iowa’s 1,200 public bargaining units and more than 120,000 public employees will be involved in similar recertification elections.
Before those sweeping changes were made to the state’s collective bargaining laws, bargaining units remained certified unless workers voted to decertify.
“It’s going to be a difficult haul for us for a while,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 50,000 public workers, according to its website. “Over time, we’ll figure this thing out, like we always do. ...
“One day longer, one day stronger. We’ll survive. That’s how it is.”
Not only must bargaining units regularly hold recertification elections, they must obtain the approval of a majority of eligible voters in the bargaining unit, not just those who vote in the election. Any eligible voter who does not cast a vote is, in effect, voting no under the new law.
In other words, if a bargaining unit with 100 workers receives 49 votes in favor of recertification and 10 against, the unit fails to remain certified.
Union leaders say the high hurdle created by the new law — most elections, including for public office like state legislator and governor, require a majority of voters, not of eligible voters — is unfair and evidence that the law was written and passed by Republicans with purely politically motivated intentions.
Unions typically support Democratic candidates for public office and donate money and time to Democratic campaigns. Sagar, for example, is treasurer of the state Democratic Party. And in the 2016 election cycle in Iowa, public employee unions AFSCME Iowa Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association gave more than $640,000 to Democratic candidates and party organizations, according to state campaign finance records online.
The goal, union leaders claim, is to weaken unions’ political clout.
“We think the deck was pretty well stacked (against unions),” Sagar said. “It’s a little disturbing. The intent was pretty clearly to punish the unions in this state.”
Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, called the new recertification process “the most ridiculous, egregious, undemocratic process.”
“If we applied that to an election for an elected office, any candidate would have to get 50 percent of their designated district to vote yes or they couldn’t be elected,” Homan said. “I don’t know if there’s any candidate (among) the Republicans who passed this egregious, repulsive law who could pass that test.”
AFSCME represents 40,000 public workers in many fields, including law enforcement, firefighters, correctional officers and mental health workers. The union is challenging the collective bargaining law in court; a district judge heard arguments from the union and the state earlier this month.
Iowa Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison who managed the bill that eventually became the new law, said the new threshold was established in order to provide more accountability for bargaining units to the workers they represent.
“I don’t see it as an unfair burden at all. You’re talking about a union asking to have absolute representation of its body,” Holt said. “It gives accountability to the system that hasn’t been there for 40 years. ... I think it’s absolutely fair and appropriate. It’s a different kind of election. We’re talking about a union that is going to represent these employees for a variety of issues.”
With so much at stake for the unions and a new process with which many public workers are unfamiliar, union leaders have spent recent months informing workers about the new law, the recertification election process and the effect the results could have.
“We have had phone conference calls with all of our (local) presidents," said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 educators, mostly teachers. "I have been out to as many places as I can be, breakfasts, after-school events. Some superintendents are opening their doors wide, saying, ‘Come talk to us.’”
Union leaders also are informing workers of a recent ruling by the state board that oversees the election that states if a bargaining unit does not gain sufficient support for recertification, the contract for those workers is terminated shortly after the election, regardless of the contract’s signed end date.
Union leaders disagree with the state board’s interpretation and may challenge it in court.
Those leaders also hope to convince public workers that keeping bargaining units is worthwhile even though the new law significantly reduced the elements eligible for bargaining. Under the new law, unions can collectively bargain only for base wages; no longer may they bargain for health insurance, vacation hours or overtime pay, among others.
“I hope that we’re able to assist all of our affiliates in any way they need, and I hope that we’re successful in explaining how important keeping collective bargaining alive in the public sector is and that people participate and vote,” Sagar said.
Homan said he is confident that despite the new challenges, most if not all of AFSCME’s affiliated bargaining units will earn recertification.
Sagar said he fears some AFL-CIO-affiliated groups will be unsuccessful.
“Honestly, it’s a little bit early to predict, but there will be some because some people will fail to understand,” he said.
Wawro said she is optimistic about the Iowa State Education Association’s groups. The first round of elections concluded Tuesday and included 13 education-based groups; all 13 overwhelmingly voted to keep their bargaining unit.
“Employees, regardless of their union membership, understood what was at stake and voted to retain the rights they are entitled to receive,” Wawro said in a news release. “We are extremely proud of our members and all of the public employees who understand what was at stake in this election and voted in the best interest of their profession, their students and their communities.”