In the basement of the Davenport Public Library this past week, a couple dozen people, most of them union representatives, listened patiently to what was supposed to be an hour-long presentation.

Instead, it was stretching to 90 minutes. And there still were more questions.

At the head of the room, Mike Cormack, a former state lawmaker who now chairs a little-known agency called the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board, was doing his best. But these are unusual times. This month and next, the agency that has just 10 full-time employees will oversee hundreds of retention and re-certification elections for public employee unions.

As you might expect, there's some anxiety in the air.

"The first time out is like learning how to ride a bike," Cormack said.

It's rare there are elections to start or decertify a union. There were only a dozen in fiscal year 2017.

These new elections were set in motion by the overhaul of Iowa's collective bargaining law. The measure, signed in February by Gov. Terry Branstad, not only significantly reduced the items that could be put on the bargaining table, such as health insurance, but it also changed the rules for the unions themselves.

It changed how they could collect dues. And it requires that, in the year before their contracts expire, elections be held to decide whether to retain the bargaining units.

About 30 labor organizations representing approximately 1,600 workers in Scott, Clinton and Muscatine counties are on the list for October elections. No Quad-City area unions are facing September elections.

Included on that list is the union representing Davenport firefighters. Also, the Pleasant Valley Education Association, which represents about 350 educators, will be having an election.

Statewide, an estimated 34,000 public workers will be eligible to vote in October elections. Unions with predominantly public safety workers don't face the same curbs on bargaining that other unions do, but they still must have elections.

Backers of the election provision argue that it will make unions more accountable. The unions say Republicans who ushered in the new law are just trying to kill them off. And the provision that requires unions to get a majority of votes of the people in the bargaining unit — as opposed to those who cast ballots in the elections — is especially unfair, they say.

"There probably isn't a single politician in this country who could get elected under those rules," said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME, Council 61, the largest public employee union in the state. "Yet, those are the rules they put on us."

Unions are determined to fight back, however. In some cases, they've been preparing for this new world since the law was signed.

Among the two dozen people in the audience last week at the Davenport library was Lynette Claeys, an Iowa State Education Association official based in the Quad-Cities.

She works with five bargaining units that will have elections in October.

It's a new thing for her. All five were certified decades ago. So were a lot of Iowa unions.

"I was still in high school in the ’70s, when these elections took place," Claeys said.

One of the challenges is motivating people who don't always pay attention to union matters, even though they're covered by the contracts.

"I don't think a lot of these people realize what could be at stake," Claeys said.

Unions are working to make sure they do know — and, even though they now can't bargain on as many items, that people still see the value of acting collectively.

"You've still got to have your voice," Claeys said. "You've still got to have a problem-solver."

This brand new world of union elections also has revealed an important consideration: If a bargaining unit loses an election, it could mean the demise of its current contract, even if the agreement's expiration date isn't until next June.

Cormack said staffers at the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board say this has been the case in the past when a union loses an election and is decertified. Although he said governments could voluntarily continue with the terms of a contract, in the state board's view, a union loss would mean "the contract is null and void at that time."

Homan disagrees with the employee relations board's interpretation.

"My understanding of a valid binding contract is it will continue until the point in time that the contract expires," he said.

Cormack concedes there are differing opinions, and the matter could be settled in court.

Already, AFSCME is challenging the legality of the new law on the grounds it violates the state Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment.

The state teachers union also has filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

Either way, the prospect of a contract ending before its scheduled expiration date is something that could motivate union members who will vote this month and next.

Voters will have two weeks to cast their ballots. But unlike past elections, it won't be done by mail. Votes will be taken online and via telephone line. The state has hired a vendor to handle the balloting.

The October elections will take place from Oct. 10-24. It's not clear quite yet how many elections will be held. The deadline for unions to pay the fee for bargaining units willing to go before the voters hasn't expired yet. But there are more than 500 bargaining units potentially up for elections on a list kept by employee relations board.

Some may decide not to go forward. Some decided not to do so in Wisconsin, which is the only other state that conducts these types of elections regularly, Cormack said. Wisconsin changed its rules with Act 10, the 2011 law that put significant curbs on collective bargaining for public employees.

Iowa unions say they're determined to withstand what they say is an attack on them.

"We're alive. We're kicking. We're fighting," Homan said. "I believe we'll be here a year from now kicking and fighting."

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