Republicans in the Iowa Legislature unveiled a wide-ranging proposal Tuesday to dramatically alter the state’s 43-year-old collective bargaining law, joining a battle that has been expected ever since the GOP gained full control of the Capitol after last November’s elections.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced bills that seek to limit the subjects that non-public safety workers can bring to the bargaining table, change arbitration rules, alter how unions are certified and eliminate the long-time practice of gathering union dues through payroll deductions. The bill also would make changes to the law relating to dismissal of public employees and eliminates certain seniority rights, although not for police officers and firefighters.
"This is a major update and modernization, recognizing that it’s been 40 years since we’ve addressed this, that we have a different Iowa, we have a different United States and that circumstances are different, and I think this more closely serves Iowa and today’s needs,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, chairman of Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee.
Public employee groups and their supporters, who had scheduled a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday to oppose changes, immediately set in motion plans to mobilize supporters to fight back.
“I think it is” union-busting, Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, said after the House bill was introduced by Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, chair of the House Labor Committee.
“The answer is right here,” he said, pulling a copy of the GOP platform out of his pocket. It states, “We call for legislation that would eliminate all public-sector unions.”
“That’s what their real goal is, how they’re doing it,” he said.
Unions said the breadth of the bill was shocking.
"I was not expecting the absolute trashing of my profession," said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association.
Republicans denied they were seeking to kill unions, only to level a playing field they think has been tilted against state and local government and taxpayers. Deyoe said if they had wanted to kill unions, they would have eliminated the part of the code dealing with collective bargaining altogether.
Meanwhile, Drew Klein, the Iowa state director for Americans for Prosperity, urged lawmakers to pass the bill.
"As it stands, Iowa's collective bargaining system is a messy process that puts too much power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats," he said.
Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds also praised the proposal at a news conference Tuesday.
The legislation makes sweeping changes, and it appears Republicans will move quickly on it. Committees will take up the bills this week. Republican leaders said debate in the full House and Senate will be next week.
In some ways, the legislation essentially sets up two different systems. It makes little, if any, change to the law as it pertains to what items public safety employees, such as firefighters and police officers, can bring to the bargaining table. For non-public safety workers, however, the Republican proposal limits mandatory bargaining items to just “base wages and other matters mutually agreed upon.”
Currently, mandatory subjects of bargaining include such items as wages, hours, vacations, insurance, holidays, leaves of absence, shift differentials, overtime, supplemental pay and transfer procedures.
The broader list of items are maintained in the proposal for bargaining units that represent state patrol officers, police and firefighters.
Republicans said the rules are different for them because of the work they do.
"I don’t have a problem with that because those are the people who put their lives on the line every day," Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said Tuesday.
Wawro objected to the different treatment.
"I don't know a teacher who wouldn’t put their life on the line for a child any day," she said, adding they often train to protect children.
The proposal also changes the rules for arbitrators, who settle disputes between labor and management.
The bill says that, for non-public safety employees, arbitrators should, where possible, consider wages and working conditions in comparable private-sector positions when settling disputes. Currently, the law says that arbitrators are to choose from the last positions offered by labor and management and to consider other public-sector practices.
This proposal prohibits an arbitrator from considering past collective bargaining agreements, and it forbids consideration of the ability of government to pay for benefits by raising taxes and fees. That's one of the criteria in the current law.
Critics of the current system say that arbitrators have too often favored unions, and they have long chafed at the idea that government’s ability to raise taxes is considered.
They have particularly said that governments need the power to rein in health care costs.
Government employers also could participate in a statewide health insurance pool proposed by Branstad that could save upward of $100 million a year in premium cost. But participation would be optional, Deyoe said. Critics of Branstad's idea have said they don't think his estimates of cost savings are realistic.
Union workers also say the law has worked to ensure good labor/management relations and they work closely with city governments and school boards to control costs. They also dispute the idea that arbitrators favor their side, saying they often give with one hand but take away with another.
(Reporters Rod Boshart, Erin Murphy and James Q. Lynch contributed to this report.)