By ERIN MURPHY
DES MOINES — Unions that represent Iowa’s public employees think they are on the receiving end of a politically motivated attack from state lawmakers who seek to change dramatically the way some public employees collectively bargain for benefits.
Republican lawmakers last week introduced sweeping legislation that essentially rewrites the state’s collective bargaining laws. GOP officials say the current system, established in the 1970s, favors public employees at the expense of taxpayers.
Many provisions would significantly weaken unions’ bargaining position.
Those provisions have led union officials to claim Republican lawmakers are not trying to save taxpayer money, but rather weaken the influence of public employee unions, a bloc that typically votes for Democratic candidates.
A similar law implemented in Wisconsin in 2011 led to a 34 percent reduction in union membership between 2011 and 2015, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
One top Iowa union leader described Iowa Republicans’ proposals as a copy of Wisconsin’s but “on steroids.”
“They are doing everything in their power to make it hard for unions to exist in this state,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, which represents 40,000 workers in law enforcement, corrections, mental health care and other fields.
Statehouse Republican leaders denied allegations they are attempting to “bust” public employee unions.
“That’s not what this is about,” Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said. “The fact is, I think Iowans appreciate and want us to be fair, and they want a system that is not antiquated and isn’t tilted in one (side’s) favor, but (a system) that’s going to be fair to all Iowans. And I believe that these changes are designed to do that.”
The proposal adds procedural hurdles for unions to retain their bargaining authority. Chief among them is a measure that would require unions to be certified by a majority of their members, instead of merely by a majority of members who vote, as current law is written.
In other words, if a union has 5,000 members, it would have to receive 2,501 votes in support of recertification. Under current law, unions need only a majority of members voting, like most public elections.
Republicans say such a measure is warranted to keep union bargaining units accountable to their members and is justifiable even though most elections, including for state legislator and governor, are decided by a majority of votes cast, not a majority of the population represented.
“The rule on that is the same that we have here in the House: It’s a majority here of the House members,” said Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, referring to the requirement of a majority vote in the chamber for the passage of legislation. Deyoe is chairman of the House Labor Committee through which the collective bargaining bill is running. “It doesn’t matter how many people are here in the chambers. If you have a vote up there, we have to have 51 votes.”
Union leaders said because Iowa is a right-to-work state, no public employee may be required to pay union dues, and any employee can opt out of a union at any time. Therefore, they say, the higher threshold for recertification is unnecessary and an indication of a political attack.
“It’s totally unnecessary. It’s vindictive,” Homan said. “They have now taken that bar (to recertify) and given us a bar that is really, really, really unfair and high.”
Homan said participation in union certification votes varies from bargaining unit to bargaining unit, often depending on the size. Smaller units will have high voter turnout, but larger units often do not, he said.
“You may have half of them vote. So that means I need to get 100 percent yeses? We have absolutely no margin for error,” Homan said.
He pointed to a recent unit’s vote on whether members wish to accept the state’s bargaining offer of a 1.25-percent raise. “We have 5,000 members here in Des Moines, and I guarantee you 5,000 of them didn’t come to vote yesterday. For whatever reason. They’re good members. They pay their dues.
“For whatever reason, they just don’t show up. Does that mean that they want to get rid of the union? I don’t think so.”
The proposal also doubles — from one to two years — the amount of time before a bargaining unit may try again if it fails in a recertification vote.
Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 Iowa educators, called the proposed recertification threshold “purely punitive.”
“It’s just a lot of process (for no) reason,” Wawro said. “If people want to decertify now, they have a plan. ... People can get together and ask a bargaining unit to not represent them.”