BREAKING: Iowa Lawmakers Pass Sweeping Anti-Union Bill

David Goodner

Both the House and Senate, which are controlled by the GOP, approved the bill Thursday, passing the most sweeping and impactful changes to Iowa law in decades. (Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO/ Facebook)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Law­mak­ers in Iowa have vot­ed to dis­man­tle the state’s 40-year-old col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing law, dra­mat­i­cal­ly weak­en­ing the pow­er of pub­lic sec­tor labor unions and leav­ing some 185,000 pub­lic work­ers unable to bar­gain over ben­e­fits, health­care, vaca­tions, retire­ment, and near­ly all work­place issues out­side of wages.

Iowa is a right-to-work state, and the new law would pre­vent vol­un­tary union dues from being deduct­ed from a pub­lic employee’s pay­check. It would also require reg­u­lar recer­ti­fi­ca­tion votes. Police offi­cers, fire­fight­ers and tran­sit work­ers are exempt from most of the bill’s provisions.

Repub­li­can law­mak­ers intro­duced their union-bust­ing bill on Feb­ru­ary 7 and fast-tracked it through the leg­isla­tive process. Both the House and Sen­ate, which are con­trolled by the GOP, approved the bill Thurs­day, pass­ing the most sweep­ing and impact­ful changes to Iowa law in decades. Gov. Ter­ry Branstad is expect­ed to sign the bill soon.

Dur­ing the 10-day stretch before law­mak­ers vot­ed, Iowa saw its largest labor mobi­liza­tion in years, with thou­sands of union mem­bers stand­ing up, speak­ing out and tak­ing action. The week­end before Valen­tine’s Day, work­ers and their fam­i­lies packed leg­isla­tive forums and town hall meet­ings in dis­tricts across the state. Teach­ers and their allies ral­lied and marched at the state Capitol.

A union ral­ly and pub­lic hear­ing Mon­day drew scores of demon­stra­tors so dense that the Iowa Capi­tol was packed shoul­der-to-shoul­der on every floor. Fire­fight­ers wore their icon­ic hel­mets. Nurs­es showed up after their shifts in scrubs. Work­ers con­tin­ued to pour into the Capi­tol for hours after the event start­ed, with lines of peo­ple spilling out of the state­house entrances. More than 4,600 peo­ple went through the Capi­tol secu­ri­ty check­points, Radio Iowa report­ed. Thou­sands more Iowans flood­ed state­house switch­boards and law­mak­ers’ emails.

Minor­i­ty Democ­rats in both cham­bers man­aged to briefly slow down the bill’s pas­sage, extend­ing debate over three days of marathon ses­sions and rais­ing impor­tant ques­tions about out­side influ­ence by cor­po­rate inter­ests like the Koch Broth­ers, ALEC and Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty.

We’re talk­ing about people’s lives, their kids, and their homes,” said Can­dace Acord, an AFSCME mem­ber and com­mu­ni­ty-based cor­rec­tions offi­cer from Iowa City. I don’t under­stand what the prob­lem is here when we just want health insur­ance for our families.”

My main con­cern is insur­ance may now become so unat­tain­able due to the cost that I may not be able to afford health­care for me and my fam­i­ly,” said Lynette Hal­st­ed, an SEIU mem­ber and emer­gency room nurse at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Hos­pi­tals and Clin­ics. Staffing ratios are no longer per­mis­si­ble sub­jects of bar­gain­ing, but evi­dence-based prac­tice shows that the more patients a nurse has the worse the out­come can be for patients.”

The non­par­ti­san Iowa Pol­i­cy Project weighed in with a report on the impacts of the new law, stat­ing it will:

exac­er­bate exist­ing trends — low and stag­nat­ing wages, grow­ing uncer­tain­ty about access to afford­able health care, and increas­ing income inequal­i­ty — that are already accel­er­at­ing down­ward mobil­i­ty for many Iowa house­holds. And these effects are like­ly to dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, low-income work­ers, and to threat­en the qual­i­ty of the health care, pub­lic safe­ty, and pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tems upon which all Iowans depend.”

Thou­sands of peo­ple also sub­mit­ted writ­ten com­ments oppos­ing the union-bust­ing bill.

Car­rie Dodd, a junior high Eng­lish teacher from rur­al Madrid, wrote: My hus­band and I both work in school dis­tricts and we will be finan­cial­ly dev­as­tat­ed if we lose our insur­ance, receive low­er pay, and have to work more for less.”

T.J. Foley, a senior at Val­ley High School in Des Moines, wrote: Union pow­er is key to effec­tive teach­ers, and effec­tive teach­ers mean Iowa’s stu­dents are suc­cess­ful and our future as a state is secure.”

The recent demon­stra­tions high­light­ed the pow­er, how­ev­er dimin­ished, that labor still has to edu­cate, orga­nize, and mobi­lize work­ers and their fam­i­lies, and the crit­i­cal role unions play in bring­ing every day, reg­u­lar peo­ple into social jus­tice movements.

But the future of orga­nized labor is now more uncer­tain than ever, and the path for­ward is unclear. Many work­ers at the demon­stra­tions said they believe the next step is to re-elect Democ­rats into the major­i­ty in 2018. That task will be even more dif­fi­cult now that Iowa’s pub­lic sec­tor unions have been severe­ly weak­ened, arguably the real pur­pose of the new law.

There is also no guar­an­tee a Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty would restore col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Democ­rats con­trolled the Iowa Sen­ate in 2013, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and House Repub­li­cans to pass the largest cor­po­rate prop­er­ty tax cuts in state his­to­ry, cuts which caused a bud­get short­fall that Repub­li­cans are now using to jus­ti­fy their attacks on labor. Unions were unable to expand their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights even when Democ­rats held a tri­fec­ta of polit­i­cal pow­er in 2008.

But work­ers aren’t giv­ing up.

We will resist and per­sist in the face of these neolib­er­al attacks,” said Nao­ki Izv­mo, a teach­ing assis­tant and UE-COGS mem­ber at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa. Work­ers are the true source of pow­er in soci­ety, not the law.” 

David Good­ner is a writer, orga­niz­er and Catholic Work­er from Iowa City.
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