Iowa public employees’ unions oppose bargaining changes


By William Petroski

Unions representing Iowa’s public employees are vowing to fight efforts by the Iowa Legislature to rewrite the state’s collective bargaining laws, although they face long odds against winning their battle.

A teacher, a nurse, a police officer, a firefighter and a transportation worker all spoke at an Iowa Capitol news conference Thursday, where they called on lawmakers not to weaken public employees’ contract laws that were implemented in the 1970s.

They said the laws have ensured adequate staffing levels, helped to recruit and retain top talent and have provided Iowans with quality public schools and efficient public services.

They are worried about Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposal to remove health insurance as a subject of collective bargaining for public employees’ union contracts, as well as other possible legislation that could hurt their ability to bargain for pay raises and other benefits. Democratic legislators have blocked such proposals in the past, but some changes are likely during the 2017 Legislature’s session because Republicans now hold control of the Iowa Senate, House and governor’s seat for the first time since 1998.

Kelly McMahon, a kindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, is a member of the Iowa State Education Association. She said she and her fellow public employees work tirelessly every school year to ensure there are strong public schools across the state.

“We are the bus drivers who transport your children safely to and from school, the paraprofessionals who assist the child with autism in the classroom, the school nurses who assist children with insulin shots and tummy aches, the teachers who direct the fall musicals, and the coaches that lead the football teams onto the field for the big Friday night games,” McMahon said.

Adam Choat, a Pleasant Hill police officer who has spent 10 years in law enforcement, said police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect Iowans. But finding qualified police officers is a growing concern nationally and a real concern in Iowa, he said.

“If we want to ensure that we have the officers we need to protect our communities and keep our streets safe, we need to ensure fair compensation and benefits for those who answer the call,” said Choat, who is a Teamsters’ union member. He added that Iowa’s collective bargaining laws have served the state well for the past four decades and give officers an opportunity to talk about training and equipment and safety concerns on the job.

Sean Passick, an Iowa Department of Transportation employee, said that besides winter maintenance chores, public employees make sure that roads and bridges are built to specification and ensure the safety of the traveling public. He said his work responsibilities have quadrupled since he started his job 18 years ago because of staffing reductions.

“Sure, I could get more money and do half the work for a private-sector contractor, but I take pride in being a public employee,” Passick said. He’s a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Union leaders said in a statement that schools and public agencies are already suffering the effects of a series of state “corporate tax giveaways” that have starved budgets for schools and essential public services. They said lawmakers should focus on creating good jobs, funding education, and rebuilding Iowa infrastructure instead of “wasting taxpayers dollars on attacking workers and trying to silence the voices of front-line providers.”

Branstad has defended his proposal to remove health insurance from collective bargaining. He said a statewide master health care program — replacing hundreds of locally bargained health insurance plans — will reduce health insurance premiums and make more money available for public employees’ pay raises.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have said “everything is on the table” in considering revisions of public employee bargaining, from repealing the law to making what they view as relatively minor changes. Critics contend the current law provides overly generous benefits to public-sector workers and undermines governments’ control over spending. They say Iowa law needs to be rewritten to give more consideration to Iowa taxpayers.

The Iowa Association of School Boards has made reform of contract arbitration a priority. One of the complaints is that school districts may be forced to raise property taxes to pay for salary or benefit increases required in a contract approved by an arbitrator.