In packed statehouse, protesters oppose proposed changes to collective bargaining

The Iowa Capitol shown on the opening day of the Iowa Legislature, Jan. 9, 2017. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

With protesters filling the rotunda of the Iowa Capitol Monday night, speakers at a packed public hearing for collective bargaining legislation overwhelmingly voiced their opposition to proposals that would strip away public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Under House File 291, the proposed 68-page legislation, public-sector unions would only be able to negotiate for wages, with exceptions for public safety workers, including firefighters and police officers. Republican legislators have argued that the changes give local boards and governments greater flexibility to manage resources.

According to a signup sheet available last night at 10 p.m., roughly 1,301 people signed up to speak during the public hearing — 1,277 identified as being against HF 291.

Each speaker was given about three minutes to address legislators in comments that were supposed to switch back and forth between pro and con, although after about four people spoke in support of the bill, the rest of the 34 speakers spoke out against it.

At times, chanting from outside the room in the rotunda drowned out speakers. Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who is serving his fifth term in the Iowa Senate, tweeted out that the crowd was the largest he had ever seen in the statehouse.

Supporters praised efforts to cull state spending, while many opponents called the bills — including the companion bill, Senate File 213 — an attack on unions and an insult to workers, who would lose their voice in the workplace. Speakers expressed concerns that jobs could be taken away from long-time employees who earn higher salaries and given to less-experienced, lower-paid workers under a provision of the bill that strikes out language requiring suspension or discharge of a public employee to be for proper cause. Some speakers, including some who identified themselves as Republicans, warned that legislators’ support for HF 291 and SF 213 could have an impact come Election Day.

”Great for Iowa”

Drew Klein, Iowa state director of Americans for Prosperity, spoke in favor of the bills, calling the collective bargaining system outdated, a drain on state coffers and saying “reform is going to be great for Iowa.”

Klein argued that he didn’t think the messages from unions reflected reality, calling them “specious at best.”

A Friday press release from Americans for Prosperity-Iowa, the local branch of a conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire businessmen the Koch brothers, notes that the group is launching a campaign including mailings, digital advertising, phone calls and other outreach efforts in support of the issue.

“As it stands, Iowa’s collective bargaining system is a messy process that puts too much power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats,” a statement from Klein says. “The incentives under this structure simply exist to appease both parties whatever the cost, rather than to do what’s best for taxpayers.”

Also among those speaking in support of the reform efforts was Gretchen Tegeler, president of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa, who attributed the crowd discrepancy to labor unions being organized and able to draw crowds, “while taxpayers are more diffuse.”

Tegeler called the bills a rare win for taxpayers and counseled those against the bill that, “rather than being afraid of change, this bill should be seen as an opportunity” to create a more efficient public sector.

Voices against the bill

For many opponents who spoke Monday night, the bill represented a destruction of professional dignity.

“At what point did Iowa Republicans and Governor Branstad stop seeing teachers, correction workers and public employees as people?” Elizabeth Sanning, with the Burlington Education Association, asked. “At what point did we become just a line item budget expenditure in your eyes?”

A number of speakers voiced concerns that taking employees away from the bargaining table would erode the appeal of public-sector jobs to new generations of employees and would create a disconnect between employees and on-the-ground workers that would lead to assessments and decisions that were out of sync with reality.

“However well-intentioned our district administrators may be, they are removed from the classroom realities,” said Pete Clancy, a Cedar Rapids public school teacher, who voiced concerns about teachers no longer having a say in things like teacher evaluations.

Clancy said the changes would erode his sense of professionalism and erase the progress that generations of teachers have worked for, including many members of his family.

“These attacks are not just on unions; they are on employees,” he said, adding that it would turn teachers into “cogs in an economic factory model of education that just doesn’t work.”

Tammy Wawro, Iowa State Education Association president, echoed a similar sentiment, saying the legislation isn’t just union busting, but “profession busting.”

Although public safety workers, such as firefighters and police officers, were exempted from many aspects of the bill and would stand to retain a number of bargaining rights, several public safety workers spoke out against the reform efforts.

Jon Thomas, a West Des Moines police officer and organizer with the Teamsters Local 238, quipped that the bill “doesn’t create an environment of collective bargaining, it creates an environment of collective begging.”

He asked legislators why they didn’t include unions or members of the Democratic party in efforts to reform the bargaining system. He said police and firefighters didn’t want to be carved out as an exception and warned that legislators who support the bill should expect to be challenged in the next election.

“I’m a Republican,” Thomas said. “I have very conservative values. Most of my coworkers in public safety are Republicans and there’s plenty of union workers who are Republicans. But we didn’t vote to get stabbed in the back while we try to protect our communities.”

The specter of Wisconsin

A number of speakers raised the specter of Wisconsin, which passed similar legislation back in 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker. That bill, often called Act 10, sparked protests, including an occupation of the Capitol.

In a series of tweets Monday evening, Walker mentioned that he spoke with Iowa legislators, saying they “have a chance to pass big, bold reforms!” He also tweeted out that, rather than being voted out of office, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have gained seats since the 2011 bill.

In a five-year review of the impact of Act 10, the Wisconsin State Journal noted that the state’s economic growth had trailed behind that of neighboring states and the nation as a whole. Fewer private sector jobs were added over the five-year time period than the national average — a 5.7 percent increase in Wisconsin versus a 9.3 percent increase nationally. However, the state’s unemployment rate was at the lowest point in 15 years. The retrospective noted that public employees often ended up paying more for health insurance and pensions, which meant they had less money to spend in the local economy.

One large impact was that union membership in the state dropped significantly. Wisconsin had previously boasted union membership above the national average. The public employee union had about 63,000 members the year before the act passed. In 2015, it had less than 20,000, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Local voices against collective bargaining reform

Outside of Des Moines, some Iowa City voices spoke out against collective bargaining as well.

Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton released a statement Monday afternoon, saying that although the city council and staff knew Republican legislators had plans to make changes to collective bargaining, “we (or at least I) did not anticipate how extensively and quickly they would eviscerate it.”

“Iowans should be profoundly dismayed that their state legislators would take such damaging action so precipitously,” he wrote. “Put simply, this violates basic principles of democratic governance.”

The city council did not object to thoughtful changes to collective bargaining, Throgmorton added, but opposed the current bills, saying the “clear purpose of these bills is to eliminate public sector unions.”

In the lead-up to passage of the bills, a number of unions are working to cement contracts before changes are implemented. This includes the University of Iowa graduate student union.

In a statement released before the public hearing Monday, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS — UE Local 896) announced that the group voted to accept an Iowa Board of Regents proposal from December for a contract that would be in place from July 1 of this year through June 30, 2019.

“We have taken a smaller wage increase to secure what many of our members want: surety that NO CUTS to graduate workers benefits and wages will occur,” COGS President Landon Elkind said in the statement.

The union called on the regents to ratify the agreement before proposed collective bargaining legislation passes.

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