Iowa GOP opens new front against public worker unions

Iowa GOP opens new front against public worker unions
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The Iowa legislature is finalizing rules that would amount to one of the most ambitious assaults on powerful public employee unions in recent memory, potentially stripping thousands of state workers from union rolls in the coming months.

After Republicans captured control of all levers of state government last year, the legislature passed a package of reforms aimed squarely at collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. 

Several of the provisions mirror efforts passed in other Republican-led states, banning state offices from automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks and limiting the scope of contract negotiations.

But another provision threatens the very existence of the unions themselves: It will require union members to vote to re-certify their unions every time a new contract comes up for negotiation. 

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“Our goal was to create reforms that would allow government to be as efficient as the private sector would be,” said state Rep. Steve Holt (R), who sponsored the law. “The union needs to be accountable to its members.” 

The new law sets a higher bar for unions, too. A union would need to win over the votes of a majority of its members — rather than simply a majority of those who cast ballots — to win recertification. The state’s Public Employee Relations Board is considering using fees paid by unions to finance those elections.

A state legislative panel voted earlier this month to finalize rules requiring a majority of members to re-certify a bargaining unit. 

Labor leaders worry the Iowa legislation is just the first step in a new wave of laws meant to crack down on public sector unions.

Similar proposals have been introduced in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida. 

“This is the playbook, and it’s being rolled out all across the Midwest,” said Charlie Wishman, who heads the Iowa Federation of Labor. “As soon as [Republicans] have the opportunity, they move very quickly on these items.”

Labor backers say more frequent recertification votes will put at risk their ability to represent the 185,000 members they currently have across Iowa. Those leaders say the legislature considered input from conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the free-market group founded by GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch, without consulting the unions themselves.

“Every bargaining unit has to be rectified at least once every five years,” Wishman said. “The bar is set very high for recertification.”

The first recertification votes are scheduled to take place next month, covering about 1,200 workers, according to the state Public Employee Relations Board. By October, unions representing as many as 40,000 workers will face their own recertification votes.

Holt said public employee unions have seen their power grow immensely in recent decades. Before the reforms passed this year, state agencies had to negotiate everything from employee transfers to state-mandated staff cuts. 

“That creates a scenario where the union doesn’t feel particularly accountable to its membership. Well, now they are,” Holt said.

The Iowa law is the latest in a series of challenges to the power of public employee unions that have passed Republican-led legislatures in Midwestern states, over the loud objections of Democrats and union leaders.  

The reform measures spurred angry demonstrations and a failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2012. In recent years, states such as Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri have passed their own measures restricting the rights of public-sector employee unions. 

Reforms were slower to come to Iowa, where Democrats held control of the state Senate for years. But last November, Republicans captured a handful of Democratic-held seats, including the one held by state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D), to claim control of all levers of government.