Will Iowa’s Union Recertification Law Create a Domino Effect?

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By Jacquie Lee

Union recertification elections begin Sept. 12 for about 13 unions across Iowa, thanks to the state’s controversial new law that restricts the collective bargaining power of public sector unions.

Public employees can now only bargain over wages, for the most part, and all individual bargaining units must hold and win recertification elections before any new contract can be negotiated. Unions must also win any election with a majority of eligible voters in the bargaining unit, not merely a majority of members who actually voted.

Eventually all 1,203 public sector bargaining units in Iowa will face recertification elections. Roughly 120,000 employees will be affected.

Iowa’s law mirrors similar legislation passed in Wisconsin in 2015. That law also shortens the list of items that public sector bargaining units can negotiate for and requires the same ratio of union member votes to win recertification. However, it requires public sector unions to hold elections every year.

The Wisconsin law provided a model for Iowa’s legislation. And both employer and worker advocates say there could be a domino effect on other states.

“There will be a concerted effort to push this law around,” Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, told Bloomberg BNA.

“I assume like with anything else if it’s viewed as a success, it could spread,” Dave Deyoe (R), chair of Iowa’s House Labor Committee, said.

Deyoe cautioned that legislation surrounding union bargaining power is “very difficult” to pass, which could be an obstacle for similar efforts going forward. But right-to-work states may be fertile ground for similar laws because it wouldn’t be “a dramatic change all at once,” Deyoe said.

28 Right-to-Work States

Six states since 2012 have passed right-to-work laws. In total, 28 states have right-to-work legislation on the books.

Right-to-work prohibits the “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements. These clauses require nonunion members who are covered by the CBAs to pay representation fees, part of the lifeblood of labor unions, right-to-work opponents say.

For states that are swimming in debt and struggling to pay public employees’ pensions, a version of the Iowa/Wisconsin law would be a lifeline, Joel Aziere, president of Buelow Vetter Buikema Olson & Vliet LLC, said. Aziere fought a number of challenges to the Wisconsin law when it passed in 2015.

Illinois is a good example of a state drowning in debt that might be open to laws that limit public employees’ bargaining rights, he said. “A lot of their struggles have to do with their pension contributions and how these benefits are getting unsustainable,” Aziere said.

He said he expects states with a lot of debt to start looking for a way out. That could encourage more laws restricting union power, he said.

“You’ll see more and more of that trend,” Aziere said.

State Workers May Flee, Union Says

When public employees in a bargaining unit negotiated a new contract in the past, the list of topics an employer was mandated to negotiate over was about 15 items long, Sagar said. It traditionally included issues of seniority, hours, bonuses, health and welfare plans, and disciplinary procedure, among other benefits. Now, public employees can only bargain over wages.

However, public safety workers like police and firefighters are exempt from most of the law’s changes.

Sagar anticipates the negotiation restrictions will cause state workers, especially teachers, to flee the Hawkeye State, he said.

“Teachers who lived in Wisconsin left to teach in Iowa,” Sagar said. “Now teachers are leaving Iowa to go to Minnesota. One of the superintendents in Minnesota said, ‘You want stability in workplace? Come to Minnesota.”

Flight Fears Unfounded, Wisconsin Attorney Says

Aziere disagrees. When the Wisconsin bill was introduced and later passed, everyone was afraid state workers would leave their profession and “flee from Wisconsin,” he said. But that wasn’t the case. Although Aziere acknowledges teachers and public employees were unhappy with the legislation, he says the law did help the state financially, which in turn helped workers.

“The effects for the state have been positive overall,” Aziere said. “It led to a budget surplus and allowed state employers to use funds more flexibly. There’s no question it took away significant bargaining rights from unions,” he said, but the flexibility allowed state employers to give merit-based bonuses and fire poor performers who were otherwise insulated from disciplinary action because of their union’s influence.

One report shows that the number of public school teachers in Wisconsin declined by 2.4 percent between 2009 and 2014. If the number of public school teachers in Wisconsin dipped after the 2015 law passed, it’s difficult to know whether the law was the cause or if the decline was part of a general trend.

Deyoe noted one advantage the Iowa law has over the Wisconsin measure: The Wisconsin law included a large cut to the state’s education fund, but Iowa’s didn’t. “We increased funding at the same time we passed this,” he said. That will be a major difference between the two laws going forward, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacquie Lee at jlee1@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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