Courts reject legal challenges to Iowa collective bargaining law

Two Polk County District Court judges have dismissed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s new collective bargaining law. Although the plaintiffs are likely to appeal the rulings, the bar will be high to convince four Iowa Supreme Court justices the state had no rational basis to enact changes affecting some public employees more adversely than others.

I enclose below the court rulings and key points, along with reaction from leaders of AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, which filed the lawsuits earlier this year.

AFSCME represents tens of thousands of state, county, and municipal employees in Iowa. The union’s lawsuit argued that the disparate treatment of “public safety employees” amounts to an equal protection violation under the Iowa Constitution. Under the Republican law, bargaining units with at least 30 percent “public safety employees” retained more collective bargaining rights, even though not every worker in those units performs a dangerous job. Conversely, many public employees who do similar law enforcement work for other state bodies enjoy fewer rights, because their units do not meet the “arbitrary classification” created by the law.

The Iowa State Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of teachers, sued separately. In addition to challenging the unequal treatment of two classes of workers (“public safety” employees and others), the teachers union maintained that a ban on automatic payroll deduction for union dues violates the Iowa Constitution’s uniformity clause, because the state continues to allow such deductions for other professional associations. The ISEA lawsuit also argued that “undemocratic” recertification election rules for public-sector unions are a due process violation, because they require counting “votes based on population instead of number of votes cast.”

Attorney General Tom Miller had recused his office from handling challenges to the law. Private attorneys representing the state in both cases argued that policy-makers had good reason to treat “public safety” workers differently and that it is not “irrational” to give more rights to bargaining units with at least 30 percent of members classified as “public safety.” Furthermore, lawmakers routinely establish definitions or numeric standards that may exclude some people from protections, but courts have not held such line-drawing to be inherently “arbitrary.” This motion for summary judgment in the AFSCME case lays out the arguments, beginning on page 12.

Polk County District Court Judge Michael Huppert dismissed the ISEA’s lawsuit on October 18. Here’s the full ruling:

Huppert noted that the “rational basis” standard requires only that the state have a plausible justification for its actions. The state provided three reasons:

1) public safety employees should be allowed to maintain their bargaining rights because of the risks posed in the event they undertook a work stoppage in response to being included in H.F. 291; 2) should other public employees go on strike in response to H.F. 291, it would fall upon public safety employees to enforce the law in the ensuing labor unrest; and 3) public safety employees face difficult and unique safety issues that require that they continue to be allowed to bargain on issues like health insurance.

Wisconsin’s experience after Republicans revoked most collective bargaining rights there showed labor unrest was a plausible outcome in Iowa, even though our state has not experienced public-sector strikes since the early 1970s. Huppert also noted a federal appeals court upheld Wisconsin’s law, which drew comparable distinctions between unions representing public safety workers and other public employees.

Huppert rejected the equal protection claim regarding the ban on payroll deduction for union membership, writing, “The fiscal interests of the government are routinely accepted as a rational basis for legislative activity that is viewed as a cost-saving measure for the public.” The state had claimed collective bargaining is “less worthy of support” than other activities (like membership in other professional associations), because it is “expensive, disruptive and not in the best interest of citizens.” Meanwhile, Huppert determined that prohibiting payroll deduction does not limit the union’s speech rights or its ability to collectively bargain on behalf of members.

Regarding the recertification election rules (which are undemocratic in my view), Huppert cited a 140-year-old case: “Ordinarily, it is presumed that any qualified voters who do not participate in an election are presumed to assent to the expressed will of the majority of those actually voting. […] This rule controls ‘unless the law providing for the election otherwise declares.’” But Iowa lawmakers explicitly required a majority of the members of each bargaining unit to vote in favor of certification, every contract period.

The state argues that this admittedly stringent requirement (as well as the new requirement that an election be automatically held at the end of a collective bargaining term) ensures that the establishment and maintenance of a bargaining unit be the result of overwhelming and regular support of its members, consistent with the legitimate state interest that it not have to participate in the costly exercise of collective bargaining unless and until the unit’s members are committed to the process. The court has already concluded that the issue of the cost of collective bargaining is a legitimate state interest justifying the prohibition of payroll deduction. Such concerns are equally rational when used to require overwhelming support for collective bargaining.

After Judge Huppert issued his ruling, ISEA President Tammy Wawro released this statement:

“I am very disappointed in this ruling. We believe many aspects of this new law are blatantly unfair, treating some public employees in a manner different from others and putting obstacles in place for unions in terms of dues collection and recertification. This litigation is one component of our fight to win back the rights taken from our members in the last legislative session.

We will continue moving forward with next steps, fighting hard for our members to ensure that they receive the same rights and privileges enjoyed by other employees. We are exploring all of our options, including an appeal.”

Polk County District Court Judge Arthur Gamble dismissed AFSCME’s lawsuit on similar grounds on October 30. Here’s the full ruling:

Gamble found that although plaintiffs “proved disparate treatment” of public workers, they failed to show the state had no rational basis for that treatment.

The possibility of a strike by public employees, including employees charged with the protection of the public, is a credible and rational concern. It is realistically conceivable. It is not an irrational fear.

Even assuming a strike is improbable, reasonable legislators could also be rationally concerned that public employees who experience a reduction in collective bargaining rights will be more likely to experience low morale and labor unrest. Labor unrest short of a strike could reasonably be considered by legislators to contribute to instability in the public sector workforce. Other jurisdictions have experienced incidents of civil disobedience through sickouts by public employees and “Blue Flu” by law enforcement in response to less desirable terms and conditions of employment. […]

While strikes or incidents of “Blue Flu” have yet to occur in Iowa, it is not irrational for a legislator to look at these events and consider the possibility of an Iowa “Blue Flu” as the result of a change to collective bargaining laws. Even without overt work stoppages, a reasonable legislature could be rationally concerned about the need to attract and retain a reliable corps of satisfied, well-trained and experienced Public Safety Employees to protect the public in case of a public emergency including the possibility of labor unrest by other public employees in light of the reduction of their collective bargaining rights. The potential for “Blue Flu” or some other exhibition of labor unrest short of a strike is realistically conceivable. […]

Given the potential for some form of labor unrest following the passage of H.F. 291, a reasonable legislature could rationally conclude that a reliable corps of public safety employees is a priority in order to protect the public in the event of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a public health emergency. While the thirty percent threshold of PSEs creates some degree of overinclusion an underinclusion, the legislature is entitled to act within a reasonable range of rational alternatives.

Like his counterpart who dismissed the ISEA case, Gamble pointed to labor unrest in Wisconsin as evidence Iowa lawmakers’ concerns were “fact based.” He also cited the federal appeals court which held “Wisconsin was free to determine that the costs of potential labor unrest exceeded the benefits of restricting the public safety unions.”

Gamble determined that it was not “palpably arbitrary or irrational” for lawmakers to give more rights to bargaining units with at least 30 percent of members in “public safety” jobs.

While AFSCME can reasonably disagree with the public policy decision of the elected branches regarding public sector bargaining rights, it is for the legislature to determine the reasonable extent of collective bargaining rights for all public employees including public safety employees. The Court can interfere only upon a finding that the decision of the legislature lacks any rational relationship to a legitimate public purpose. “Rational basis review in equal protection analysis is not a license for the courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices.” Connolly v. McCall, 254 F.3d 36, 42 (2d Cir. 2001).

The relationship of the legislative classification to its public purpose is a matter of legislative line-drawing. The Court does not agree with the State’s contention that the line drawn by the legislature at thirty percent PSE is “virtually unreviewable” under the rational basis test of Art. I § 6 of the Iowa Constitution. But see Beach, 508 U.S. at 316. However, even though our rational basis test is more rigorous in Iowa, judicial deference is owed to reasonable legislative decisions that are not palpably arbitrary. Varnum, 763 N.W.2d at 575.

In conclusion, Gamble found,

AFSCME failed to negate every reasonable basis for the classification that might support disparate treatment between units thirty percent or more PSEs and units of less than thirty percent PSEs. There is a rational basis for this legislative classification. The presumption of constitutionality prevails.

AFSCME Council 61 released this statement from President Danny Homan on October 30:

“Today we were notified that our request for summary judgment was overruled by Chief District Judge Gamble of the Fifth Judicial District of Iowa.

“Chief Judge Gamble agreed that ‘AFSCME proved disparate treatment of similarly situated individuals under H.F. 291. Some unionized public employees are granted privileges and immunities in the form of collective bargaining rights that are not equally granted to all unionized public employees.’ He did not feel that we fully disproved the excuses given by the State for this unequal treatment by lawmakers.

“While we are disappointed that this initial ruling in our fight for collective bargaining justice was not in our favor, we knew from the day we filed this lawsuit, right after HF291 was signed, that this case would likely end up in the Iowa Supreme Court. We are exploring the next step in the legal process, including an appeal. As proven by last week’s recertification victories, we’re not going anywhere. We’re in this for the long haul and look forward to the day that this unconstitutional law is overturned for Iowa’s public employees.”

Given the federal precedent upholding Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law and the Iowa Supreme Court’s general tendency to show deference to state lawmakers, I am not optimistic the ISEA or AFSCME will have better luck on appeal.

UPDATE: AFSCME announced on November 14 that the union was appealing Gamble’s ruling.

From day one, we have recognized the likelihood that this case would end up in the Iowa Supreme Court, and today’s appeal takes us one step closer to that outcome.

“We have no timeline for knowing whether or not the Supreme Court of Iowa will hear our case, but we will never stop fighting for the rights of Iowa public employees. Republicans at the Capitol thought they could silence us by gutting the collective bargaining law, but they underestimated the power of working Iowans determined to reclaim their rights.”

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