Collective bargaining fight comes to Iowa

The first all-nighter of the 2011 legislative session ended this morning around 6:05 am, as the Iowa House Labor Committee approved a bill restricting public employees' collective bargaining rights on a party-line vote.

Details on the bill, the debate, and the fight to come are after the jump.

House Study Bill 117 is only slightly less restrictive than the labor bill that has sparked large protests in Wisconsin. The bill introduced by Iowa House Labor Committee Chairman Lance Horbach would exclude the following issues from the scope of collective bargaining negotiations:

*"All retirement systems"

*"The terms and source of health insurance or any other insurance"

*"Any requirement that a public employer pay more than seventy percent of the cost of a health insurance plan"

*"Restrictions or limitations on outsourcing"

*"Any restriction on the right of a public employer to consider any factor which the employer may lawfully consider in a layoff."

The bill also places new limits on what factors arbitrators may consider in the event that contract negotiations go to arbitration, and states that no collective bargaining agreement can be ratified unless the legislature approves a bill to that effect. Furthermore, the legislature "shall not" enact a bill ratifying the collective bargaining agreement "if the terms of the agreement cannot be supported by the state budget without new taxation or without a decrease in the provision by the public employer of services." If the legislature does not enact a bill within 30 days ratifying a collective bargaining agreement, the agreement goes to the governor, who has new power to veto it and force a renegotiation of the contract.

Finally, House Study Bill 117

provides that a public employee has the right to declare oneself a free agent employee, meaning a public employee who has signed a release declaring that the employee rejects representation by an employee organization and that the employee understands that signing the release waives any claim or right to representation by that organization. The bill specifies that for the purposes of collective bargaining, a bargaining unit only consists of employees in a particular class of employees who have not declared themselves free agent employees.

That's quite a union-busting brew, and it shows in the lobbyist declarations for the bill. Several business-oriented, Republican-leaning interest groups are registered for the bill, as are the League of Cities and the Association of School Boards. Lobbyists registered against the bill represent many labor unions, as well as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

I noticed that the Iowa Catholic Conference's lobbyists are registered as undecided on House Study Bill 117. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki issued a statement last week saying "hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers."

During yesterday's committee hearing on House Study Bill 117, State Representative Bruce Hunter, ranking member of the House Labor Commmittee, warned that "the Republican bill will end collective bargaining and take away rights from police officers, fire fighters, state troopers, teachers, and prison guards.  Instead of creating new jobs and opportunities for working families in Iowa, we are taking away their rights and punishing Iowa's middle class." Labor Committee Democrats then offered 48 amendments to the bill, all of which were voted down on party lines. Judging from the report by the Des Moines Register's Tony Leys, committee Republicans weren't too engaged in the marathon debate:

Throughout the proceedings, most of the nine Republicans on the panel stared blankly into their laptop computers, catching up on e-mail or checking out the Internet. At one point, Hunter noticed that Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, was wearing headphones. "A point of order," Hunter said. "Could we ask Rep. Forristall to pretend he's paying attention?"

Forristall smiled sheepishly as he took off the headphones. However, Rep. Linda Miller, R- Bettendorf, continued to play "hearts" card games on her computer. She propped her feet up on a chair and turned her back partway from the Democrats and their debating points. Miller and her GOP colleagues looked up every once in a while to take part in another 9-5 vote to defeat an amendment. [...]

At 12:30 a.m. today, the Democrats said they believed House rules required the meeting to end at midnight. Horbach disagreed, and he said he'd called the House speaker for confirmation of his opinion.

Hunter, the leading Democrat, then moved that the panel adjourn until 8 a.m. The bleary-eyed Democrats said "Aye" to his motion. The bleary-eyed Republicans shouted "Nay!" They didn't explain if this was because they sincerely wanted to keep going, or if they were just reflexively voting against anything their rivals proposed. Either way, they prevailed.

It was time for breakfast before the committee gave final approval to House Study Bill 117. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen promised "as public of a discussion as possible," including Democrats and union representatives, as the bill moves forward. He probably feels that public opinion will support Republican efforts in this area. House Labor Committee Chairman Horbach sounds confident on that front:

Horbach, R-Tama, said his side was willing to make concessions, including possibly deleting a section of the bill that would allow public employees to declare themselves "free agents," who would not be represented by a union. But he said Republicans were determined to keep the ban on negotiating over insurance coverage because public employers need more flexibility to deal with that costly issue.

"I think the taxpayers and the people of Iowa will see that we're actually trying to do something and not just make a political headline," Horbach said.

This bill is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal denounced the bill yesterday as a "blatant attack on the middle class," adding that House Study Bill 117 "repeals collective bargaining rights, plain and simple. And that's all it seeks to do."

Republican Governor Terry Branstad is all for the goals of House Study Bill 117, of course:

Branstad said he plans to ask lawmakers to remove health insurance from the list of topics over which the two sides must bargain, and give the governor and Legislature the authority to overturn a decision reached by an arbitrator. Branstad says the state's collective bargaining law was approved in 1974, and that many things, such as the cost of health insurance, have changed since then.

"You know what it cost for health insurance in 1974? It was not anything. Today it's a huge problem," he said. [...]

For the longer term, he said lawmakers should overhaul the state law governing public sector bargaining.

The basic agreement that was struck when lawmakers approved the collective bargaining law was unions gave up the right to strike, and both sides agreed to live with a decision reached by an arbitrator if they came to impasse.

I got a kick out of seeing Branstad congratulate himself for supposedly not going as far as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:

Branstad, however, says his proposals do not go as far as Wisconsin's governor has suggested. "This is not Wisconsin," Branstad said. "It's Iowa and I'm proud it's Iowa and we are going to do things that we think make sense to make Iowa more competitive."

Branstad is trying to position himself in the middle, but his anti-labor agenda is very similar to Walker's. In addition, his administration is pushing phony statistics to advance a narrative about overpaid public employees. The truth is that when "education, work experience, annual hours worked, race, sex, disability status, and firm size are accounted for," public sector workers earn less than their private sector counterparts in Iowa.

At his press conference this week, Branstad continued to criticize the new AFSCME contract that includes wage increases of a little less than 3 percent in each of the next two fiscal years.

"This is not right. It's not fair. We just need to get back to a system that's more equitable and more fair," Branstad said this morning. "And you know, if they would agree to forego that and come back and agree to something reasonable - the president's saying a two-year freeze for national employees - if this would be done, we could avoid some of these layoffs."

Two of Branstad's new agency managers announced plans last week that would lead to state worker layoffs.

Iowa's fiscal condition is solid, and cost of the new AFSCME contract could easily fit with a new state budget if Branstad and fellow Republicans weren't insisting on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for business (despite our state's already low business taxes). Bleeding Heartland has covered that ground before.

I haven't heard a peep from Branstad about Iowa handing out tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to companies that don't pay any income taxes. He has no problem collecting a $50,000 pension on top of his $130,000 taxpayer-funded salary (despite suggestions last year that he would forgo his pension if elected governor). Yet in Branstad's worldview, a 3 percent raise for middle-income state workers is "not fair."

Speaking of double standards regarding what the state budget can afford, this week the Iowa House Labor Committee approved a bill that reverses last year's efforts to reduce the number of managers in state government.

The bill that lawmakers approved in a 99 to 1 vote last year would push state departments to meet a goal of one supervisor or manager overseeing 15 employees.

Meeting that goal would have cut around 540 positions and saved taxpayers $44.4 million between the next two fiscal years, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency and the Iowa Department of Administrative Services.

Currently the ratio - commonly called "span-of-control" -  is around one manager to 10 employees.

Manager positions are typically not covered under union contracts. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have heavily advocated for manager reduction goals, saying it is a key to making government more efficient.

Republicans today said they are pushing to rid the state of the goal because in some areas of the state the goals endanger public safety and push some departments to decide between breaking federal or state law.

Next time Republican legislators claim Iowa can't afford some spending program, journalists should ask why they are against saving $44 million by reducing managerial positions in state government.

Getting back to the collective bargaining dispute: a large labor rally is scheduled for Saturday, February 26 at noon on the west steps of the capitol. It was planned as an event to show solidarity with workers in Wisconsin and other states, but House Study Bill 117 is sure to be a central topic of many speeches tomorrow.

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