AFSCME files complaint over Branstad order on health insurance premiums

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 filed a prohibited practice complaint yesterday with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, charging that Governor Terry Branstad disregarded Iowa’s collective bargaining law when he signed an executive order allowing state employees to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

AFSCME is the largest labor union representing state employees in Iowa. Its leadership clashed with Branstad two decades ago over a breach of contract issue, and Branstad has repeatedly criticized the terms of AFSCME’s current contract. Last week Branstad issued Executive Order 78 (pdf), allowing state employees to voluntarily pay 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums. AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan accused the governor of trying to “bully hard working state employees,” a charge repeated in this July 10 press release.

AFSCME IOWA COUNCIL 61 FILES PROHIBITED PRACTICE COMPLAINT AGAINST GOVERNOR BRANSTAD

DES MOINES – Today, AFSCME Iowa Council 61 filed a prohibited practice complaint (PPC) with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). The complaint was filed against Governor Branstad in response to his recent actions regarding state employee health insurance.

“Iowa law is clear. Health insurance plans and health insurance open enrollment for contract employees are topics covered under collective bargaining. It is a prohibited practice to make unilateral changes outside of the collective bargaining process which is outlined in Iowa law,” said AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan.

Governor Branstad knew that these actions were inappropriate, yet he chose to carry them out anyway. When Governor Branstad vetoed the Government Efficiency Bill (Senate File 2338) earlier this year, he admitted that health insurance matters belonged at the bargaining table. In his veto letter, Governor Branstad said that “employee benefits should be properly bargained rather than codified into law through legislation.”

“Under the Iowa Constitution, Governor Branstad is required to ‘take care that the laws are faithfully executed.’ It is highly disturbing that the Governor has chosen to flagrantly disregard Iowa’s collective bargaining laws. This continues his pattern of putting his own political vendettas ahead of his duty to follow the law. In 2011, he abused his item veto power by vetoing legislative instructions and then trying to keep the associated money; now he is choosing to bully public employees by violating Iowa’s collective bargaining laws,” added Homan.

Branstad vetoed the bill outlining a state efficiency plan shortly before Memorial Day. Health insurance was just one of many topics covered in Senate File 2338. Branstad’s veto message is here (pdf).

Speaking to Pat Curtis of Radio Iowa yesterday,

Homan noted that Branstad is paying $224 a month to cover 20% of his health insurance premium, but his salary is $180,000. Homan said some employees his union represents make less than $25,000 and simply can’t afford to apply 10-to-18% of that salary toward their premiums.

“Here’s a guy who’s got a full time chef paid for by the taxpayers of Iowa and he’s driven around in a car that’s driven by state troopers, and yet he wants to steal money out of this union’s member’s pockets,” Homan said. He called Branstad’s move a “political stunt” and added some state employees could feel they might lose their jobs if they don’t volunteer to pay part of their health insurance premium.

Branstad’s communications director Tim Albrecht responded with a written statement:

“This is nothing more than a tactic by union bosses to perpetuate a system where taxpayers fund Cadillac health care plans, and to intimidate their own members against voluntarily following the governor’s lead. Iowans are paying up to 100 percent of their family’s health care costs, and the union bosses simply expect Iowans to pay for the sterling health care plans for their workers too. Governor Branstad believes it’s outrageous for Iowans to pay their full health care costs while forced to do the same for state workers. If state employees have skin in the game and take some ownership of their own health, they will lead healthier lives. It’s 20 percent. It’s voluntary. It’s sad the unions are suing to force tax payers to keep paying their bills.”

It’s unclear how much money Iowa would save if the next AFSCME contract includes employee contributions to health insurance premiums. Presumably the union would insist on higher base salaries to compensate for a significant cut in benefits. But for the purposes of this post, I’m more interested in the legal side. Can the governor create conditions for state employees to contribute to their health insurance costs?

AFSCME’s prohibited practice complaint against the State of Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services can be downloaded here. As a remedy, AFSCME is seeking “An order prohibiting Gov. Branstad and/or anyone else employed by the State of Iowa, DAS, from directly negotiating with bargaining unit members. In addition, State of Iowa should be able to post in appropriate places a notice that AFSCME Iowa Council 61 is the exclusive bargaining representative and that all communications regarding collective bargaining should be made to the representative and not individual bargaining members.”

One of the attachments to the complaint notes,

On July 2, 2012, Gov. Terry Branstad, communicated directly with bargaining unit members regarding subjects of bargaining. This communication was an attempt to negotiate directly with bargaining unit members and constitutes interference, restraint, and/or coercion of rights guaranteed by Iowa Code section 20. On that same date, Jim Pierson with the Iowa DAS, issued an e-mail, (copy of which is attached and marked at exhibit A), which was a further attempt to communicate directly with bargaining unit members regarding subjects of bargaining. […]

This fall, AFSCME Iowa Council 61 will be entering negotiations with the State of Iowa regarding terms and conditions of employment. These communications by the Governor and through his human resource personnel significantly disrupts that process and further interferes with the rights guaranteed under Chapter 20.

In addition, the subject matter of the communications was insurance. Insurance is a mandatory subject of bargaining and is contained in the collective bargaining agreement. As reflected in at the “Voluntary Premium Contribution Program” website (a print off the web page is attached and marked as exhibit B), there is going to be an additional open enrollment period, additional provisions for preventative health services and higher premiums. These unilateral changes of mandatory topics contained in the collective bargaining agreement violate sections 20.9 and 20.10 of the Public Employment Relations Act.

The e-mail from Jim Pierson to state employees indicates, “From July 2, 2012 through July 19, 2012, the State is conducting a voluntary enrollment and change period for health insurance only for those employees electing to contribute 20% towards their premiums.” In other words, the enrollment period will likely be over before the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board considers AFSCME’s complaint. I wonder how many employees will take this deal.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Dave DeWitte reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

A Cedar Rapids attorney who specializes in labor law said the Branstad administration could argue that its request was only an exercise of First Amendment free speech rights, not interference in collective bargaining. However, attorney Wilford Stone of Lynch Dallas said, overt actions such as setting up an enrollment process for premium payments might undermine that position.

Under Iowa’s public employee collective bargaining laws, health insurance is a mandatory subject of negotiations, Stone said. It is not a management right to change such benefits unilaterally outside a collective bargaining agreement, he said.

In typical cases, it can take from six months to a year to get adjudication of an issue from the Public Employment Relations Board, Stone said. An administrative law judge would hear the arguments and issue a ruling, which could be appealed by either party to the entire three-person panel.

  • I don't get the idea

    that Branstad gives a hoot about the legality of his actions. Brinkmanship is his style. For him, the worst-case scenario is having to dial things back well after the damage is done.

    The intent is quite clear. Spokesperson Albrecht:

    If state employees have skin in the game and take some ownership of their own health, they will lead healthier lives

    Swap in “American public” for “state employees” and this comes direct from any number of WH speeches 2009-2010. During this same time period, nobody spent more time warning against this kind of thinking than I did. Accepting the legislation as written was tantamount to us taking responsibility for health care inflation while other actors remained unfettered.

    As a remedy, AFSCME is seeking “An order prohibiting Gov. Branstad and/or anyone else employed by the State of Iowa, DAS, from directly negotiating with bargaining unit members. In addition, State of Iowa should be able to post in appropriate places a notice that AFSCME Iowa Council 61 is the exclusive bargaining representative and that all communications regarding collective bargaining should be made to the representative and not individual bargaining members.”

    That’s what this is all about. Recall that:


    Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees-the state’s second-largest public-sector union after the National Education Association, which represents teachers-fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to a person who has viewed Afscme’s figures. A spokesman for Afscme declined to comment.

    Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year

    The co-pay is a wedge. If an appreciable nr of state employees follow Branstad’s lead, it weakens AFSCME’s position as sole representative/bargaining agent. I understand the union’s position perfectly.

    OTOH, as political supporters of the “skin in the game” mentality, they look like hypocrites if their stance is too antagonistic. Those paying up to 100% cited by Albrecht are the self-employed who are now getting a look at what’s on the exchanges: 60%-70% actuarial coverage at higher cost. Or there’s the youth voters, now split between parties, who will be footing the bill via tax/penalty or mandated coverage compliance. An unenviable position for unions but entirely predictable — crabs in a barrel.

    A few years from now, things will look starkly different. It’s only the first rounds — many are indifferent due to employer coverage. I expect that to change when some companies decide that the penalty route makes sense for the bottom line. It will get harder and harder for unions to stave off stripping of benefits. Said it before, and I’ll say it again: the only way out of this is to not get pulled into the false divide of public vs private or embrace of flawed legislation due to party loyalty. It’s an all or none proposition.

     

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