Iowa public employees will lose ability to bargain over health insurance

What a way to begin the holiday season: Governor Terry Branstad’s administration is negotiating new employment contracts on the assumption that health insurance benefits will no longer be subject to collective bargaining.

Judging by past experience in Iowa and other states, the 59 incoming House Republicans and 29 Senate Republicans will rubber-stamp the new policy, gutting a collective bargaining law that has served this state well since 1974.

William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register on November 21,

“The problem is that you have all these little contracts. If you have a few health problems, everybody’s premiums go through the roof,” [Governor Terry] Branstad told reporters. The concept being explored by state officials would establish a statewide health insurance plan for public employees that would be similar to the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as IPERS, which provides pensions for public workers, he said. […]

Janet Phipps, director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, unveiled Branstad’s proposal in contract talks Monday with the State Police Officers Council, a bargaining unit representing about 600 sworn officers, including troopers, criminal investigation agents, drug enforcement agents, fire marshal’s agents and inspectors, as well as conservation officers and park rangers.

Phipps said her department’s proposal is based on the possibility that changes could be made in the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees during the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature, which convenes in January. Under the proposal, the state would still agree to provide health and dental benefits to all eligible bargaining unit members, but the contract would no longer specify the level of benefits, which would be determined by state officials.

It’s expected that the Department of Administrative Services will make a similar proposal in contract talks Wednesday [November 23] with Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 18,500 state workers. In addition, if the Legislature rewrites the state’s collective bargaining law, the changes could also apply to city, county and school district employees throughout Iowa.

Drop the pretense about “the possibility that changes could be made in the state’s collective bargaining law.” Branstad may act like this isn’t a top priority, while Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix and House Speaker Linda Upmeyer avoid public statements on this issue, but I guarantee a bill will be on Branstad’s desk early next year.

GOP politicians have gone after public employee unions in every state where they control the legislature and governor’s office. Iowa House Republicans tried to destroy collective bargaining rights the first year they were back in the majority. Since then, they have periodically tried to accomplish the same goal through amendments to other legislation. Iowa Senate Democrats are no longer in a position to preserve the balance of power Republican Governor Bob Ray signed into law in 1974.

Branstad is spinning the new policy as a way to provide “good quality health care coverage and do it at a lot less cost.” Don’t be fooled. When state officials determine the level of benefits, unconstrained by the need to negotiate a deal with labor leaders, health insurance will become less comprehensive. The state may save money, but teachers, police officers, and other public workers will face much higher out-of-pocket costs.

Two days before Thanksgiving 1996, most of my Open Media Research Institute colleagues and I learned we were about to be downsized. My heart goes out to the tens of thousands of hard-working Iowans whom Branstad punched in the gut this week.

UPDATE: AFSCME Iowa Council 61 released the following statement on November 23:

DES MOINES – AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan issued the following statement in response to the initial contract proposal from the Department of Administrative Services:

“I am deeply disappointed, though not surprised, that the proposal we received from the state was even worse than the one proposed to the State Police Officers Council – zero increase in wages whatsoever and taking all insurance provisions off the table. Shortchanging our public employees in anticipation of what the legislature might do is premature. Taking away public employees’ seat at the table when it comes to their health and wellbeing is unacceptable, especially given that these employees deal with our state’s most vulnerable, violent, and at-risk citizens. The system we’ve had for four decades has been a bargain for Iowa taxpayers and has evened the playing field for our public employees. To change that now is trading good public policy for partisan politics. The hardworking men and women who make Iowa happen deserve better and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure they get it.”

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61 represents 40,000 public employees including law enforcement and correctional officers, firefighters, mental health workers, professional school staff, emergency responders, and many other workers. AFSCME Iowa Council 61 also represents home health care and child care providers across the state and private sector workers at Prairie Meadows, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Des Moines University, and ABM (Marshalltown).

SECOND UPDATE: O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa on November 23,

“The message Terry Branstad is sending to me right now is that State Troopers are worth more in this state than correctional officers who guard our most violent criminals in our prison,” Homan says, “that state troopers are more important than the folks that work in a Mental Health Institute and become punching bags for folks that are mentally ill.” […]

Janet Phipps, the director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, is Governor Branstad’s lead negotiator on union contracts.

“It appears it’s going to be a tight budget year,” Phipps says.

And she says that’s one reason for the offer of “zero” when it comes to pay raises for workers covered by AFSCME’s contract.

You can be sure that the budget won’t be too “tight” to allow for tens of millions of dollars in new tax breaks for Iowa corporations or individuals in higher tax brackets.

THIRD UPDATE: The Sunday Des Moines Register published an excellent letter to the editor from Maridith Morris.

I hope every person crying out “Blue Lives Matter” has saved enough breath to call their state representative on behalf of our law enforcement officers. Gov. Terry Branstad’s plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights on health, dental, and life insurance benefits for state and local law enforcement employees is a move in the wrong direction. […]

I do not believe that our guardians are overcompensated for the job they do putting their own lives on the line for the safety of all. They already bear the burden of Branstad’s negligent mental health policies. Weakening the benefits for law enforcement is a dangerous road that will lead to losing the best and brightest. They are often not making the money they could in other capacities, but the promise of good benefits and a healthy retirement is what secures those drawn to service.

If you think this is OK, or something not worth your while, go ahead and flip that blue porch light with off or pull that painter’s tape off your car. Law enforcement needs your real, tangible support this time.

Call your state representative or better yet, call Gov. Branstad and tell him you support collective bargaining rights for law enforcement and all state employees to negotiate their health, dental and life insurance coverage.

  • Yep.

    A few days before the general election I stood before a big crowd in Iowa City – there to see Bernie, not me – and told them that if the Dems lost the Iowa Senate, Iowa would look like Kansas in short order.

    Time to add this to the long and growing list of times I hate being right.

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