The real reason Iowa Republicans want to break public unions

On Tuesday the Iowa House and Senate took up companion bills seeking to destroy every significant aspect of collective bargaining for more than 100,000 public employees. Although police officers and firefighters would be exempt from some provisions of House File 291 and Senate File 213, they too would lose important workplace protections.

As Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson explained in his written comments to Iowa lawmakers, the collective bargaining system that has been in place since 1974 works well. Local governments don’t need the legislature to be “big brother to us by dictating our collective bargaining rules.” Oleson characterized the Republican bill as a “solution in search of a problem,” driven by “pure and raw partisan politics”: “This bill takes a sledgehammer to the pesky fly that has been labor leaders you dislike. And that’s what this really is…payback! Political payback.”

Here’s what Republicans stand to gain by smashing that fly.


Iowa Republicans have tried to hurt public workers before, but this year’s legislation targets unions in additional ways.

After Republicans regained the Iowa House majority in the 2010 elections, collective bargaining became one of the most contentious issues of the 2011 legislative session. The GOP’s House File 525 would have sharply reduced the scope of negotiations, forced most public employees to pay more for health insurance, changed the arbitration process, and made it easier for workers to reject representation by a union. Democrats filed more than 100 amendments, seeking to drag out the floor debate for as long as possible. House leaders ruled some amendments out of order and defeated others, but eventually cut off floor debate on the third day before representatives approved the bill along party lines. As expected, the bill died in a Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate committee.

As controversial as it was at the time, the four-page bill from six years ago was nothing compared to the current 68-page collective bargaining legislation. Democratic State Senator Nate Boulton articulated myriad problems with the bill during the February 13 Iowa Senate floor debate. I enclose his remarks (as prepared) at the end of this post.

Two of the new and potentially deadly sections relate to re-certification and payroll deduction. The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble and Brianne Pfannenstiel summarized them as follows:

Public workers would be required to re-certify the unions that bargain on their behalf with each new contract — that is, once every two to three years. To re-certify, a majority of workers in a bargaining unit would have to vote in favor of the union. That’s a change from current law, which requires only a majority of those who show up to vote. If the union failed to win that election, it would be decertified and the workers would be left without representation. Additionally, the union would be on the hook for costs associated with the re-certification process. […]

Opposition: Critics say such regular union elections would be redundant and costly for unions, diverting time and resources from representing workers and increasing the likelihood that a union would dissolve given the high threshold for re-certification. Perhaps more than any other, this provision is viewed by Democrats and union officials as an attempt at union busting. […]

All public-employee unions would be barred from automatically deducting union dues and political contributions from members’ payroll checks. […]

Opposition: Unions say automatic deductions, which are not mandatory, ease administration for workers and unions, and that political donations collected by the union from their members gives them a voice in public policy. Prohibiting them, they say, could add costs, decrease membership and undermine unions’ political power.

House Republicans announced on February 13 that they will propose an amendment addressing some problems in the collective bargaining bill. However, none of those changes would affect the language on certification or payroll deduction.


Thousands of Iowans have contacted state lawmakers or come to legislative forums to convey how the collective bargaining bill would devastate their quality of life and ability to provide for their families. Listening to their testimony, one wonders why Republicans would inflict this pain on so many of their constituents, especially since rural areas are likely to suffer more from economic fallout and teacher shortages than cities and suburbs will.

It comes down to money and power. Public sector unions are major financial supporters of the Iowa Democratic Party, and thousands of union members volunteer to help elect Democratic candidates for the Iowa House and Senate.

The two largest unions that will be hurt after Republicans shred collective bargaining rights are AFSCME Iowa Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association. AFSCME has about 18,500 dues-paying members in Iowa and represents some 40,000 state, county, school, and municipal workers. The ISEA has about 34,000 dues-paying members and represents some 60,000 teachers and area education agency employees.

Losing automatic payroll deduction will surely cause some attrition in membership. Many more workers may question why they should keep paying dues to a union that can no longer bargain for anything meaningful, especially after receiving what amounts to a pay cut once the state forces them to pay thousands of dollars more each year for health insurance.

While collecting less in dues, AFSCME and ISEA will have to spend money conducting certification elections. In the worst-case scenario, one or both unions could become de-certified. Assuming they survive the certification process, both unions will likely be forced to cut staff and will have less money to spend on volunteer recruitment for phone-banking and canvassing on behalf of endorsed candidates.

The Iowa Democratic Party will be a secondary casualty. You can view financial disclosure forms for AFSCME’s Iowa PAC here and for the ISEA’s PAC here. During 2016 alone, AFSCME’s PAC gave more than $550,000 to the state party, plus nearly $50,000 to individual Democratic candidates, mostly running for the Iowa House or Senate (see here, here, and here).

The ISEA’s PAC gave the Iowa Democratic Party $50,800 during 2015 and about $460,000 to the party in 2016, plus smaller contributions to various Democratic candidates (see here, here, here, and here).

Although the Iowa Democratic Party’s base of support is much larger than public-sector unions, contributions from AFSCME and the ISEA still are still significant. Financial reports show the state party raised about $948,000 in 2015 and more than $7 million in 2016: some $532,000 early in the year, about $3.8 million from mid-summer to mid-October, and nearly $3.5 million in the late stages of the campaign.

Iowa Republicans have long enjoyed a built-in fundraising advantage over Democrats, since the policies they support tend to benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. House File 291 and Senate File 213 can only increase the GOP’s financial advantage going into the 2018 election cycle.

Republican lawmakers won’t admit that “pure and raw partisan politics” underlie their anti-labor crusade. They talk a good game about restoring “balance” to the bargaining process, through “thoughtful” reform on behalf of taxpayers. (Somehow the interests of 180,000 public workers who pay taxes don’t factor into that equation.)

As they say, politics ain’t beanbag, and elections have consequences. Still, it’s heartbreaking when one party is willing to sacrifice the well-being of so many Iowans in order to gain partisan advantage.

UPDATE: Barbara Rodriguez reported for the Associated Press on February 15,

“The public sector is really the main source of labor strength in this country,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who has studied the issue. “If people who are opposed to the labor movement — and in particular, the political support that the labor movement gives to Democrats and progressive causes — can defund that movement, then they can be very effective in passing through other legislation.” […]

Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, has written extensively on organized labor. He was more direct with his belief that the Iowa bill, like a 2011 Wisconsin law before it, is aimed at weakening political support for the Democratic Party. He cited proposals in both pieces of legislation that would require unions to manually collect dues and hold more frequent elections on whether to dismantle. Public safety workers would be subject to those changes in Iowa.

Since the collective bargaining law went into effect in Wisconsin, membership for both public and private unions in the state has dropped 40 percent.

“It is troubling when any party adopts a measure where a prime motivation is solely to punish political opponents and make it more difficult for political opponents to engage really in political activity,” Slater said.

In comments to Rodriguez, both Governor Terry Branstad’s spokesperson Ben Hammes and Drew Klein, Iowa director for the Koch brothers group Americans for Prosperity, implausibly denied that political goals lie behind the collective bargaining bill. Yet the provisions on union certification and payroll deduction won’t reduce state or local budget expenditures. Their only conceivable purpose is to cripple unions.

February 13, 2017
Prepared remarks by Senator Nate Boulton of Des Moines, lead Democrat on the Senate Labor Committee

Thank you, Mr. President. This amendment is our last chance to stop this freight train that is barreling towards our public workers. We’ve finally arrived at the point of no return on this. We have reached a point of potentially blowing up the system of reason and compromise that has served our state well for decades. The system that helped define the legacy of Governor Ray, a Republican who reached out to labor organizations and Democrats to design a system that has allowed our state to grow and succeed. Now we are at the point of no return. A system borne out of reason and compromise will be gutted and replaced by one which throws away reason and does so in a way that only compromises Iowa’s future.

This fight means a lot to me. I was born to a union worker in a tire plant. His father, my grandfather, spent two decades as a union steward in a meatpacking plant. I’ve spent the past 11 years as a workers’ rights attorney. I have seen the horrors of workplace exploitation; I’ve helped workers through the devastating aftermath of injuries that occurred in some of our most dangerous public occupations.

I’ve stood up for wrongfully terminated workers and have spent countless hours counseling longtime workers whose lives were turned upside down when they were fired without cause. I ran for the Iowa Senate with the hope that I could advocate for enhancing the lives of the workers who make this state run. I campaigned on furthering my fight for workers’ rights and enhancing the quality of life for Iowans and hoped we could take up the cause of uplifting the working class of this state. I now see that a different agenda is being presented—one that strips away workplace rights and scales back the benefits thousands of Iowans count on.

Rural Iowa needs school employees and county employees to have good, quality jobs to make their local economies grow. While I am proud to live in and represent part of our state’s largest city, I am also proud that I grew up in a small town, Columbus Junction—I’m sure Senator Greene knows that community well. It’s a town of about 2,000 people in the middle of a county of about 11,000. It’s a place than needs good teachers and staff to educate its children—I’ve even done my part andserved a substitute teacher in one of its schools a few times in the early 2000s. It needs quality sheriff’s deputies to keep its communities safe. It needs to be served by skilled courthouse workers. Rural Iowa communities would be devastated if they lost the quality public employees who serve it, and small town economies will be hurt if their public service workers incomes and benefits were held back. And make no mistake, this is a bill that is designed to scale back the wages and benefits of workers in those communities.

I’ve heard from a lot of taxpayers since this proposal came out last week. There were quite a few out on the Capitol steps this past Sunday and inside the Capitol last night. They told me that a fair process for determining the wages, working conditions, and benefits for public employees—a process that has been working for decades—is a good thing. They told me that good labor relations is good for the public that is protected and served.

I’ve heard from school board members, county supervisors, and city council members. You know what? They seem to think this is a step BACKWARD on local control. And they’re right. They WANT to be able to work with the representatives of their employees to ensure they have the best employees, a stable workforce, and they are able to meet the needs of their workers while also protecting their budgets. Your bill dictates to them, and the public employees they count on to provide services to citizens and their children, a list of new topics that are ILLEGAL for discussion. Senate Republicans on the labor committee voted unanimously to make it ILLEGAL for most public employee and local government representatives to even discuss health insurance and grounds for termination. There are school boards, cities, and counties across Iowa that are scrambling to enact new contracts with their hard-working public servants before this legislation takes effect.

They WANT to work through a system under Iowa Code Chapter 20 that ensures fairness. That compels each side to be reasonable in negotiations and, when necessary, allows a neutral arbitrator to resolve disputes by making a final decision based on all relevant factors to adopt the most reasonable and fair proposal on the table. They want a system that allows workers to feel secure in their jobs rather than looking over their shoulders and fearing unfair reprisals. Why do some in this chamber fear a system of evidence based outcomes? Of neutral arbitrators evaluating and considering evidence. This bill replaces thoughtful evaluations of evidence with a rigged system that puts the fix in against employees. The end result of this “modernized” system is that most Iowa public employees could be forced without any meaningful input to work under a so-called bargaining agreement that forces them to accept no wage increases, dramatically increased insurance costs, and all for the pleasure of service as at-will employees. This isn’t modernizing, it’s marginalizing. It’s insulting to the intelligence of the workers who responding to the calling of public service to tell them this is anything short of a decimination of their current rights.

There’s a lot of talk about bad teachers. I can tell you today that there are a lot of good teachers that fear what a politicized system of raises, bonuses, and retaliations will do to their schools. What about the bad administrators who will take advantage of this new opportunity to create poisonous workplace environments? What about a system than incentivizes undercutting and blaming teachers as scapegoats for systemic supervisory and administrative problems? Teacher working conditions are children’s learning environments. Many in this chamber have voted to underfund our schools and now you are following that up by stripping away the rights of teachers to negotiate a package that includes basic wages, benefits, and working conditions. Who will go into what is left of the teaching profession? How do you look a college student in the eye and tell them to go into teaching after completely devaluing their work and minimilzing the ircontributions to the future of our state this way?

It’s bad public policy to blame the workers who put their lives on the line and who make incredible sacrifices for our state instead of blaming irresponsible budgeting practices that have allowed tax credits and exemptions to becoming the fastest growing part of the state budget.

While I was out running on standing up for Iowa workers, I don’t remember anyone running a contrasting campaign about tearing down working Iowans, gutting the law that gives them a seat at the table on the terms and conditions of their employment, or making sure public servants can be fired from their jobs without justification. This secret agenda of the majority party in the Iowa Senate didn’t make the campaign ads and flyers—cutting public services, cutting access to health services for women, finding a new ways to fire workers, underfunding education, and other damaging hits to our communities.

Let’s do something better. Let’s focus on ways to lift up wages and benefits across our state. We shouldn’t be rushing to tear down the quality of life of public servants. Instead we should be enhancing the quality of life of Iowans who are willing to go to work every day for the betterment of our state and our communities.

We want the best and brightest in our state serving it. When Iowans need to call 911, they should know that they’re talking to a reliable dispatcher, who will be sending help in the form of a police officer, firefighter, or EMT who is the right, well-qualified worker they need. We do that by attracting the best people for the job. We do that by respecting those employees by giving them a seat at the table, by giving them the wage and benefits they deserve. We do that by making sure they have a real voice in the workplace and security in their jobs.

We need Social Workers who will look after the welfare of the most vulnerable children in our state, nurses who we can trust to take care of us when we need medical attention, snow plow drivers who keep our streets safe, and allow first responders to get through in emergencies regardless of the conditions.

Our children know the value of public service. They see public service for what it is: a higher calling and a higher duty. There is a reason why kids want to grow up to be teachers, police officers, firefighters. They see the good those public workers do for us, they respect the sacrifices they make to serve their communities. When politicians blame public workers and label them as lazy and greedy, it is every bit as inaccurate as it is offensive. Veterans make up a disproportionately large percentage of public workers. They seek to continue the service of their country through service to their community. We cannot claim to appreciate those who serve in the military when we demean their service at home.

Public safety professions, particularly police and fire, are symbolized by shields of protection. Their uniforms and shields are designed to communicate to us that they are here to protect us from harm. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric that this bill shields public safety workers from the harm done to other workers—and it is harm, otherwise we wouldn’t need to spare anyone from it. But the reality is very few actual public safety workers are being shielded. There is no shield protecting EMTs and nurses. Nothing here to protect correctional officers who face extreme dangers in our prisons. No shield for the teachers and school staff who face increasing threats of violence in their classrooms. And no shield of protection for even the police officers and firefighters who can now be fired more easily, whose unions are weakened by new regulations, and who can simply lose out on any exemptions from the wrath of this legislation because they are in bargaining units with other workers. I’ve talked to the firefighters and police officers in my community who are “protected” by the carve outs in this bill. They see right through it. They see the rights they are losing and realize that that few rights they do retain will be the subject of the next overreach to “balance” the system.

There is so much to this bill that is so incredibly harmful and insulting to public employees. It is evident that this legislation was conceived and drafted without their input. We have only begun to hear their concerns. I’ve received countless communications of employees who are truly afraid of what will happen to their families and the professions they love. This fast process with an immediate effective date has silenced the people who this very directly affects.

It’s un-democratic. It takes critically important topics of fair negotiation and makes them illegal. It limits the conversation on the few remaining topics and puts workers in a position where the one true bargaining topic they still have—base wages—can only be negotiated for increases of between 0-3% in the best of times.

And to even get to that point, employee organizations face an election that is stacked against them. The process lined out in this bill actually counts any vote that is not cast by someone eligible to vote as a vote against the union. Let me repeat that—some who doesn’t vote has his or her vote counted as being opposed to the union. Let that sink in. Each of us in this chamber represents approximately 60,000 Iowans. Under this system, any vote not cast would be counted against us in the final tally.

But let’s not talk about this in abstract terms. How would this have affected some of the winners – including me – in the last election? Let’s do the math together.

If we take the number of votes casted for a candidate and divide it by the number of registered voters that didn’t vote in the recent general elections:

In Senate District 36, Senator Edler only received 38.9% of the eligible vote.

In Senate District 16, I only received 41.6% of the eligible vote.

In Senate District 8, Senator Dawson only received 32.5 of the eligible vote.

In District 7 in 2014, Senator Bertrand only received 27.5% of the eligible vote.

And in District 31 in 2014, Senator Dotzler received 37.4% of the eligible vote.

So, if we had used the math formula required for union certification elections outlined in this bill, Senators Edler, Dawson, Bertrand, Dotzler – as well as myself and many others in this chamber – would not be here today.

That is so foreign to any basic concept of fairness that it could only fly in this flawed bill.

This is NOT modernizing or tweaking.

That’s just one many parts of this bill that smack of vendetta politics designed to hurt public sector unions in the bill before us.

I’ve mentioned my father and his father, but I also want to mention my great grandfather on my mother’s side. Lewis Pugh was from North Wales. He served his country in World War I in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and then came to America to seek out the hope and promise that has defined our nation across the globe. In 1900, A major mine in North Wales forbade the union from collecting workers’ contributions at the quarry knowing the difficulty it would present to collect contributions from individual homes across the region. The move backfired. Trade unionists joined the union in droves, and union membership of the 2,700 workers grew from under four hundred to nearly two thousand. What followed was a three year strike from 1900 to 1903—one British history. As the mine tried to break the strike with replacement workers, striking miners put cards in the houses of their windows. I keep a replica of one of those cards here on my desk. It reads “Nid Oes Bradwr Yn Y Ty Hwn” or “There Are No Traitors In This House.” History tells us again and again the importance of labor peace—and the potential consequences when workers see efforts undertaken to strip away their hard-earned right to bargain collectively. They not only notice, they take action. And history tells us, those workers ensure that those setbacks are temporary and they come back stronger through that adversity. Make no mistake, Iowa’s public employees and the communities they serve will ensure that the devastation caused across our state by this proposal will only be temporary.

In the end, this bill is really about hurting public employee unions and disregarding the real consequences to Iowa workers as a result.

This debate we are having right now is about the very soul of our state. Whether we treat service to the pubic with dignity, whether a first-class public education really is an Iowa value, and whether we want to make enhancing the quality of life for working Iowans a real priority. We are on the threshold of history here.

Chapter 20’s original enactment was historic—and history will judge us by where we take our stands today. Iowa’s public sector bargaining law has been repeatedly been celebrated as a bipartisan achievement for the long-term benefit of our state. We are set to see this chamber past the threshold of history in a much different way.

Sadly, the Senate appears ready to establish a one-sided, expedited process to disadvantage hard working Iowans in an attempt to score a political victory over the unions that represent them.

The future of Iowa’s economy is a risk with this far-reaching policy shift. It jeopardizes out ability to get quality teachers to enter the profession, to keep the best possible officers and firefighters keeping us safe, and to ensure the public will be well served by people who take pride in their work.

Today, a majority in the Iowa Senate is sending about bad message about value you place on those who are willing to put in a hard day’s work to benefit the communities in which they live. We owe it to our citizens to serve them well and safeguard our economy, we compromise their safety and their future if we enact this bill and dishonor those who are called to public service in our state.

I urge you to stop this here and now, and vote in favor of this amendment.

About the Author(s)


  • Just go my answer

    I’ve been searching for reasons why TB would work so hard to demoralize and attack state workers. James Larew’s post examining TB’s “eager political cruelty.” and now this post have given me my answer.
    As to collective bargaining for state workers: I work with teachers closely here in DM and I observe them as they navigate the world of public-education-as-political-football-for- crazed-republicans-and-arne-duncan-democrats. Wanting to further complicate their lives…and consequently, the lives of their students for no reason save political vendetta is immoral from my (not so limited) perspective.
    Politics, indeed, is not beanbag. Elections have consequences and while Democrats have long tried to be “the adults in the room” (shout out to Obama & N.Pelosi) I feel as if this shafting of literal ‘every day working families of Iowa” will not be soon be forgotten or go unanswered.
    “Hey Kim, I hope you’ve got a big oven mitt to catch this flaming ball of discord you’ll inherit.”

  • One more point

    I have friends in Wisconsin who are working class, small manufacturing union-enabled Dems. When Scott Walker first appeared I was in touch with them and I was shocked to hear the level of NON-support for unions. According to my near-retirement age friends, they were kind of fed up with union bosses who seemed to be in it for themselves.

    I have not heard anything about Iowa public employee unions registering distrust of their leadership. I suspect because it’s not an operative factor here.
    Regardless, it’s a dark day for Iowa citizens who’d like to foster respect for our public