Divided Iowa Supreme Court upholds collective bargaining law

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” four Iowa Supreme Court justices said today in two rulings that upheld the 2017 collective bargaining law.

The state’s two largest public employee labor unions, AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, had challenged the law, which eliminated almost all bargaining rights for most public employees but preserved more rights for units containing at least 30 percent “public safety” employees. The ISEA also challenged a provision that banned payroll deduction for union dues.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the majority in both cases, joined by the court’s three other most conservative judges: Edward Mansfield, Susan Christensen, and Christopher McDonald. His ruling upheld two Polk County District Court rulings in 2017.

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Brent Appel dissented from the AFSCME decision, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Appel wrote a partial concurrence and partial dissent in the ISEA case, joined by Cady and Wiggins. They would have allowed the state to end payroll deductions for union dues but struck down the part of the law that gave more bargaining rights to some workers than others. They highlighted the statute’s “illogical” classification system, under which many who receive the expanded privileges are not themselves “public safety employees,” while others “with obvious public safety responsibilities” are excluded.

Had the late Justice Daryl Hecht been able to consider this case, these decisions would likely have gone 4-3 the other way. However, Hecht stepped down while battling melanoma in December, shortly before the court heard oral arguments. Governor Kim Reynolds appointed McDonald to fill the vacancy in February. Normally new justices do not participate in rulings when they were not present for oral arguments, but the court would have been deadlocked on these cases otherwise. So file this disappointing outcome for some 180,000 public employees under E for “elections have consequences.”

The Iowa Judicial Branch website posted materials for the AFSCME and ISEA cases, including briefs submitted to the Supreme Court and videos of the oral arguments. Here are the two decisions in full, with the majority opinion followed by the dissent(s) in each document.


The plaintiffs had a difficult task. Because the Iowa Constitution does not establish collective bargaining rights, the court reviewed the 2017 law under a “rational basis” standard, not the heightened scrutiny applied to laws that restrict constitutional rights.

Waterman and the concurring justices found,

The legislature could reasonably conclude that the goal of keeping labor peace with unions comprised of at least thirty percent public safety employees, and the greater risks faced by emergency first responders, justified the classification. We hold the legislative classifications are not so overinclusive or underinclusive as to be unconstitutional under our highly deferential standard of review.

AFSCME and four of its members had argued that giving more rights to “public safety” employees violated Article I, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law, as well as their right to freedom of association.

From Waterman’s opinion:

House File 291 distinguishes first between public safety employees and all other public employees, and second between bargaining units comprised of at least thirty percent public safety employees and all other bargaining units. The parties agree that rational basis review applies to the plaintiffs’ equal protection challenge. […]

The plaintiffs argue that courts should not be able to rely on unstated rationales in upholding a statute. We disagree. As the foregoing authorities make clear, we are not limited to considering only the facts stated on the record during a legislative debate. […]

The district court found that the valid, realistically conceivable purpose for House File 291 was a concern for labor peace, especially among public safety employees. The State also asserts that another purpose was the unique health and safety concerns public safety employees face.

Regarding the labor peace argument,

The plaintiffs argue that House File 291’s legislative history belies the labor peace justification because no one mentioned this justification during the recorded legislative debates as a reason for amending PERA. The plaintiffs also argue that House File 291’s definition of public safety employees includes employees who would not be crucial to maintaining labor peace, such as park rangers, DOT motor vehicle enforcement officers, fire marshals, and gaming enforcement officers, while excluding employees who may be necessary to maintain peace during a strike, including university police officers and other emergency medical service providers. The plaintiffs note that police officers already routinely enforce laws against union members, neighbors, friends, and even other police officers. Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the labor peace rationale is belied by the fact that there has not been a strike since PERA was enacted in 1974. […]

The defendants argue that the thirty percent threshold is rational because the risk from labor unrest is materially greater in a unit with a larger percentage of public safety employees. The defendants argue this thirty percent threshold had another rationale, protecting the public fisc. The thirty percent threshold also provides greater assurance that in the event of labor unrest there would be a critical mass of public safety employees available to enforce the law and preserve public safety. […]

We hold that maintaining labor peace is a valid, realistically conceivable purpose and has a basis in fact. The legislature could reasonably have found that giving public safety employees expanded bargaining rights would discourage them from engaging in strikes or sick-outs. […]

We agree with the district court that legislative facts readily available to Iowa lawmakers support concerns that labor unrest among police could undermine public safety, if not through strikes, then through reduced initiative or “blue flu.” Historically, police officers in other states have used strategies such as the blue flu to protest labor conditions and policy changes.

The district court ruling didn’t establish any “health and safety” justification for the collective bargaining law’s distinction, but the four Supreme Court conservatives found,

The main rationale advanced during the legislative debates on House File 291 centered on the health and safety risks that public safety employees face on the job. Because of these risks, legislators determined that public safety employees should retain broader bargaining rights, including on topics directly relating to their health and safety, such as insurance.

After citing several instances in which police officers or firefighters have died in the line of duty, the majority found, “It is inarguable that the legislature could rationally conclude public safety employees face significantly greater risks to their health and safety than other public employees.” Furthermore, “It is not the court’s role under our separation of powers to redraw the legislature’s chosen thirty percent threshold. […] We decline to second-guess the legislature’s constitutional policy choices.”

AFSCME had also argued that the law violated their freedom of association rights, but the majority held,

House File 291 does not prohibit or restrict unions from soliciting members, disseminating materials, engaging in political activities, or expressing their views. As the State argues, “There is a fundamental distinction between the right to associate and whether someone must listen when you do. Declining to collectively bargain over certain topics does not inhibit the ability to associate.” We agree and apply rational basis review to this challenge. Nothing in House File 291 prohibits public employees from joining AFSCME or any other union. […]

The text of House File 291 is facially neutral. The plaintiffs offered no evidence that the thirty percent threshold was chosen to target AFSCME. As we have explained above, House File 291 survives rational basis review. House File 291 was enacted within the power of the general assembly. Accordingly, we will not inquire into the subjective motives of individual legislators, regardless of whether political payback inspired some of them.


In his dissenting opinion, joined by Wiggins, Cady emphasized, “a statute that treats people differently must not only have a rational basis, but one that fits the statute.”

I agree with the conclusion in the majority opinion that the rational reasons identified are an adequate justification for disparate collective bargaining treatment among public employees. I also agree it is not the role of courts to find criticism of public policy based on disagreement over policy. Any such form of criticism, even implicit, has no place in the analysis by courts. Instead, the only role of the courts in the process is to decide if the discrimination is justified under the facts and circumstances.

In this case, the legislation offends our constitution. The problem with the law is not its purpose or justification to discriminate, but how the general assembly failed to apply this purpose in articulating the law. Instead of treating public employees differently by dividing them into one group of public safety employees and another group of other public employees, the general assembly passed a law giving different rights to public employees based on their membership in a collective bargaining agreement. The problem is that bargaining units in Iowa contain both public safety employees and other public employees. Thus, while the law purported to put public safety employees in a separate class based on a valid purpose, it created classifications by using bargaining units and permitted the bargaining units to contain up to seventy percent of persons who are not public safety employees. This means the statute enacted ended up giving many public employees rights of public safety employees and denied many public safety employees those rights.

This type of line drawing falls far too short of our constitution’s demands. While line drawing can never be clean and can present a variety of obstacles, this case is not even close to a fair delineation. Moreover, there is simply no reason why the general assembly could not have drawn the lines to eliminate the unconstitutional distinctions. The law cannot purport to give needed special protection to one group of people and then allow that group to be populated by up to seventy percent of other people not included within the purpose. This approach is a bad fit and destroys the justification for the law. […]

[T]he Iowa statute ends up treating many similarly situated public employees in Iowa differently based solely on the bargaining unit they belong to and not for the reason the constitution would justify different treatment of public employees. Our constitution requires laws to treat similarly situated people equally unless there is an adequate reason otherwise.

Appel’s dissenting opinion, joined by Cady and Wiggins, held that the collective bargaining law “slices and dices the universe of public employees entitled to collective bargaining by various categories in multiple novel ways that are overinclusive and underinclusive.”

I begin with a discussion of the remarkable classification system created by the law. It identifies an oddball group of public employees and throws them into the burlap grab bag labeled “public safety employee[s].” Id. § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.3(11)). Then, some of those within the grab bag are denied privileges that others receive. Id. § 6. And some public employees not within the grab bag receive the benefits denied to a portion of public safety employees, while others do not. Id. Perplexing, I know. The classification system is illogical.

The identification of public safety employees is made not on the basis of an employee’s duties or functions, but rather by the title an employee holds. Id. § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.3(11). In some respects, the “public safety” grab bag is astonishingly inclusive. The grab bag was stretched astoundingly wide. It accommodates park rangers, gaming enforcement officers, and peace officers designated by the department of transportation. Id.

But then, it excludes employees with obvious public safety responsibilities. The grab bag has no room for university police who, just like other police officers, are law enforcement officers pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 80B, are trained and certified by the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, and engage in law enforcement and emergency response alongside other city police officers. Id. Airport firefighters are excluded even though they too work alongside the firefighters designated as public safety employees by House File 291. Id. The law also excludes others, like parole officers and fraud bureau investigators, who work in unpredictable environments with broad arrest powers and the obligation to respond to emergencies. Id. And none of our state’s corrections officers, jailers, and emergency medical service providers are considered public safety employees. Id. Yet all of those public employees work in “protection occupations.” Iowa Code § 97B.49B(1)(e).

As is evident, the statutory classification of public safety employees is obviously remarkably overinclusive and underinclusive. No one questions that. And no one questions that the overinclusiveness and underinclusiveness are among the features that make the classifications in House File 291 suspect.

Appel also noted that law enforcement officials in various counties do not have expanded bargaining rights, because of the 30 percent threshold.

What kind of statute is this? Notably, the parties have failed to identify a similar statute anywhere at any time. House File 291 is unlike the recent legislation passed in Wisconsin because, under the Wisconsin law, all those designated as public safety employees receive broader collective bargaining rights and all those who are not so designated do not receive those rights.

Although the rational basis standard is deferential, the Iowa Supreme Court has held in other cases that economic laws involving “wholly arbitrary classifications or otherwise invidious discrimination” may violate citizens’ guarantee of equal protection.

As described above, House File 291 classifies public employees in multiple unusual ways. Among the public employees with safety responsibilities, it identifies some as public safety employees and omits others. 2017 Iowa Acts ch. 2, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.3(11)). Then, it goes on to even omit some of the public safety employees from the benefits of broader collective bargaining while allowing large numbers of those not branded as public safety employees to benefit from broader collective bargaining. Id. § 6 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.9).

Therefore, House File 291 treats many similarly situated persons differently. First, some public employees with safety responsibilities— like university police, airport firefighters, corrections officers, jailers, and emergency medical service providers—are similarly situated to other public employees with safety responsibilities yet treated differently. See id. § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.3(11)). Second, only some of the public employees that House File 291 itself considers similarly situated—public safety employees—are able to benefit from broader collective bargaining. Id. § 6 (codified at Iowa Code § 20.9). Third, among the public employees that are not considered public safety employees by the law, some are able to engage in broader collective bargaining and others are not. Id.

As for “the purported purpose of labor peace,”

No one claims that there has ever been a strike of any public employees, let alone public safety employees, since the enactment of the Public Employment Relations Act over forty years ago. Further, no one claims that such a strike has been seriously threatened. The lack of any facts to support the asserted rationale is troubling.

Second, as plaintiffs point out, labor peace was not a rationale for the law asserted by any Iowa legislators during the floor debate. That is striking. […]

Third, for forty years, draconian sanctions have been in place in the event any public employee contemplated striking.

As for the other pretext,

It seems odd to suggest that some public safety employees are entitled to the health and safety benefits afforded by robust collective bargaining and benefits and others are not. Why, say, are park rangers entitled to the health and safety benefits of robust collective bargaining while corrections officers are not? While health and safety benefits may justify robust collective bargaining rights, that benefit is equally applicable to the excluded public safety employees.

The dissenting justices were not convinced of any “rational relationship between the purported goals of the statute and the means chosen by the legislature.”

If labor peace were the goal, why aren’t corrections staff, or parole officers, or university police officers, or healthcare workers, provided the benefits of the statute? Other states deal with the potential of strikes in inclusive ways. […] If House File 291 is designed to prevent strikes that would jeopardize public safety, it is remarkably underinclusive.

Conversely, is there anything in the record suggesting that public safety employees included in the House File 291 grab bag have threatened to strike? And if they have, have they threatened to strike more frequently or more intensively than the corrections officials and university police? Is there anything in the record suggesting that a strike by gaming enforcement officers would be a threat to public safety? And could it be of the same magnitude as a strike by the many police and fire departments left out in the cold by the thirty percent threshold? Moreover, is the danger of a strike by non-“public safety employees” in a favored bargaining unit somehow of such concern that they, too, need special bargaining rights? These questions, of course, must be answered in the negative, and reveal the arbitrariness and extreme overinclusion of the classifications if they are designed to ensure labor peace.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the absence of a rational connection between doling benefits and preventing strikes. Does the record, or any legislative facts, show that only some public safety employees—i.e., those in unions in which they comprise more than thirty percent of members—need special benefits to convince them not to break the law and strike? Or that, unless they are doled out special benefits, police officers in those units (and I guess gaming enforcement officers, park rangers, and DOT officers) will refuse to do their duty in the face of others breaking the law and striking? Are public safety employees in units in which they comprise less than thirty percent of members somehow better able to resist lawbreaking? Or are those public safety employees less important to public safety?

The classifications in House File 291 are arbitrary if the goal was labor peace. There is no relationship between the classifications, which feature extreme degrees of overinclusion and underinclusion, and labor peace.

The “health and safety” excuse was not persuasive for similar reasons.

The legislature’s choice of who may be allowed greater collective bargaining rights is grievously underinclusive towards achieving a goal of protecting health and safety of public employees exposed to danger. Why omit university police officers, corrections officers, jailers, emergency medical service providers, airport firefighters, and others from the category of public safety employees? […] The record shows that many employees in these jobs, especially corrections officers and university police officers, face similar or greater risks than those classified as public safety employees. Psychiatric aides and medical technicians, according to the record, are approximately four times as likely to be injured on the job as are police officers and approximately 150 times as likely to be injured on the job as firefighters. Meanwhile, the number of road safety workers killed in Iowa exceeds the number of police killed in the line of duty. […]

Further, the limitations on bargaining applicable to the two groups are numerous, and in almost every respect, divorced from health and safety. For instance, House File 291 gives units with thirty percent public safety employees greater rights than other units in arbitrating over wages. Id. What rational connection is there between a cap on the wages that an arbitrator may award to some bargaining units and the health and safety of a portion of the members of other bargaining units? There is none.

Similarly, House File 291 makes seven bargaining subjects mandatory in the case of units with thirty percent public safety employees and prohibited in the case of other units. These subjects are “insurance, leaves of absence for political activities, supplemental pay, transfer procedures, evaluation procedures, procedures for staff reduction, and subcontracting public services.” Id. Again, protecting the health and safety of some members of some bargaining units does not rationally connect to giving all of the members of those units the exclusive right to bargain over those subjects.

The situation we face is not like that in Wisconsin. Unlike Wisconsin, as noted above, the Iowa law shuffles the public safety employees into some groups that are entitled to greater benefits and others which are not. Id. In Wisconsin, all public safety employees were entitled to greater collective bargaining rights.


The ISEA had raised similar arguments against the collective bargaining law, along with an additional point: the collective bargaining law unconstitutionally barred employees from deducting union dues from their payrolls electronically, but allowed payroll deduction for other professional association dues.

Waterman’s majority opinion, joined by Christensen, Mansfield, and McDonald, briefly repeated its reasoning from the AFSCME opinion. Regarding the unique aspect of ISEA’s lawsuit, he wrote,

The plaintiffs concede that the elimination of payroll deductions for union dues does not infringe on their First Amendment rights. […] The plaintiffs’ challenge to the payroll deduction prohibition does not implicate a fundamental right, and therefore, we apply a rational basis review. […]

The plaintiffs argue that there is no realistically conceivable purpose for prohibiting the payroll deduction for union dues while still allowing payroll deductions for dues or contributions to other organizations. The plaintiffs contend administering payroll deductions imposes no burden on public employers who actually incur greater costs removing the deductions from their payroll systems. For that reason, the plaintiffs argue the payroll deduction prohibition cannot be supported on the stated objective of fiscal responsibility. […]

According to the plaintiffs, the real reason for House File 291 is to starve unions of dues to curtail their ability to collectively bargain for public employees, and without any other realistically conceivable purpose, House File 291 cannot withstand rational basis scrutiny.2

Amicus, AFL-CIO, argue that payroll deductions were often of little consequence to employers and most employers readily agreed to these provisions. […]

The plaintiffs concede, as they must, that the State is not constitutionally required to provide payroll deductions at all. Rather, the plaintiffs contend that once the State allows voluntary payroll deductions for charitable contributions or dues for other professional organizations, the equal protection clause requires the State to also allow payroll deductions for union dues.

Waterman cited various U.S. Supreme Court and appellate court opinions that “rejected equal protection challenges to enactments or policies eliminating payroll deductions for union dues while allowing payroll deductions for nonunion organizations.” Furthermore,

The legislature could rationally choose to stop helping unions collect dues through payroll deductions. The Iowa Constitution does not require public employers to collect dues for the very unions that sit across the bargaining table negotiating at arms’ length for higher wages and costlier employee benefits at taxpayer expense. The State argued that “collective bargaining is expensive, disruptive, and not in the best interest of citizens.” We agree with the district court “that the concerns of the legislature regarding the cost of collective bargaining provide a rational basis for making the classification concerning [the] payroll deduction.” The district court noted the plaintiffs did not challenge the factual basis for the legislature’s cost-saving premise, which the court accepted as a matter of “common knowledge.”

Writing a partial concurrence and partial dissent for himself, Cady, and Wiggins, Appel disagreed with the majority’s opinion regarding the arbitrary distinctions between “public safety” employees and other employees. However, the opinion agreed that the ban on payroll deductions could survive a rational basis review.

The district court thought there might be money to be saved. But the record indicates that it would cost more money to remove the payroll deductions for ISEA and similar organizations than to just leave well enough alone. In short, the dues checkoff provision of the statute in fact imposes costs. If cost savings were the sole reason to support the statute’s treatment of union dues checkoff, I would likely find it invalid.

However, the real purpose behind the action is obvious. The legislature intended not to save money, but to weaken unions by making it more difficult for them to collect dues. As a matter of policy, the legislature is free to promote, or hinder, the ability of public employee unions to engage in collective bargaining. The means chosen to make unionization of public employees more difficult—elimination of dues checkoff—rationally achieves that goal. There is no problem of overinclusiveness or underinclusiveness here.

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