Senate bill would hurt Iowa's public sector unions and schools

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring. He can be reached at   

America thrives on competition. We love it when victory hangs in the balance. Super Bowl Sunday is almost a national holiday that we celebrate with parties and betting. Court TV is a guilty pleasure for millions. Local, statewide, and national elections earn attention. Whatever the result, we want the competition to be fair.

Senate File 2374, which the Iowa Senate Workforce Committee approved along party lines last week, would cripple public sector unions while once again attacking public schools.

Iowa’s Republican trifecta gutted the 40-year-old public sector collective bargaining law in 2017. The changes tilted the bargaining table so much toward management, real problem solving slipped off the table, causing competitive contract settlements to evaporate. The new law accelerated our state’s teacher shortage and sent the message Iowa educators weren’t valued.

In the effort to obliterate public sector unions, the 2017 law required bargaining units to hold new recertification elections for every contract period. All employees eligible for the bargaining unit could vote, not only those who were union members. To stack the deck further, those not voting were recorded as “no” votes.

But it didn’t work.

They didn’t count on educators and other public sector workers supporting union representation. At least 98 percent of bargaining units have recertified.

So now in 2024, Republican legislators are pushing another grossly unfair bill targeting both unions and public schools. Under Senate File 2374, a union could be decertified if the employer fails to provide the state with a list of eligible employees for the recertification election. The public sector union would have only five days to file a lawsuit if the employer didn’t meet the state’s deadline. If the union didn’t respond through court, it would be decertified, no matter how many employees want to maintain their representation.

The process would be expensive as well as unfair.

On the surface, this bill may be an easy vote for Republicans. After all, being anti-union is part of GOP gospel. But it also puts public schools in jeopardy. So while the hard-core base may rejoice, for many Iowans this bill would harm their beloved public schools.

Here’s why this concept would have devastating unintended consequences for public schools, especially in rural Iowa. 

Having a union allows for collective problem solving.

Without some formal or informal agreement about how salaries and benefits are determined, each educator would need to decide what salary and benefit package he/she wanted and bargain individually. That system would be unworkable, time consuming, and fraught with inconsistency. It would quickly devolve into chaos and turn the clock back to a time where men were paid more than women and the football coach was often a school district’s highest paid teacher.

Yes, the school district administration could get a collective agreement without a formal union. But good luck getting that agreement if the district knifes the employees by refusing to let a union recertification vote take place.

Morale matters.

If this bill becomes law, and a school district uses it to kill the union, I’m pretty sure that would further destroy the employee/employer relationship and create a hostile place to work.

In this market, educators have a choice of where to teach. I think they’ll choose a place with a positive employer/employee atmosphere. It won’t be a secret.

The public school is the largest employer in many communities.

Eliminating the union will further stagnate wages, hurting economic activity in rural towns. Teachers understand they won’t get rich teaching, but they’ll look for other opportunities if no pay increases are in their future. 

Iowa needs to once again be a place to grow. To make that slogan a reality, unfair bills like Senate File 2374 need to die.

Top photo is by Prathankarnpap, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Lear

  • "Having a union allows for collective problem solving."

    indeed they do, so Americans get their vicarious highs through competition but we thriive when we cooperate. Iowa won’t be the one place in the world that reverses urbanization and we aren’t going to grow so the only real question is can we cultivate humane ways of downsizing (or “right” sizing if you prefer), can we help people escape areas that the markets (and the federal govt) no longer need sizable populations in or will we leave them to live desperate lives without meaningful public amenities and few lines even to private goods/services?