Gov. Terry Branstad knowingly broke Iowa collective bargaining law last week when he asked unionized state workers to voluntarily pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, the president of the state’s biggest public employees union said Tuesday.
AFSCME Council 61 filed a prohibited practice complaint with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, which oversees the state’s collective bargaining process. It asked the board to find that health insurance premiums are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining and cannot be changed outside the bargaining process.
Branstad declared on July 2 that both he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds would begin paying 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, and he asked union employees of the state to do the same. He also signed Executive Order 78 to allow the practice. Subsequently, Reynolds said all department heads had been asked to begin contributing the same portion of their insurance costs.
The moves have been touted by Branstad as an effort to spend less taxpayer money supporting health coverage by bringing the benefits more in line with the terms of private sector employment, where workers typically pay at least 20 percent of their premiums.
If all the state’s employees participated, annual savings would exceed $100 million, Branstad and Reynolds said.
AFSCME President Danny Homan said that if Branstad wanted to stay within the law, the state could ask for a health insurance premium contribution during AFSCME contract negotiations, scheduled to begin this fall. He said Branstad clearly knew that he was overstepping the state’s laws based on his previous statements about collective bargaining.
“This is nothing but a political stunt by this guy to turn people against hardworking employees who are putting their lives on the line for this state,” Homan said, mentioning the risks faced by law enforcement and correctional officers. He said Branstad’s call, and the establishment of an enrollment process for the premium payments, was an attempt to “bully” state employees.
In a statement released by spokesman Tim Albrecht, the governor didn’t address the legal issue raised by the union. Rather, he called the union’s move “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.”
“If state employees have skin in the game and take some ownership of their own health, they will lead healthier lives,” Branstad said. “It’s 20 percent. It’s voluntary. It’s sad the unions are suing to force taxpayers to keep paying their bills.”
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.
State employees were given an enrollment period that ends July 19 for the voluntary premium payments. Homan said he wasn’t aware of any members signing up to make the payments.
The union leader didn’t hesitate when asked why Iowa’s public employees shouldn’t pay a significant amount of their health premiums when private employees regularly do. He said union members have repeatedly taken wage freezes, delayed wage increases and taken furlough days to help the state through budget difficulties. He said the state’s employees typically don’t make as much as private sector workers based on educational level, in part because their unions have focused on strong health benefits in bargaining.
Paying a $224 monthly health premium for Branstad equals about 1.8 percent of his overall pay, Homan said, whereas it would be at least 5 percent for AFSCME members and the equivalent of a 10 percent to 18 percent pay cut for most of them.
Some view Branstad’s call for employee sacrifice as a possible precursor for a Wisconsin-style attempt to reduce employee bargaining rights.
Homan said AFSCME has already won one Iowa Supreme Court decision reversing Branstad on a line-item veto, and it won’t hesitate to take this dispute to the Supreme Court if necessary.