State of unions in Iowa: Declining or surging?

Leaders see new energy

Terry Coyle
Published: September 2 2012 | 4:00 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 11:52 pm in

Iowa’s labor movement is energized by a movement to peel back wages, benefits and even bargaining rights at the state level this Labor Day, leaders say.

When commentators pontificate about the state of labor each year around this time, they’ve tended to dwell on the overall decline in organized labor representation in the work force rather than resilient public sector unions.

A 37 percent share of public sector employees held union cards in 2011, according to census data. That’s five times the 6.9 percent unionization rate of the private sector.

Public sector workers are “the people who allow us to have a civilized society,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO.

It’s a broad and sometimes overlooked category of workers that tends to have a lot of training and experience. They include public school teachers, water treatment operators, highway maintenance crews, police, firefighters, librarians and, of course, tax collectors.

The 2008 recession and later the 2010 elections that brought Tea Party faction of the Republican Party to power, added fuel to movements to rein in public sector bargaining and benefits at the state level, where budgetary situations were arguably the worst.

The initiatives range from the Wisconsin bill led by Gov. Scott Walker that eliminated most collective bargaining rights last year, to more subtle proposals such as “free agency” for unionized employees that have surfaced in Iowa and elsewhere. Free agency would allow state bargaining unit employees to opt voluntarily to negotiate their own, individual contracts.

Branstad challenge

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad cited the state’s budget constraints this summer as he challenged state employees’ health benefits. He said 88 percent of state employees make no contribution to their health insurance premium.

Branstad urged workers to join him in voluntarily paying 20 percent of the premium on his state-funded health insurance, and on July 2 signed an executive order enabling state employees to voluntarily pay $200 monthly toward their health insurance premium.

The call for voluntary sacrifice went largely unheeded, as only 93 employees signed up by the end of July — most of them employees of Branstad’s own office, department heads or administrators.

What the request did evoke was a rebuke from Iowa’s largest public employee labor union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. AFSCME also filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board against the governor, claiming he was interfering with the state’s regulations regarding collective bargaining.

Change in Iowa

It’s a far cry from what’s happened in Wisconsin, but Sagar has seen a change in Iowa union members’ attitudes.

Seventy-seven people showed up at one of the Iowa AFL-CIO’s political training sessions in the Quad Cities, Sagar said, including many first-time political volunteers. Other political training sessions in places like Sioux City and Des Moines were also well attended.

“Holy cow,” Sagar said. “People are charged up.”

Service Employees International Union Local 199 President Cathy Glasson said the 5,000-member union has made more calls to talk politics with its members as events unfolded in Wisconsin. The Coralville-bassed union’s biggest bargaining unit in Iowa is the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

“Our members very much saw that as a threat to their own working lives,” Glasson said. “It made our folks realize how important having legal representation in the workplace is in a state where sometimes you can just get fired for looking the wrong way. There are basically no rights for workers in Iowa unless you are in a union.”

Hawkeye Labor Council Executive Director Rick Moyle and Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council President Dave Hogan both agreed that rank-and-file members are more politically engaged as they learn about worker rights rollback efforts in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Minnesota.

“I think that all of that has definitely had an awakening effect on our members and maybe folks who in the past have not been too active,” said Moyle. The council represents 40 affiliate unions with about 8,000 members in seven counties.

Great divide

The perspectives of state Republicans and union leaders could hardly be further apart in the debate over public sector benefits.

“Taxpayers have funded some very generous benefits that don’t reflect what’s happening in the private sector,” said e Rep. Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives. Paulsen believes total compensation for public sector workers is significantly higher than the public sector, although he struggled to remember statistics he’s seen quoted.

One oft-cited report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that total compensation for state and local government workers averaged $41.15 per hour in June 2012 across the United States compared to an average of $28.78 per hour for private sector workers. Total compensation includes both wages and benefits.

The discussion as framed by Paulsen is about how best to serve taxpayers.

“Is this where we should be spending our money or should we be making a larger investment in K-12 education or regents education?” he said.

While he would or could not specify the next step the Legilature will take, he said the issue is very much alive.

“What I know is this is something we intend to address and as we talk to Iowans they expect us to address.”

The discussion is framed quite differently by union supporters. They say it’s about a Republican agenda orchestrated by the groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council to disempower unions and weaken America’s fading middle class.

When public sector wages and benefits fall, labor leaders say it also will weaken compensation in the private sector, which won’t have to compete as hard to attract workers.

“It doesn’t just affect organized labor,” Moyle said. “It affects every worker in the country.”

Telling Americans that public sector union workers are making more than they would in the private sector is part of a Republican “divide and conquer” strategy, said Sagar, who worked in operations at a Marshalltown power plant during his rank-and-file days.

The labor backers point to a February 2011 study called “Apples to Apples” by the Iowa Policy Project that attempted to present an accurate comparison of public and private sector wages and benefits by adjusting for things like educational levels and experience of the employees.

The study said male public employees made 7.9 percent less and female employees 10.8 percent less when such factors were considered. State employee compensation compared a little better to private sector employees, while local government employees didn’t fare as well.

Sagar said a huge raft of anti-union legislation launched after the 2010 elections is evidence of a concerted effort to undermine unions by the Republicans and their supporters.

Paulsen describes the timing as more circumstantial. He compared the public sector compensation evaluation to the push among states to reform their educational systems.

“It is not uncommon for Iowa to look at the same issues as a handful or even a lot of other states across the country,” he said. “It’s not as if somebody called me from out of state and said, ‘we’re addressing this issue in Indiana and could you look into it also?’?”

Budgetary outlook

Paulsen said the budgetary situation the state is expected to face this year is looking better than last.

Legislators must still deal with many budgetary uncertainties, however. They include the impact of the drought on state revenue, whether the federal government’s budget balancing act will slash federal support to the states, and the budgetary impact of commercial property tax reform if that can be accomplished.

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