Protestors gather at the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa for the March for Iowa's Teachers on Feb. 12 (The Daily Iowan/Molly Hunter)
Protestors gather at the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa for the March for Iowa's Teachers on Feb. 12 (The Daily Iowan/Molly Hunter)

Public workers face brave new world


By Molly Hunter |

Many of Iowa’s public employees will not feel the effects of a new collective-bargaining law for a few years.

“There are multiple cities and counties that have three- or five-year agreements in place,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “So a lot of people won’t feel the immediate effects of this — some will, some won’t.”

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, is seen on Jan. 30, 2013, at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall)

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, is seen on Jan. 30, 2013, at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall)

According to the Iowa Legislature’s Legislative Services Agency, unions represented 27,600 public employees in 2014, with Service Employees International Union Local 199 covering a wide range of 2,400 tertiary-care workers from nurses and lab technicians to education consultants at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.

The law, House File 291, drastically changes the rights guaranteed to Iowa’s public workers under the state’s collective-bargaining law, Chapter 20, and has the potential to affect more than 180,000 public workers.

Contracts among local unions and the city of Iowa City are not set to expire until June 2019 or even as late as June 2021. Meanwhile, the expiration of contracts made with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors are much closer, in June 2018.

However, collective-bargaining agreements with the state will expire much sooner, in June. Agreements between the UI and the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students and with SEIU Local 199 will also expire in June. The bargaining process for successor agreements with the UI were ongoing when the bill became law on Feb. 17.

After the law passed, ongoing collective-bargaining procedures were forced to start over, and many arbitration deadlines were pushed back.

“I met with area school superintendents, and three of those school districts now have to throw out all the work they’ve done on negotiating an agreement; they have to scrap all that work and start over under this new law, which they don’t exactly know what it means,” Hogg said.


“If the Board of Regents doesn’t accept the contract that was presented to us, and we ratified … this law will change how we can negotiate for anything, and I’m afraid that the contract will be gutted,” said Norman Kalvig, a UI clinical lab scientist and a member of SEIU Local 199.

The fears expressed by Kalvig have manifested in other ongoing contract negotiations.

“When we initially gave our proposal in November last year, there was only one item that was deleted from the contract, and that was insurance — health, dental, life insurance, and disability insurance,” said Danny Homan, the president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61.

Danny Homan, the resident of AFSCME Iowa Local 61

Danny Homan, President of AFSCME Iowa Council 61

AFSCME, which covers a wide array of public workers across the state, including UI employees, received the state’s new proposal when the negotiation process began anew on Feb. 22.

“Every word was deleted from the contract with the exception of a recognition clause, a wage increase of 1 percent each year, and a termination clause,” Homan said.

AFSCME has filed a lawsuit with the state claiming the law is unconstitutional.

“It creates two levels of public employees,” Homan said. “It is discriminatory in its base, and we believe that the Iowa Constitution has equal protection in it. The DOT folks do not have the same rights as a state trooper, but that state trooper can’t go anywhere if the DOT folks aren’t out plowing the highways.”

The AFSCME lawsuit awaits judicial assignment in the 5thC District Court.

The changes introduced by the law will complicate the election process for union certification and recertification in the state by eliminating runoff elections in the case of inconclusive results and making it easier to invalidate election results. The law also caps the maximum length of any collective-bargaining agreement at five years.

“I believe that some of the highly skilled, highly educated state employees who work in very technical areas of state government are going to leave,” Homan said. “I believe a lot of teachers are going to leave, potentially a lot of correctional officers, if they can find another job.”

But Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said the changes in collective bargaining are not as dramatic as many make them out to be, and the basic framework for negotiations remains the same.

State Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison

State Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison

“There’s a lot of misunderstandings about this bill,” Holt said. “Any individual can still go talk to their manager at any time they chose to.”

Holt said the law will allow local negotiators to craft the pay packages and benefits best suited to their public employees’ needs.

“We have given local elected officials the … basic management tools that they need to manage their agencies,” he said.

Still, some employee organizations have reacted to the changes by requesting extensions for existing contracts.

“We extended every contract that we could possibly extend into one, two, or three years later,” Homan said. “We attempted to work with any employer that was willing to work with us.”

During the floor debates leading up to the law being passed, many legislators noted the sudden push to extend contracts around the state.

“It was a point where … if you could get it done first — and you could have three years — before the new law was through, then you did it,” said Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids.

State Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids

Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids

Public employees’ collective-bargaining rights are outlined in Chapter 20, which was proposed at the request of then-Republican Gov. Robert Ray after a series of teachers’ strikes in the 1970s. Horn was a new member of the Iowa House at the time.

“We had teachers from Keokuk in jail for striking,” Horn said. “It was against the law to strike. Gov. Ray didn’t want teachers striking and going to jail, so he said we’ve got to come up with some other kind of procedure.”

In 1998, the UI professional and scientific staff organized and received certification under SEIU Local 199. Kalvig was on the first organizing committee and attended the first contract negotiation.

“Before there were unions there were things just you were told to do, and after unions, there [was] at least a discussion about what was being done. … So we had our voice,” Kalvig said. “And I now have no voice.”