Labor legislation not moving

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 27, 2009 7:35 AM

For labor advocates, it’s been a disappointing Iowa Legislature session. The only labor bill to come up for a vote was a prevailing-wage bill, which failed by a single vote in the House last month.

But strong feelings haven’t subsided, and both labor and management backers maintain their positions.

Indeed, both sides debated the merits of current labor legislation at an Iowa Politics-sponsored forum in Des Moines on Thursday.

The crux of the disagreement is fundamental: What rights should unions and workers have in the workplace?

In essence, labor groups assert passing bills such as the prevailing-wage legislation, as well as bills for fair share and employee choice of doctors, would help increase wages and strengthen the workplace.

Business groups’ all-encompassing response?

Labor is attempting to raise taxes and bully nonunion workers.

“Look at what’s happening in Detroit, a city that has had a long history of strong unions,” said John Gilliland, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and a panelist for Thursday’s forum.

The House prevailing-wage bill would require state-hired contractors to pay workers the same wages and benefits for construction and other government-financed projects as the contractor would pay employees for a private job.

Business groups are vehemently opposed to such a change.

“Artificially setting wages on public construction projects artificially inflates the cost of those projects, and that costs taxpayers more money,” Gilliland said.

Labor advocates argue the bill would help local contractors and provide an impetus for a wage spike.

“This isn’t really a radical idea — the state of Kansas passed it, for crying out loud,” Iowa AFL-CIO President Ken Sagar said.

Similar feuds have erupted over an employee’s role in choosing a doctor for a workplace injury. One proposal would change existing law and allow a worker to select her or his preferred doctor.

“The issue is really about the worker’s health and not the corporation’s bottom line,” Sagar said.

But Gilliland contended it’s already in management’s best interest to choose an effective doctor.

A final piece of contested legislation would require nonunion public employees to pay a “fair share” to unions that negotiate for their workplace.

“We’re not asking for people to become union members,” Sagar said. “Why shouldn’t people who get a benefit pay for [it]?”

Pro-business advocates such as Gilliland equate the bill with strong-arming employees who don’t want to join unions.

With budget concerns dominating lawmakers’ attention, however, even Sagar conceded it’s unlikely labor groups will get anything from their wish list passed this session.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, offered a similar assessment.

“They’re just kind of dormant at this point,” he said.

The Iowa Legislature’s session ends in just under a month.

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