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Legislators should defend public-sector unions, oppose HF525

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Add Iowa to the list of states trying to dismantle unions. Gov. Terry Branstad announced his labor proposals several weeks ago, and his party has now produced a bill consistent with those anti-union theses: House File 525.

The labor reforms potentially enacted by HF525 would egregiously harm Iowa’s public employees and the state as a whole. Given Iowa’s economic realities, some sacrifices on the part of public employees may be necessary, such as a reduction in pay increases or increased employee contributions to benefits, but employees deserve representation in these negotiations. Branstad’s attempt to curtail collective bargaining rights cripples the power of collective bargaining and provides seriously damaging future prospects for public-sector unions.

“We are opposed to any bill that takes away employees’ rights in this way,” said Danny Homan, the president of Iowa’s AFSCME chapter. “It’s a system that has worked since 1974; there is no need to change it now.”

Branstad has tried to get around the bargaining process in difficult economic times before, which resulted in the 1991 ruling of AFSCME Iowa Council 61 et al. v. Branstad, in which Branstad was forced to release funds for a pay increases awarded by arbitration.

His party’s current proposal embodies that same philosophy. Following notorious Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s lead, the new proposal will eliminate employees’ rights to collectively bargain for changes in health-insurance payments, retirement benefits, limits on outsourcing, and layoffs. (And once you’ve eliminated those, what’s the point?)

One of the most harmful provisions of the bill is a fundamental change to the arbitration process itself. If the new bill is passed, arbitrators will be able to choose a third position to take in each negotiation that is between the offers from both parties. This may seem more conducive to compromise, but that is not the case.

The proposed process is almost identical to a practice called “fact finding” formerly allowed in public-employee negotiations.

“Last year, the system of fact-finding was taken out, with bipartisan support,” Homan said. Under the current arbitration system, the collective-bargaining unit and the state each make an offer, and the fairer offer is chosen by the arbitrator. This creates an incentive for each party to make an offer that is closer toward a compromise to ensure that its own offer is the one chosen. Under the “fact-finding” method, Homan explained, the arbitrator has an opportunity to take a position between both offers. To offset this, unions frequently make an offer that is too high and employers make an offer that is too low — often resulting in a compromise supported by neither party.

The proposal also heeds a common rallying cry of anti-union advocates and requires that arbitrators compare the benefits of public employees to private employees doing similar work — private employees that rarely have similarly powerful bargaining units.

One study from researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and the University of Kansas showed that in sectors in which collective-bargaining power is removed, greater income inequality than in sectors in which workers’ salaries are protected. In order for Iowa public employees to continue serving the state and providing for their families, that power must not be removed. The myth of the greedy government worker with his hands in the taxpayers’ pockets is just that — a myth. This is no great showdown between taxpayers and “union thugs”; as in Wisconsin, it’s an attempt to break the power of unions in their last remaining stronghold: the public sector. (Budget issues, the touchstone rationale behind reductions of bargaining rights, are already taken into account during the arbitration process.)

We hope that Iowa’s senators will be more level-headed than their House counterparts, and refrain from enacting policy that would seriously curtail the power of unions.

The new proposal muddies this process and slants the field, which has the potential to severely harm public employees and the state as a whole.


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