Iowa labor advocates look back at year of struggle


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As the Labor Day weekend approaches, labor advocates in eastern Iowa say the past year has seen struggles for workers’ rights in the state.

“It’s been a tough year for labor, and that’s because there’s been a lot of political sentiment,” said Patrick Hughes, the president of the Iowa City Federation of Labor.

Labor debates sparked across the country this year when at least a handful of states attempted to cut public-employee compensation in order to close budget gaps. In Wisconsin, for instance, an aggressive Republican-sponsored bill led to months of protest in the state capital.

Here in Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad caused a stir this year when he signed an executive order against project-labor agreements — pre-hiring negotiations between an employer and trade union that can lay down percentage requirements for in-state workers on projects.

And this past spring, Republican lawmakers pushed a bill that would have tightened restrictions on collective bargaining. That legislation passed the Republican-controlled House but died in the senate, where Democrats have a majority.

“A lot of frightening things have happened,” said Jennifer Sherer, the director of the University of Iowa Labor Center.

She said unemployment and Workforce Development offices, safety and health regulations, collective bargaining, and workers’ compensation are in trouble.

“Across the board, the working class has been hit by the recession,” she said. “Folks on top are OK; everybody else has been hit hard.”

But Republicans say curbing public workers’ compensation will help bridge budget gaps.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor was placed in a bad situation when he took office in January because of policies put in place by former Gov. Chet Culver.

“Gov. Culver and the unions negotiated an exorbitant salary package that will increase incomes by 15 percent for a number of state workers over the next two years,” Albrecht said. “Additionally, 87 percent of state employees continue to pay nothing toward their health insurance at a time when Iowans are struggling to make ends meet. This is all at the expense of Iowa’s working families who pay taxes.

“Progress with unions will be made if they return to the negotiating table and a sensible salary and benefits package can be agreed upon. Thus far, they have been unwilling to do so.”

But Hughes said he’s confident the next election cycle will bode well for the workers’ movement.

“We will be out knocking on doors and wearing out our shoes, trying to get people out to vote that support our issues … As you see in Wisconsin and Ohio, if you beat labor down, labor is going to get back up and come back even stronger than before.”

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