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House, Senate Begin Debate on Collective Bargaining Bill

John Pemble / IPR
The Iowa Senate electronic voting board for Senate File 213 with amendment 3021

Debate that may last days got underway in the Iowa House and Senate yesterday on a Republican-sponsored bill that will rewrite Iowa’s law governing collective bargaining for public employees who work for the state, cities, counties, and schools. 

Over the last week thousands of public workers have phoned, e-mailed, or turned out in person to protest the bill.  

People are passionate about these issues

Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig) opened up debate in the Senate shortly before four o’clock. 

“I would like to thank my colleagues in the Senate for what has been and will be a lively debate on this Senate File 213,”  says Schultz.  “People are passionate about these issues and that’s why there’s been so much energy in this building.”  

But Democrats offered what they’re calling the first round of amendments, beginning with an amendment to kill the bill altogether.  

The Republican-sponsored bill takes away many of the rights of public workers that have been part of Iowa law since the 70’s.   It enacts provisions critics say will go to the heart of union organizing for public workers.

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Onlookers in Senate Gallery

The bill makes it harder for public sector unions to stay certified and collect dues and employers would  no longer be required to bargain over workplace issues and benefits except for base wages.

Those rights were awarded public workers in the 1974 law in exchange for giving up the right to strike.

Sen. Nate Boulton (D-Des Moines) says teaching will be a much less desirable profession under the bill.

“How are you going to recruit someone to a rural school when there’s no voice on their wages, it’s going to be illegal to talk about health insurance, and they’re going to be at-will employees,” Boulton says.  “They can be fired with no reason provided.” 

People are still in shock

But Republican sponsors say the bill is needed to rein in the costs of public sector contracts.  

“It will allow the state, city governments, county boards of supervisors and school boards to innovate with the times and manage their finances,” Schultz says, “without fear that the unions and unelected arbitrators will stand in the way.”

Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) says outside influence is behind the bill.

"I have never seen a more mean-spirited, anti-worker, anti-government, Koch-brother funded, bought and paid for propaganda machine that has leached into our pure state."

The bill is backed by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.  It closely matches controversial legislation in Wisconsin.   

Democrats told stories from their constituents who hold public-sector jobs as nurses, social workers, teachers, and corrections officers.  They argued that conditions for the workers will be significantly impaired if the bill becomes law. 

Sen. Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines) addressed an imaginary public worker.

“We're not going to give just cause when we fire you,” Bisignano said.  “We’re going to wait for somebody's brother in  law who has a nephew who needs a job.  Then we're going to fire you because I don't need a cause,” Bisignano shouted to applause from onlookers in  the Senate gallery.

Credit John Pemble / IPR
Senator Tony Bisignano looks up at the Senate gallery as visitors applaud his speech.

“The Senate will be in order,” said Senate President Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny), trying to enforce Senate rules of decorum.

Statehouse Republicans introduced the bill last week without input from public workers and their advocates.   

Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) says voters put Republicans in office without knowing that the collective bargaining law would be gutted.

“You campaigned on a number of things that weren't true about us and you said how much you supported schools but Republicans did not campaign on this,” Bolkcom says.  “People are still in shock that this is happening.”

Debate will resume on Wednesday in both the House and Senate.

“The common-sense reforms in this bill will result in a government in Iowa that is more responsive and more efficient,” says Rep. Steven Holt (R-Denison) in opening remarks on the bill.

A House amendment will scale back some of the provisions of the bill.  After opposition from the public, the House bill will no longer allow public sector workers to be fired without cause.