It was clear to us very early on this legislative session what the nasty and disrespectful tone towards workers was going to be.

By Charlie Wishman, Secretary/Treasurer Iowa Federation of Labor

It was clear to us very early on this legislative session what the nasty and disrespectful tone towards workers was going to be.  The very first week of session, I approached the Iowa House Labor Committee chair along with a lobbyist for an IFL affiliate union, and said, “We know and understand there are going to be changes to collective bargaining.  Would you be willing to sit down and discuss some of these concepts that we know have been talked about or have happened in other states?”  Representative Dave Deyoe (R), adjusted his glasses, laughed, and said “No, I don’t think we need to do that.  I already know what you’re going to say.”  He then had a “meeting” to be at, checked his phone, and walked off.

I have not, and certainly no one I have spoken to has ever seen such an anti-worker legislature in our lifetimes.  That doesn’t just go for the policy decisions that have very real life consequences, but the process in which these bills were drafted and presented to the public.  Extremely important and far reaching legislative initiatives were introduced, given 24 hours for a public sub-committee, passed in committee and debate time was limited in many cases.  To add insult to injury, Republican leaders and floor managers claimed they consulted with unions and “brought them to the table,” or sometimes claimed that unions refused to meet with them.  Both of these claims are at odds with each other, and neither is true.

Collective Bargaining

On February 7, the Republican House and Senate released their bills to destroy collective bargaining for public sector workers in this state.  This bill contained some of the most sweeping changes to labor law in this state, and was signed into law on February 17th, just 10 days later.  To sum up this bill – almost all subjects of bargaining are illegal, except bargaining on base wages.  That amount cannot exceed 3% or the consumer price index, whichever is lower.  There are now just three permissive subjects of bargaining, which are seniority, release time, and grievances.  The transparent union busting provisions in the bill are terrible as well.

Before each contract negotiation, the union must pay for a recertification election that must be won for the union to exist, and the union must get 51% of the votes of the entire bargaining unit, not just those voting.  In addition, payroll deductions are now banned, so every public sector union must find new ways of collecting dues for representation.  Obviously these provisions were meant to reduce union membership, and to set such a high bar for a recertification election it will be hard for many bargaining units to remain organized and represented.  After cutting debate short, the legislation passed on a party line vote.  There have been several lawsuits filed challenging different sections of this re-write of the law, and more are expected to be filed.  As we’ve seen this play out in Wisconsin, major damage is likely to result from this legislation.

Ban on Project Labor Agreements

When Governor Branstad was re-elected in 2010, one of his first acts was to ban project labor agreements on projects that use state resources using an executive order.  This year, anti-union groups pushed their agenda further with the help of the new Republican House, Senate, and Governorship under their thumb by banning PLAs by local governments.  In addition to banning project labor agreements by local jurisdictions, the legislature also banned the ability of a local jurisdiction to even ask questions such as “have you been found guilty of a felony,” or “do you have a qualified workforce for this project,” to a contractor to receive the bid.  While Project Labor Agreements can and still do exist in the private sector, they are now banned for local governments in law.  This legislation was passed on party line votes in the House and Senate.  This was yet another blow to labor in this state, this time aimed at building trades.

Road Fund Swap

The new Republican majority in the Senate was helped tremendously in the election by a message of Buy America, hire America, and an economic message that rural America was left behind.  In what can only be seen as now legalized money laundering by our states’ DOT and rural counties, Republicans passed a law that would let rural areas swap federal funds for state funds to use on road and bridge projects.  Why would they do that?  Federal funds for these projects require that American made steel be used on projects, and that workers are paid based on federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wages.  So, this law was passed solely to skirt the very promises they were swept into office on.  This law skirts buy American laws and pays workers in rural areas less, despite what they campaigned on.  Again this was passed on a party line vote in both chambers.

Preemption of Local Employment and Wage Laws

The minimum wage in Iowa was last raised in 2007 to $7.25/hour.  In fact, at the time it was higher than the federal minimum wage, and Iowa was a leader.  After 10 years, the state has not raised the minimum wage, and not only that, every single state except Wisconsin that borders Iowa has a higher minimum wage.  Because of inaction on the part of the state, several counties raised the minimum wage to higher levels than the state wage.  Johnson, Polk, Linn, Wapello, and Lee Counties all voted to increase the minimum wage, and this year, the state legislature voted to wipe out all of those increases.  To put a finer point on it, the legislature of the state of Iowa actually voted to lower the wages of its own poorest citizens.  This cruel and unnecessary legislation was passed on party line votes in the House and Senate.

Workers’ Compensation

This year also saw the most harmful re-write of worker’s compensation laws in the entire history of the law.  The initial proposal was even worse, but the final product that the Governor signed did a number of things.  It automatically presumes that any trace of drug or alcohol is the cause of an accident, and the burden of proof to say it wasn’t is now on the worker.  Perhaps the main and most harmful changes to workers compensation law is how shoulder injuries are treated.  What was once considered a body of the whole industrial injury now is only covered for 400 weeks and reduces compensation for those injuries as well.  This bill made it difficult to object to light duty work, so if your employer wants to punish you for being injured by counting paper clips or staring at a wall, they can.  Much of the bill was targeted at workers compensation attorneys, with the major unspoken goal to drive them out of business (so workers won’t have the ability to get representation in court).  Other provisions included lowering interest payments on insurance companies, which has been an incentive for them to not delay payments to workers.  The one provision put into the bill to make it seem slightly less heartless was to enable an injured worker to attend a community college for a short period of time to learn a new skill.  At the rate we are underfunding our community colleges, this is a hollow promise.

The stated reason for this bill was to lower workers’ compensation rates for businesses, even though they have dropped recently.  The problem is that health care costs are increasing, and that is not about it end.  Nothing in this bill does anything to actually lower health care costs, except for making it harder for workers to obtain benefits.  It should be no surprise that this carnage was pushed by such corporate bad actors like Tyson Foods, the trucking industry, and of course the Association of Business in Industry.

Unemployment Changes

There were several changes to Unemployment Law this year as well.  HF 542 raised from $250 to 8x the weekly benefit for earnings to qualify for a second year of unemployment.  This only applies to the second year.  The bill started out at 10x the amount earned in the first year, but was improved thanks to the work of Democratic House Labor Committee members.  Another troublesome unemployment bill was HF 533, which as originally drafted made it so that if you were incarcerated and are terminated as a result, you automatically lose access to unemployment benefits.  This bill was amended so that if you are found not guilty or charges against you are dropped, you would still qualify for benefits.  While that is an improvement, a potential loophole would be that if you notify your employer that you have a scheduled period to serve a sentence and take vacation or another form of leave, that employer could still then fire you and it would be allowable to disqualify you from benefits.

Drug Testing

This year, SF 32 added hair follicle testing to the employer list of acceptable drug testing options for employees.  As of now, the many other tests are available, and are much more reliable.  While proponents of this suggested this was for workplace safety, hair testing also does not detect intoxication at the worksite but can “look back” many months.  Obviously, no one wants to work near someone who is intoxicated but this had more to do with an out of state drug testing company looking to expand into Iowa.  As a result, this bill was amended to only allow hair testing for pre-employment screening.

Other Changes of Note

HF 572 is a product of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, expanded the Iowa Workforce Development Board to 33 people, and greatly reduces the voting strength of labor on that board as a result.  This is a federal requirement passed during the Obama administration.  These federal requirements also require that a business representative be the chair at all times, opposed to alternating as it currently stands.  Many on the IWD board including the state federation worked to grandfather the existing board with the federal government to leave it as is, however that was rejected by the Obama Administration.

Suppressing Democracy

While much of the discussion around voting changes this year revolved around a new requirement to show identification, many other provisions were enacted to make it harder to vote.  On that first point, you must now have a driver’s license, non-operator ID, military ID, or voter verification ID to cast a ballot now.  What is infuriating about this entire identification initiative is that there is no evidence of voter impersonation, or voter fraud in Iowa (or anywhere else).  Last year, only one person was caught and charged, because our system works.  That voter was trying to vote for the current President two times.  Now, the state is going to waste $700,000 on printing IDs for people who do not have an ID listed above, at the same time we are underfunding just about every single essential function of government.

In addition, you must provide signature verification that matches what the state has on file for you.  This provision is especially difficult for the disabled and elderly.  Any poll worker can challenge any voter that they decide doesn’t have a matching signature.  Not only will this slow down voting times it also could open our voting system for abuses and discrimination.

The ability to request a ballot to vote by mail or early vote has been reduced by 11 days in this legislation, and it reduces the ability to vote by mail by 29 days.  No matter how you slice it, the goal of the majority party and Governor this year was to find ways to make it harder to vote.  These provisions will take effect for the 2018 election.

And Finally, the Budget…

What an absolute mess this state is in fiscally.  There are a number of factors that go into why, and most of them have to do with poor choices made by the legislature in previous years relating to tax policy.

The year started with the Republican legislature cutting $118 million out of the current year’s budget, forcing education, health care, corrections, and other vital services to be cut even more.  Hardly any part of the budget was left un-slashed.  The targets slash resources from Governor Branstad’s already-scarce budget by an additional $38 million. The proposal cuts the FY2018 budget by $14 million compared to FY2017. This comes after horrible budget mismanagement resulted in $120 million being cut in the current budget year.

It is time to finally examine tax credits that have been on auto-pilot for years, that we don’t know what benefit they are providing, and many of these tax credits amount to corporate welfare handed out to companies that have no tax liability.  Commercial and Industrial property tax cuts are going to start hitting our budget in an even more serious way in future years.

The Governor says the problem is the “farm economy.”  That may be a factor amongst many, but runaway tax cuts are to blame. There is no way that Iowa can cut its way out of this mess.  Until this state gets serious about making sure we are positioned for the future, we will continue down a dark road that leads to a race to the bottom.

Next Year

There are many opportunities for the Republican majority to inflict more pain on workers next year.  There is talk of IPERS and other pension “reforms” which could seriously damage the retirement security of workers.  There are still many more unemployment, workers’ compensation, and other worker protections that can be stripped from law.  Medicaid privatization is still a disaster, and the state continues to ignore it.

Despite the adversity that we all faced, we are still incredibly proud of what union members stepped up and did this year.  Thousands of calls were made to legislators, people agitated at forums and asked tough but fair questions of their elected officials.  We were ignored and called liars and greedy and thugs, yet we persisted.  When the Governor wanted a draconian workers’ compensation law on his desk in less than a week, we persisted and helped remove some of the worst parts of the law.  When the state was going to wipe out minimum wage ordinances, counties like Lee County persisted anyways.

Republicans may believe they have buried us, but perhaps instead they just buried the seeds of a newer, stronger, labor movement ready to help turn this state around and restore it to the progressive leader it once was.  The choice as always, is ours.

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