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Opinion: A Square Deal for Iowans

Bennett Smith

The Iowa General Assembly recently proposed legislation that essentially strips the collective bargaining rights of most public employees in the State of Iowa. They did not completely eliminate Chapter Twenty of the Iowa Code which covers collective bargaining because that would have opened the state up to the possibility of strikes by public workers which was part of the original reason in 1974 to pass collective bargaining legislation. Republicans did indicate a willingness to “tweak” Chapter Twenty after this recent election, but this current bill goes way beyond that. It basically “guts” most collective bargaining rights for non-emergency personnel, except for negotiating over base wages, which are capped at the lesser of three percent or the rise in the consumer price index, in binding arbitration. I guess elections do have consequences. Republicans have not forgotten what Democratic Governor Chet Culver did in 2010 when he basically gave the public unions what they asked for on his way out the door. While I would support some reforms to collective bargaining, I want to respectfully disagree with my fellow Republicans that this current bill is the best approach. I think a better approach to this issue and many others is the reform path that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt laid out in the early part of the Twentieth-century.

President Roosevelt’s role in settling the 1902 Coal Strike that had hit the northeastern part of the country that year is a good illustration of my point. Coal miners wanted a twenty percent increase in wages and an eight-hour workday instead of the ten hours per day they had been working. Mine owners were opposed, but with winter coming on and most big cities in that part of the country dependent on coal for heat, President Roosevelt decided to step in. He put pressure on both sides and set up a commission to mediate the dispute. In the end workers got a ten percent increase in wages and a nine hour workday, while the mine owners got to raise their prices. It was the first time the federal government had acted as a neutral arbitrator of a dispute like this, and President Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” for both labor and capital became foundational to his domestic program. Roosevelt would go on to become one of our greatest Presidents in part because he worked hard to balance the interests of labor and big business. Unfortunately, the current approach that the Republican leadership in Iowa has taken over collective bargaining and other issues goes beyond balance and is more of a “raw deal” for working and middle class Iowans.

The Republican argument for this drastic change to the collective bargaining agreement is centered on the overall financial cost that the binding arbitration requirements of collective bargaining impose on the taxpayers of Iowa and the lack of flexibility at the local level for public employers such as schools to manage their workforce. So, for example, with teachers one aspect of the new legislation is to pay them based on merit instead of seniority. While there is some merit to this idea, it may have some potential unintended consequences. According to a recent Des Moines Register article by Mackenzie Ryan (2/11), it would create a kind of free agent system where wealthier school districts will be able to draw the best teachers with higher salaries and poorer districts and more rural districts will have a harder time recruiting and keeping teachers. So, while this kind of system may make it easier to get rid of poor performing teachers it also creates significant instability for schools districts, students and parents because of the higher turnover rate of teachers.

As for the cost savings argument, I think it would be much more credible if it were not for other policies that Republicans have supported and Governor Branstad has implemented that are significantly reducing revenues coming into the Iowa treasury. For example, the runaway tax credits that have significantly eroded the tax base in Iowa over the last several years, and the various economic development debacles that cost Iowans millions of dollars. This recent mid-year budget crisis is prima facie evidence of this kind of mismanagement. In light of this reality, it was incredibly ironic to see that some legislators had actually benefitted from union negotiated health insurance rates, and were somehow unaware of it until recently.

Unfortunately, in recent years the leadership of the Iowa Republican Party has become more enamored with a libertarian and lassiz-faire approach to economics and politics that tips the balance in favor of large corporate concerns rather than the more balanced approach of an insurgent Republican like Teddy Roosevelt. Whether its Medicaid privatization or the closure of needed mental health facilities the theme here is to privatize legitimate governmental programs rather than reform them. Democrats are also to blame here, because of their intransigence over negotiating on some of these issues, and I imagine that is why the Republican leadership felt the need to do what they did since they won control of the Iowa Senate in this past election cycle. Both sides need to come together as Iowans, and not as partisans, and think about the long term common good for everyone in this State. We can reform parts of the collective bargaining agreement that would improve the relationship with labor and management without destroying it. All Iowans deserve a “square deal” when it comes to the relationship between labor and management and not the kind of “raw deal” that this current collective bargaining bill proposes.

Bennett Smith
Clear Lake, Iowa


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Drain the swamp !

I believe the change is enough that the law is unconstitutional and if public employees strike, the Courts will strike down the law.

If politicians are going to take rights away from citizens then at least they should allow them the right to strike. I would guess the average wage increase for public employees is somewhere around the 20 cents per hour range not going to get rich off that. These employees are just trying to make a living like everyone else.

I comprehend the word FAT CAT !

We comprehend you are ignorant and not very educated

Bout time – unions are a thing of the past in the private sector.

you seem to have a comprehension problem. Or is something this long to deep for you to read?

They are related. Cousins marrying cousins of sisters and brothers.

Comprehend this-Unions are a Dead Thing of the past.

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