In Iowa, a Glimmer of Hope in the Face of Anti-Union Attacks

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

AFSCME President DannyHoman speaks during a rally on January 10, 2012, after then-Governor Terry Branstad's Condition of the State address at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.

There’s not a whole lot of good news for the American labor movement these days. The Republican Party has full control of the federal government and is implementing a radically anti-union agenda. Aggressive union-busting continues to stanch promising organizing drives. Union membership is at a historic low. And public-sector unions—the remaining pillar of organized labor—are preparing to take a big hit as the Supreme Court is soon expected to enable beneficiaries of unions contracts to stop paying dues.

But last week, there was some rare good news out of Iowa. In the face of a GOP onslaught against workers, the state’s public-sector union members overwhelmingly voted in favor of recertifying their respective unions. The message was clear: Don’t touch our unions.

Since voting began in September, 436 out of 468 public-sector bargaining units voted to recertify their unions, with 88 percent participation, according to results released last Wednesday by the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board. Nearly 28,500 employees voted to recertify while a mere 624 voted against recertification. That’s a pro-union margin of better than 400 to 1.

"It shows that public-sector employees, working men and women, both members and non-members, want to have a union, want to have a voice at the table,” Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, which represents more than 40,000 public-sector workers, told The Des Moines Register. "I believe this sends a very strong message."

Earlier this year, Iowa’s Republican-controlled state government (helmed by then-Governor Terry Branstad) enacted a slew of anti-labor laws that preempted local minimum-wage ordinances, rolled back workers’ compensation benefits, and enacted a crackdown on the collective-bargaining rights of state workers that makes Scott Walker look modest. Not only did the new law prohibit public-sector unions from collectively bargaining over anything except pay—health care, pensions, seniority, job training, and so on, are now solely the prerogative of management. Looking to cripple unions even more, Iowa Republicans also voted to require that workers represented by public-sector unions vote to recertify their union before negotiating new contracts. That generally means holding a vote every couple years. As if that weren’t onerous enough, they also required unions to win a majority of all workers covered by the contract, not just the majority of those who vote. (That would be analogous to requiring Iowa’s legislators to win a majority of the adult population of their districts, not just a majority of those voting—a standard few if any of them could meet.)

Should a union fail to get a majority under the new law, it would be immediately decertified, voiding its current contract and preventing workers from negotiating a new one. Employees would have to wait two years to form a new union.

While state Republicans claimed the recertification requirement was simply about increasing union accountability to its members, it’s clearly about putting additional burdens on labor unions, which are a core Democratic source of money and volunteers in the state. As AFSCME’s Homan put it, “There’s not one Republican in this state that could win an election under the rules they gave us. And we won 41 of 42 [units], because we went out and worked our tails off."

That such a large majority of employees voted to recertify is surely a heartening signal for public-sector union leaders as they prepare for impending Supreme Court decision on Janus v. AFSCME, which likely will allow members to drop out of their union without paying fees for collective-bargaining services.

Such Iowa public-sector unions as AFSCME had already been actively reaching out to members and non-members alike well before the recertification provision became law as they worked to shore up strength in the event that conservatives succeed in their legal campaign to allow contract beneficiaries to cease the payment of dues.

The overwhelming support for recertification may be an ominous sign for state Republicans heading into 2018. At least in Iowa, undermining labor law isn’t good politics. Democrats are expected to strongly call out Republicans for their anti-labor attacks as they try to reduce GOP majorities in the general assembly and win the governorship now that longtime Republican Governor Terry Branstad has taken a job in the Trump administration.

If Democrats are able to perform even half as well as unions did in the recertification elections, they’ll be sitting pretty. 

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