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DES MOINES — Iowa’s new collective bargaining law has a date this week with the Iowa Supreme Court.

The law has been on the books for nearly two years, and its impact is already being felt across the state.

Local government leaders and school administrators say the law has given them more flexibility to manage their budgets, while unions say it has not hurt their membership numbers, but has decimated workers’ ability to negotiate over most benefits and created unequal treatment of public workers.

The law was passed in February of 2017 by a Republican-led Iowa Legislature and signed into law by former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad. The law eliminated most elements for which most public workers could negotiate with the state through group union representation.

No longer can public employees collectively bargain over health insurance, vacation policy, workplace safety issues, and myriad other benefits and policies. Essentially, public employees now can collectively bargain only for base wages.

Supporters, mainly Republicans and conservative advocacy groups, said an update was needed for an old system — the previous collective bargaining law, also written and approved by Republicans, was passed in the 1970s — and government leaders and school administrators needed more flexibility to manage budgets.

Opponents, mainly Democrats and unions, said the dramatic changes were unnecessary and amounted to political payback against unions, who typically organize in support of Democratic candidates for public office.

Two Iowa unions, AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, immediately challenged the new law in court. On Wednesday, attorneys representing the unions and the state will argue the law before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The unions will argue the law is unconstitutional because it violates the Iowa Constitution’s equal protection clause by creating two classes of public employees. While the law stripped most collective bargaining rights for most public workers, it spared those changes for police officers and firefighters.

“It’s wrong. We are pitting groups of people against other groups of people. It is flat out wrong,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents roughly 40,000 public employees in Iowa.

THE IMPACT SO FAR

Local government leaders and school administrators say Iowa’s new collective bargaining law has accomplished one of its supporters’ stated goals: giving them the flexibility to manage their budgets while still retaining quality public workers.

Dr. Roark Horn, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said districts must be careful to balance their new authority with offering benefits packages that attract and retain teachers.

“If the intent was to provide more flexibility, then that has been the result in many cases. However, it plays out differently in each district,” Horn said in an email. “With continued difficulty in attracting and retaining educators, districts are going to need to be conscientious about how they approach their negotiations with staffs.”

Most school districts have not introduced significant changes to benefits that are no longer allowed to be collectively bargained, according to a survey of districts conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards. Only 8.4 percent of districts said they have made “substantive” changes to health insurance and firing procedures under the new law, according to the survey; even fewer said they made “substantive” changes to supplemental pay, evaluation or transfer policies.

More districts are entering multi-year contracts and are exploring alternative compensation in order to address flat salaries, according to the association’s report on the survey. The report also said while most districts did not make significant changes to health insurance policies, districts may look for “creative ways” to help address insurance costs as they continue to rise.

“School boards received significantly greater management authority under (the new law),” Lisa Bartusek, executive director of the state school boards association, said in an email. “The general feeling has been that with greater authority, their responsibility or objective must remain the same: that is, to ensure their districts are able to attract and retain great educators and staff to serve students.”

County government leaders have not said if the new law is greatly impacting them either way, said Bill Peterson, executive director of the Iowa State Association of Counties.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily hearing from our membership anything either positively or negatively about the law,” Peterson said.

From the union perspective, contract negotiations under the new law have been a mixed bag, union leaders said.

“In many places there has been a recognition by school boards or community college boards or (Area Education Associations) or whoever we represent that they’re going to continue to engage their employee organizations in bargaining and give them a voice because they understand the importance of workers having a voice in regards to working conditions,” said Coy Marquardt, associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.

But, Marquardt said, some districts have largely cut educators out of the bargaining process.

“That’s unfortunate. That does not create an environment that’s conducive to positive working conditions,” he said.

Even though the vast majority of workers voted to retain union representation under the law’s more stringent recertification process, the new rules were unnecessarily burdensome and wasteful, union leaders said.

The law required union groups to hold the recertification elections more regularly, and required the groups achieve a majority of yes votes from all members in a group, not just a majority of those who vote.

In other words, if a group of 50 members gets 20 yes votes and 5 no votes, that group is disbanded because it failed to get the 26-vote majority of all members required to recertify.

Homan called the recertification process “an astronomical undertaking” that cost the union nearly $20,000.

“All in all, over the last two years I think it has proven to be a huge waste of resources and time, not only for public employees and for their unions, but also for employers and (the state board that oversees public employee relations) as well,” Marquardt said. “We certainly think the recertification was a waste of time, and we think the numbers bore that out.”

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the lawsuit challenging the new law at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the court’s chambers in Des Moines. The court typically takes months after oral arguments to deliver a verdict.

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