DES MOINES, Iowa—Last February, then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law one of the most draconian anti-
union measures in the country. It prohibited public-sector workers other than police and firefighters from bargaining over anything but base wages, and required their unions to seek recertification every time their contract expired—and they had to win a majority of all workers in the bargaining unit, not just the ones who actually voted.
This month, workers in 436 out of 468 public-sector bargaining units, from school-bus drivers in Sioux City to airport workers in Des Moines, voted to stay with their unions, according to results issued Oct. 25 by the state Public Employment Relations Board. The total vote was 28,448-624 out of 33,252 eligible voters.
The Iowa State Education Association won recertification in 216 out of 220 bargaining units covering almost 22,000 workers, and fell a total of 15 votes short in the four it lost, union President Tammy Wawro told LaborPress.
“We won all of them by popular vote,” she says. In the North Linn school district, a rural area north of Cedar Rapids, teachers voted 23-11 in favor of the union—but with 49 people eligible, it needed 25 votes to win.
The ISEA, which won 13 out of 13 recertification elections in September, realized it had to organize intensely after the law was enacted, Wawro adds. “We made sure every local president understood what would happen,” she says, so they could tell workers “how to vote, when to vote, and what was at stake.” She did a robocall to all 22,000 workers, and members in locals that weren’t coming up for recertification personally called members in the ones that were voting.
In Cedar Rapids, where the union had bargaining units in 30 school buildings, the total vote was 1,179-16 in favor of the union—and it has only about 900 members there, Wawro says.
“We needed nonmembers,” she explains. The union’s main message was that if it was not recertified, “you’re going to lose your ability to have a bargained contract.” The union would still exist, but it would not have the leverage of a contract or “have to go to bat” for nonmembers with grievances.
In a statement released after the results came in, she called the elections “just another obstacle the legislature placed in front of Iowa’s public-employee unions in an effort to weaken them” and the majority-of-all-employees rule an “unreasonable standard.”
If Gov. Branstad had been held to the same standard, he would not have won re-election in 2014. He won in a landslide, getting 59% of the votes cast. But his 666,000-vote total was less than one-third of the 2,142,000 voters registered then, according to figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.
Branstad resigned in May to become ambassador to China, and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Under the law, workers in the 32 units that did not recertify will not be allowed to form another union for two years. Eleven of those units were in Teamsters Local 238, which represents largely law-enforcement and road workers. It won recertification in 52 others.
AFSCME Council 61, which represents more than 40,000 public employees in Iowa, won recertification in 41 out of 42 units. “I am proud to share that 100% of AFSCME-covered employees voted to retain their union, but because of a rigged law and an alleged voided ballot, we lost one bargaining unit of four employees by a single vote,” Council 61 President Danny Homan said in a statement. “This sweeping victory confirms what we’ve known since the gutting of collective-bargaining rights in February: That unionized employees, both members and nonmembers, value their voice in the workplace and reject the actions of Kim Reynolds and legislative Republicans who turned their backs on working Iowans in February.”
Homan told the Des Moines Register that the union plans to appeal the one loss, in which the four-member unit at the Carroll County Conservation Board voted 2-1 for the union and one ballot was voided.
Council 61 filed a challenge to the law in state court in February, three days after Branstad signed it. It’s arguing that the law violates the state constitution’s equal-protection clause by “making it almost impossible for public employees to secure and maintain representation through an employee organization,” while arbitrarily granting other public workers privileges. The law exempts police and firefighters as “public safety employees” from the ban on bargaining over benefits, scheduling, overtime, staffing, safety, and working conditions, but that exemption doesn’t cover corrections officers or police in units where they’re less than 30% of the members.
“We are waiting for a ruling,” lawyer Danny Hedberg told LaborPress. Oral arguments were heard in September. A judge in Polk County dismissed a similar suit by the teachers’ union on Oct. 18.
Wawro says the recertification campaign made her weirdly optimistic, because it galvanized the teachers and paraprofessionals ISEA represents. “This has really organized our members and our nonmembers,” she says. “They were scared for two weeks.”
Overall turnout was 90%, and in 100 units, there were zero no votes.
“That sends a huge message,” she says.
Now, she hopes that the experience will encourage more nonmembers to join the union.