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There was big news this month out of Wisconsin and California about the status of public sector unions — and the outcomes should prompt Iowans to take a look at the situation in our own state and local governments.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker handily won a recall election initiated by public sector unions who were outraged over his leadership in curbing their powers.  Perhaps even more eye-popping were the two California cities, San Diego and San Jose, where citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of scaling back police and fire pension benefits that were prompting unacceptable cuts in services in those communities.  Police and fire had hitherto been exempt from reforms, even from Walker’s actions in Wisconsin.

These outcomes were more than surprising — they represent seismic change in the public sector landscape.

Usually unions carry the advantage in any election because they are already organized, and it is easy to extend that organization to the ballot box.  With so few people voting in most state and local elections, it has been easy for the labor organizations to dominate.  Elected officials from both parties know they put their future at risk in doing anything that stirs up the unions, and they rarely do.  So what happened?

Citizens may be starting to recognize the paradox of public sector unionization, where unions often elect or control the people who determine the rules of the game (state laws), and with whom they negotiate for pay, benefits and work rules.  Inevitably, given such an inherent conflict of interest, the pendulum will swing too far and when that happens, citizens will react, as they have in Wisconsin and California.  When salary, health insurance and pension increases necessitate cuts in parks, libraries, social services, classroom teachers and even police and fire staffing, people start wondering what’s wrong with the system.

Where is the pendulum in Iowa?  How much power do our laws and rules give to public sector unions?  Are they starting to impact other public services on which we rely?

Iowa’s collective bargaining law was enacted during the 1970’s when government officials were worried about public sector strikes.  The right of public sector unions to bargain collectively for wages, benefits and work rules was given in exchange for giving up the right to strike.  In Iowa, contracts negotiated by unions cover all public employees who are not supervisory, managerial or confidential, whether or not a given individual is a member of a union.

An important feature of the process is that once a language provision is in place in a contract, it will stay there until it is negotiated (“bought”) back out, if ever.  For example, Iowa’s AFSCME contract contains language requiring the retention (without loss of pay) of any employee affected by an outsourcing project, in effect prohibiting the State from privatizing any of its services.  This language was added during a past administration, and will probably never come out through the bargaining process because in any given year the employer is already challenged just to cover basic pay and benefit provisions.

A contract is really a compilation of such provisions that have been added over the years.  The cumulative effect has been to tie the hands of public sector managers in many significant ways, particularly in favoring seniority over performance in practically every significant workplace decision.

Nor do Iowa’s bargaining rules any longer provide a level playing field with respect to economics.  Public employers routinely settle for more than they can cover through existing revenue because they know that arbitrators have and will point to their capacity to raise taxes.  Our communities are cutting current services to pay for contract settlements and pension increases, and the squeeze is being felt.  For example, the City of Des Moines is closing all of its libraries one day per week, and this year it even reduced a fire/emergency unit.  It also raised taxes.

People always seem surprised to learn about the pervasiveness of public sector unions in Iowa.  The City of Des Moines has eight different unions.  West Des Moines has six.  Even library employees are unionized.

Unions are a fact of life in every school district and in any community above a certain size.  Members and retired members are starting to show up on city councils and Boards of Education to watch out for their interests.   The concern of course is when such members place employee interests above the broad public interest – as has happened in places like Detroit and Boston where tax increases and service cuts ultimately spiraled out of control.

Lest there be any doubt about the influence of labor unions in Iowa, consider that union dues are given preferential treatment in the state’s child support guidelines. The guidelines note the needs of children must have a higher priority than charitable deductions, loan repayments or savings; therefore these deductions are not allowed in the determination of net income.  Nevertheless the State does allow the deduction of union dues from income in calculating child support obligations.  Does this mean that in Iowa, unions have a higher priority than the needs of children?

A process that was originally created to compensate public employees for giving up their right to strike has morphed into something that sometimes places public employees above the interests of the citizens they serve, even here in Iowa.  Iowans should decide if this is what we really want.

Where is the Public Sector Union Pendulum in Iowa? June 21, 2012

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