BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
DONNELLSON – About 100 people assembled into the Central Lee High School cafeteria on Saturday afternoon to hear local legislators address a bill on proposed changes to Chapter 20 of the Iowa code addressing current state public employees’ collective bargaining laws.
State Reps. Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk) and Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) and State Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) met with teachers, residents, and supporters of local correctional officers to question the merits of the pending bills House Bill 84 and Senate File 213 which has far-reaching implications for state employees.
Critics of the bill are comparing it to the 2011 move in Wisconsin which resulted in the abolition of public employee collective bargaining.
The bill impacts negotiating by only allowing contract negotiations on wages and not benefits. The proposed bills would require union re-certification every two to three years and require a majority of union members to ratify, not just a majority of union members voting. Union dues and political contributions would no longer be allowed to be taken as a payroll deduction.
The proposal also limits arbitration to an independent arbitrator who can come in to help solve negotiation issues, but only to the lesser of either a 3% wage increase or a cost of living increase linked to the most recent Consumer Price Index. Currently the arbitrator picks which side’s offer is the most reasonable and equitable to both parties.
Public safety workers including state troopers, police officers, firefighters and park rangers — are exempted from the bill’s furthest-reaching changes.
“Both sides of this issue have tried to make changes and throw the balance on one side or another,” said Heaton, who told the crowd he still hasn’t decided how he will vote on the bill when it comes in front of the state House. “I can remember when Democrats had control of the houses and governorship and tried to make some sweeping changes to arbitration and the governor vetoed it.”
“There’s been some push and pull. I didn’t hear anything during the election or conversation at all about a proposal in the mail. However, I think there’s been some people working under the radar for a while. I don’t think you just pop up a bill like this, so I can’t say this is like a bolt of lightning. But I didn’t see it coming two weeks ago.
Taylor was a bit more matter-of-fact in his approach to the forum.
“The governor, in my opinion, hates everyone of you in this room,” Taylor said to applause from the crowd.
“In all my years working as state employee, for 12 years I felt somewhat valued. But every year Branstad has been in there I felt I was a liability to the state and not an asset. It’s a money-saving deal, it’s union busting and anyone who thinks otherwise has their head…well somewhere a little smelly.”
Rachella Dravis, a teacher in the Fort Madison School system said she has physically put herself in harm’s way for her students and she’s worried about the future of the students if this bill becomes a law.
“I would have been out if this had been in place 10 years ago because I was one of the strongest advocates in the schools. When I get fired for being the strong advocate, there’s no way (other teachers) are going to stand up for me because they would fear retaliation. This is where we’re headed and if you don’t see it just look to Wisconsin,” Dravis said.
“Our poor kids, I’m not saying I’m like a policeman or firefighter running to the danger. But I was in the danger. You probably remember the attack on the bus driver in Fort Madison…I was in there over the bus driver. They are laying on this man..they are punching him, I’m not saying I’m on the level of the policeman or firefighter, but I got between that. They assaulted others who came to help, they assaulted me and all I was trying to do was protect those little kids in front who were seeing all this.
“We have come so far in our education system. We have come so far, why would you consider gutting it? Our education system, we have always been proud of it. Iowa Strong and we are going to start failing. If Chapter 20 gets gutted I’m not going to be able to go out and do what I do.”
Several other teacher and parents in the room echoed the sentiment even saying some were considering other employment options and one parent said her student was reevaluating plans to become a teacher.
“This is extremely sweeping legislation,” said Chuck Betts, a former Keokuk teacher. “Why, at this time, does it feel like this is going to pass so quickly. Does it have anything to do with current activity at the federal level?”
“It has more to do with what’s going on at the state level,” Kearns said. “We have a Republican majority in both houses and a Republican governor. When we first passed Chapter 20 40 years ago (Branstad) voted against it back then. He wanted to see some amendments to it. Well this does more than amends it. A lot more.”
Jacqueline Lumsden, approached Heaton about his vote to cut funding to the Department of Corrections, the deappropriation bill which has already been signed Governor Terry Branstad, and cautioned him about the move. Lumsden said her family was victimized by domestic violence.
Heaton said the bill in front of them has nothing to do with what happened to DOC staff cuts.
“When we sat down to find out where we we’re going to find $114 million, the DOC took some cuts. The governor wanted us to cut it by $15 million so we did the best we could and those cuts ended up at $5.5 million.”
Heaton said he contacted people within the department who said the nine employees laid off in Mount Pleasant were probationary employees who hadn’t worked for the state for more than six months.
“There’s nothing I can do about that. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. I verified that with a counselor at the ISP yesterday and they said, ‘Dave, that’s the rules and that’s the way it goes’. I don’t know to do about it.”
“The reason we needed that $114 million was not because we overspent, it’s because revenues didn’t come in as projected, Taylor said. “Instead of going into our rainy day funds, which we have well over $700 million in those funds, instead of using that money to buy us a little time, we could have said let’s see now, do these companies need $52.6 million in research and another $6 million for supplemental research whatever the hell that is.”
Several other correctional officers spoke at the meeting and indicated that they are afraid for their safety and are beginning to question their own loyalty to the state.
Brett Buttz, a member of the maintenance team at the Iowa State Penitentiary, said he doesn’t know if he wants to work for a state that devalues their employees.
“I’ve worked for the state for many, many years and this makes me question whether or not I want to continue to work for a state that treats its own employees this way,” Buttz said.