Columnists address unions



Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into law a bill that would limit public-sector union negotiations to base wages only. This rewrites the previous bill that had been in place for more than 40 years. Previously, unions had negotiated benefits such as health care and working conditions.


Day: ‘No place’ for collective bargaining in public sector

Now that things have relatively calmed down after Governor Terry Branstad has signed into Iowa law the infamous collective bargaining reform bill, I’m more able to make a somewhat controversial argument.

The rhetoric from left-of-center Iowans at large has been rather dramatic, claiming the adjustments to Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code have “gutted” or “essentially neutered” the decades-old policy. I truly wish such language was warranted, as my preference would have been for something like a true repeal of Chapter 20 altogether.

You see, there is virtually no place for collective bargaining in the public sector. Even FDR and AFL-CIO president George Meany recognized that.

Here’s the pattern: government employees organize themselves as unions. The unions then become politically active, endorsing and campaigning for politicians friendly to them and their aims (as is their right, of course). After those politicians win their races, they pass laws requiring the automatic collection of compulsory union dues directly from the paychecks of public workers, money that the union would spend on further political activism for more politicians friendly to them (among other things, of course).

The politicians then appoint government supervisors and employers to directly negotiate with the union representatives. These government supervisors and employers, however, are conflicted in their interests, in that they are trying to negotiate on behalf of the taxpayers with the very political interests that helped get them into power in the first place.

Thus, you have the public employees (specifically their union leaders) effectively sitting on both sides of the negotiating table, bargaining with themselves over ever-increasing salaries, pensions and benefit packages at the expense of the taxpayers and of the competency and efficiency of the public services for which taxes are paid in the first place. This is why conservative columnist George Will once called public sector unions, “government organized as a special interest to lobby itself to expand itself.”

What I’ve outlined is not just the story of Wisconsin before 2011, or of New Jersey in 2017 (with their frightening pension crisis, the blame for which rests almost solely on the teachers unions there); it is the story of every government that has ever allowed their public employees to collectively bargain.

There were particularly nasty problems with public budgeting in Wisconsin before Act 10 was enacted, such as the requirement that school districts purchase insurance from union-affiliated insurers when they could have gotten the same insurance for cheaper on the open market. But the only real difference between Wisconsin before 2011 and Iowa in 2017 is that of extent, or of degree. Before Governor Branstad signed House File 291 into law, we as a state were on track to the horrors of pre-2011 Wisconsin.

Thus, this new policy change is as much a preventative measure as it is a corrective on current problems with Iowa public budgeting. No one claims that the situation here is anywhere near as bad as what Wisconsin had devolved to.

For example, as public union leaders here have been quick to point out, the funding of public union political activities was collected through other means, not the funds that were (or rather, used to be) automatically deducted from public employee payrolls.

That being said, the history of Wisconsin and New Jersey (among other states), however, tells us that we would be foolish to rely on the magnanimity of public sector unions. This is not because public sector unions are evil, or because public employees are bad people or anything so absurd, but only because public sector unions are a special interest just like any other. 

They are always and ever working on behalf of their members, not the taxpayers. In fact, I would not expect them to do anything less that that.

But working on behalf of a single interest group rarely, if ever, translates to working on behalf of all groups. Government must work, and work well, for everyone. There is no realistic way to keep public unions from sitting on both sides of the negotiating table (especially now, after Citizens United). 

Thus, the only alternative is to remove the table entirely. Let taxpayers decide how they want to spend their tax dollars, and not be effectively held for ransom by a select segment of their fellow citizens.

-Kyle Day

Cobb: Unions work for faculty at UNI

I have come to understand that the essence of capitalism is the reality of profit over employees. I mean, the tendency is so real that we’ve had to develop laws and contracts to protect workers from corporate exploitation — long hours, unsecured employment and dangerous work environments.

Collective bargaining has become a central tradition in ensuring safe and mutually beneficial workplace conditions in Iowa. According to the Des Moines Register, many of Iowa’s public employees have enjoyed the right to negotiate the terms of their employment for over four decades.

In the case of universities, collective bargaining basically ensures the right to a meeting between administrators and faculty to negotiate the terms of salaries, health benefits and other details, such as the number of courses faculty can expect to instruct per semester.

This dynamic is favored for increasing employee autonomy by allowing these individuals to be a part of the decision-making process that goes into determining what level of compensation appropriately fits the demands of their own work.

For decades, corporate loyalists across that nation have worked to enact policy that strips public employees of these protections. Iowa Republicans are no exception. These politicians fought to rescind Chapter 20 and saw some success two weeks ago, when they passed legislation to gut Iowans of their collective bargaining rights. This is bad for the future of UNI.

By supporting the elimination of collective bargaining rights, you send a very clear message to professors, administrators and students that are protected under Chapter 20. The message: you don’t care about the well-being of this institution or the mobility of its key players.

It wasn’t until recently I realized that several of the aspects I value most about my professors and this university are, at least in part, due to my professors’ ability to collectively bargain their pay, working conditions and benefits.

Not only did these protections serve to ensure that our professors are able to primarily devote themselves to quality instruction (as opposed to, say, research), they also ensure a more educated and mobile rural class of Iowans.

UNI is unique. Our campus is surrounded by rural towns and a significant portion of our student body comes from a disadvantaged rural background. Despite these academically undesirable factors, many departments on campus have successfully attracted nationally-recognized faculty and researchers that contribute to the rich educational value that is provided here. A major drawing factor for these professors — collective bargaining. The recent infringement could mean departmental vacancies.

UNI’s Faculty Senate clearly laid this out in their statement of support for Chapter 20.

“At UNI, United Faculty has been instrumental in maintaining a healthy relationship with the university administration and providing the working conditions that enable faculty to focus solely on the true mission of the university: enabling students to reach their full potential and succeed in the competitive world that awaits them after graduation,” their statement said.

It’s clear from this statement that the right to collectively bargain not only benefits faculty, but also administration and the students that pay to receive an education here. For several of these public industries, and UNI in particular, a major draw to pursuing a career here is this ability to influence benefits and have some control over what to expect from the position.

In other words, this is a major selling point to the university’s job candidates. Without these protections, it’s likely that some of the most prestigious researchers and educators would not be here.

Protecting public employees and their institutions has been an uphill battle. The future of UNI and the future education of rural Iowans were at stake when this bill was proposed. Now that it’s passed, the fight for public education continues, but the climb just got a lot steeper.

-Abbi Cobb