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Danny Homan (AFSCME) & Ken Sagar (IFL)

posted on July 3, 2008

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Borg: Muscle. On the job and at the polls Iowa labor unions are working to provide election victories for candidates favoring their legislative agendas. We're exploring those expectations with AFSCME's Danny Homan and Ken Sager of the Iowa Federation of Labor on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by 'Friends', the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Sunday, July 6th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The 2006 general election recorded big victories for Iowa Democrats. They are now controlling both the General Assembly and the Governor's Office. Organized labor a cornerstone of traditional Democratic election successes with significant campaign money, campaign workers and votes coming from public employee unions and organized labor in general. Union's campaign help and election successes translate into a labor friendly environment. But expectations are sometimes bigger than the final product. That's a way of saying that even with Democrats controlling state government, organized labor doesn't always get all it wants. We're exploring labor's expectations, past and future, with Danny Homan, the President of the Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. That's the largest union representing public employees in Iowa. And the newly installed President of the Iowa Federation of Labor, Ken Sager. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Homan: Thank you.

Sagar: Thank you.

Borg: And I think you know the two gentlemen across the table because you work with them quite often up at the legislature and other places. They are Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Homan, let's start with you. As Dean mentioned in his introduction labor helped a lot of Democrats get elected. Probably the hottest issue of this past legislative session was the legislature approved a significant expansion of collective bargaining rights vetoed by this Governor that you helped elect. What is your reaction?

Homan: Well, severe disappointment. We believe that there was nothing wrong with the bill. We believe that it was a good bill. And we still believe that today. We believe that what we were only asking for is a level playing field at the table. The current law, which has been in effect for many, many years and never been touched, basically has unions bargaining with one hand behind their back. We can not talk about certain subjects. The biggest and most significant is probably discipline and discharge. That's what they call a permissive subject of bargaining and the only way we can discuss that across the table with an employer is with the agreement of the employer. If they don't want to discuss about a basic right of any worker to be disciplined for fair and reasonable cause or just cause as we call it they don't have to talk to us about it or they can go into the contract where we had it and strip it if we end up going onto impass.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, the bill that he vetoed covered public sector employees but most of organized labor was in support of it. What is your reaction to his veto?

Sagar: Again, I'd have to echo Danny. We were very disappointed. Many of the folks in the legislature stood up and tried to help us get a bill that needed to be passed since 1974, that's a long time to go without updating a law, a lot of things have changed. The permissive issues of bargaining frankly are held hostage somewhat in this new process that we've seen happen in the public sector, it's been going on in the private sector for a number of years, but now we're seeing the use of consultants who come in and utilize every angle of the law to basically hold our bargainers at the table hostage in this process.

Glover: Mr. Homan, a why question to you. Your union, along with most of organized labor, poured a lot of money, a lot of foot soldiers into electing this Governor and he vetoed one of your top priorities. Why?

Homan: Mike, I can only tell you, I had one conversation with the Governor. I was on vacation fishing at Walleye Opener, Minnesota and I was out fishing. And the Governor called me five minutes before that press conference in which he was going to announce that he was going to veto the bill. So, the amount of conversation I had with this current Governor was fifteen minutes on that particular day because we talked for fifteen minutes. And what he told me was that he felt the bill was not written properly, that there were flaws in the bill. He could never cite any of those flaws to me, he could never tell me why he was vetoing it, that was the reason he gave me during that fifteen minute phone conversation. That is the only conversation I had with this Governor. I will say we met with Patty Judge and her team of people for 45 minutes to an hour prior to the legislature leaving. No one to this date has told me what their problem with that bill is.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, what is the compromise here? Politics is the art of compromise. What can you work out with the Governor so he'll sign a bill in the future?

Sagar: Well, in order to compromise we really have to have an understanding about what the issues are that caused him enough concern to veto the bill. Frankly there was a lot of discussion on our part to try to explain what our issues were. We did a legislative tour, we traveled around the state the November prior to the legislative session in order to explain our issues and why we need certain legislation to all the legislators, we met with the Governor and his staff and I think we clearly laid out the need for the bill. We have, like Danny said, not heard anything in terms of specifics about what his issues were that caused him to veto the bill.

Yepsen: Why didn't labor make this an issue in the election campaign? This just came out of the blue to a lot of people in Iowa including a lot of people in the business community. Why didn’t' you make this a focus of the debate, like the cigarette tax, that you wanted to rewrite collective bargaining laws for public employees?

Sagar: Frankly it was part of the discussion that we had internally within the ranks of labor with the people that we were trying to solicit support from. We go through a process that includes questionnaires trying to find out where these folks are on the issues, have a conversation with them. I guess we don't sit in an ivory tower, so to speak, and dream these things up. Our members actually bring these issues forward, they are discussed, and then we put them out for legislators and try to explain them so that they understand what the issues are.

Yepsen: Mr. Homan, most voters aren't members of labor unions, they would have no access to that conversation, the business community felt very surprised about that. Did you make a tactical blunder by not making this more of an issue in the 2006 legislative campaigns?

Homan: I believe it was an issue.

Yepsen: Well, I don't recall it being talked about very much.

Homan: I would only say this to you -- in the Governor's Condition of the State speech he specifically addressed the expansion of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees to include things, and I quote, it may not be verbatim, like discipline and discharge. We took the Governor's challenge. We did expand collective bargaining rights like issues like discipline and discharge. So, I believe it was talked about. Was it a front line issue? No. But why is giving someone the right to bargain, basic rights at the workplace -- health and safety, we can't bargain health and safety. Discipline and discharge, we can't bargain discipline and discharge. Why are giving those basic rights to people at the workplace an issue that we have to put on front and center? Those are human rights issues. I'm sorry, we shouldn't have to have that debate.

Borg: Mr. Homan, back in 1974 as has been cited, public employees were given the right to bargain collectively in what was then an historic compromise to even get that legislation passed. Part of the deal at that time was you can't strike and here is the limited number of issues that can be bargained. What has changed since that historic compromise? Why is this necessary now?

Homan: Well, I can tell you exactly what has changed, what Ken said earlier, employers -- I can go back to contracts that were bargained in 1976. They included health and safety language. The included discipline and discharge. They included a lot of the issues that we wanted to put on the table with this bill. The employers have now gone out and not all management representatives are of this class but they have gone out and hired people that say if you want discipline and discharge in your contract instead of the prevailing across the board increase of 3.5% you have to take 2.75% or instead of keeping your health insurance at the rate it is you have to agree to go to a higher deductible. If you don't do this, this item of discipline and discharge is permissive and we aren't going to let you take it to a neutral.

Yepsen: But isn't that collective bargaining? I mean, you give and take?

Homan: No, that's not collective bargaining. That's holding the unions hostage and tying our hand behind the back because that language was in there, David, and they're stripping it, they're stripping it because they want to either get at our wages or get at our health insurance.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, how about giving public employees the right to strike? Dean mentioned that. Let's just open this up just like unions in the private sector and that way if government doesn't do what you want to do let your people go out on strike.

Sagar: The 1974 law was basically a compromise that was put in place after a turbulent period of time in the 60s where we did see strikes in a lot of areas. Iowans are somewhat conservative, that's just a fact. As a compromise it was put in place to say that you can't strike, however, we're going to have binding arbitration. Regrettably instead of having full scope of bargaining what was put in place was a limited list that eliminates many of the things, and Danny has outlined a number of them, that typically people in the private sector have the right to bargain over.

Glover: Mr. Homan, let's go forward from here. We've chewed over what happened in the past legislative sessions and I sense a little bit of anger and upset with this current Governor on your part. Has this issue changed the relationship your union has with this Governor?

Homan: Mike, I really don't know how to answer that. We've not heard from this Governor and sat down at the table with him since the day he vetoed this bill. The last conversation I've had with this Governor was on the day that he vetoed this bill. One of the things he said to me was, well, we'll get together after I get back from China and sit down and discuss how we improve our relationship. I believe that offer has been largely ignored. I know he's going to say we've had floods, we've had tornadoes. Yeah, I've been out doing all that with my membership also. I don't know, Mike, we want to have a decent relationship with this Governor.

Yepsen: How much of this goes back to the fact your union backed Mike Blouin in the primary against him?

Homan: I don't know, you'd have to ask Mr. Culver.

Yepsen: And how much of it is just the fact he's now the CEO and you're the union? There should be some tension there, he's on the other side of the bargaining table now.

Homan: Why?

Yepsen: Well, he's the CEO, you're the union, there's a tension there.

Homan: Why? Why? I have good relationships. When I was a staffer up in northwest Iowa I had good relationships with probably 90% of the employers I dealt with. Okay, there was a small percentage of them that hired what I'm going to call the hired gun consultants that didn't want to get along, didn't want to get a deal, wanted to cut and those folks I didn't have a good relationship with. But if an employer rep meets me at the table I'm fair. Somebody told me something when I started this job 21 years ago -- management and labor live in the same house because our goal is to provide a service to those people that we serve. We sleep in separate bedrooms, we don't have to hate one another and we don't have to fight. We may disagree but that doesn't mean we have to walk around the world hating one another.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, let's take it to a larger question. Mr. Homan's union had a specific disagreement, you have had some disagreements with this Governor. What is the relationship between this Governor and organized labor right now?

Sagar: I think probably strained in a word. We're trying to reach out and see what we can do to have some kind of a relationship. Clearly many of us have a problem with some of the things that happened. We would like to see, as was mentioned earlier, some results from our efforts. I think according to you actually why is it that when ABI gets a Republican majority they get all their priorities passed in two months and yet labor has gone for two years and they haven't gotten a single one of their priorities. That is a good question and I don't have the answer.

Glover: But what else didn't you get other than this collective bargaining expansion?

Sagar: Well, we certainly didn't get prevailing wage which keeps wages in the community and makes sure that we have quality construction jobs. We certainly didn't get, as Harry and Louise from 1990 said, the right to choose our own healthcare as it relates to worker's comp injuries. We certainly didn't get an opportunity to sit down and bargain at the table the right to negotiate over people paying a fee for the services I receive or a fair share. There are a number of things that we would have liked to have seen, basic fairness issues addressed, and they weren't.

Yepsen: These issues, Mr. Sagar, are now going to be an issue in the fall campaign. The Republicans are going to make them an issue. What do you say to the average voter in Iowa who thinks that, particularly public employees, are paid too much?

Sagar: Well, I guess I have a problem with that concept. Iowa right now is like 41st in the nation depending on whose polling numbers you use in terms of wages. We sit back and declare the fact that all of our children after receiving a world class education go to Minnesota, go to Illinois, go to Missouri to get good paying jobs. I don't think Iowa has a problem with anybody making too much.

Yepsen: Public employees I'm talking about.

Sagar: I totally understand what you're talking about.

Yepsen: Mr. Homan, there's a study out that says the gap between what the average public employee makes in Iowa and what the average worker in Iowa makes is as wide as it is anywhere in the country. What do you say to a worker who doesn't get public employee benefits?

Homan: I would say take a look at who is counted in that average.

Yepsen: What about college professors, Mr. Homan?

Homan: How about all the other folks that run around and the management folks? I can tell you this, David, we can't hire enough psychologists and psychiatric folks to work in our mental health institutions because they can go across that river that we call the Mississippi and instantaneously make $50,000 to $60,000 more money than what they can make here in Iowa.

Yepsen: Should we give you the right to strike?

Homan: I don't know that we want the right to strike.

Yepsen: Well, maybe government wants the right to lock you out and say we're paying you too much.

Homan: I haven't heard that option, no. I believe the system that we have works fair. All we want is to be able to talk about all issues that are important to working people, not have a limited scope, talk about the issues, talk about discipline and discharge.

Borg: Taxpayers say it's going to cost us more and that's an argument against that.

Homan: That is a false argument that was presented by a particular group of individuals and the statistics and the facts don't prove that out. We have this right, full scope bargaining in Illinois, we have it in Michigan, we have it in Minnesota, we have it in Wisconsin and that argument doesn't wash, it does not wash. Bargaining is bargaining.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, you said the relationship between labor and this Governor is strained, your word. Is strained enough to get him a primary in two years?

Sagar: Boy, I tell you what, if your crystal ball works that far out I'd like to buy one myself. We're going to work on improving the relationship, we're going to work on trying to have some discussion about what's doable, we're going to continue to try to push our issues. My cohort in the Iowa Federation of Labor, Jan Laue, uses a quote in some of her speeches, if I'm a labor leader and a year has gone by something to the effect that 10,000 times labor has been knocked down but we keep coming back. And so these issues are not going to go away. We're going to continue to try to pursue what we believe is in the best interest of working people across this state.

Glover: And Mr. Homan, your union was directly affected by this. As Dave mentioned you didn't support this Governor when he ran in the Democratic primary a couple of years ago, will this get him a primary in two years?

Homan: Again, I want that same crystal ball because I'll use it for the Powerball numbers on Saturday and I'll be living in Leech Lake fishing for walleyes every day. No, we want the same thing Ken wants. You've interviewed me, you know what my quote is, I want to work with this Governor to find a way to resolve our issues, to sit down at the table and discuss where we go from here. That's what we want. He is the elected official in this state that I have to bargain a contract with and I would like to have a reasonable relationship with him. I can't tell you what's going to happen in two years. I can tell you that folks are upset.

Yepsen: Mr. Homan, what about this November? Forget two years from now. There are a lot of Republicans who say they can take control of the Iowa House back from the Democrats on the strength of these issues, that labor has pushed the Democratic majority into fooling around with all these things that weren't really part of the '06 campaign, tinkering with the Right to Work Law, Fair Share, all this and that voters are going to throw Democrats out because of these. What do you say to that?

Homan: Well, one, we never tinkered with the Right to Work Law and it's time people, no, no, never thought about it, never thought about it. We asked for people to pay a fee for services. Okay? We never tinkered with the Right to Work Law. People are listening to someone who is very prominent where I used to live, Mr. Rants, and he's been crying the doom of everything that had happened in the last two years.

Yepsen: So, you don't think this is going to hurt Democrats?

Homan: I think it's going to be an issue. We're just going to have to go out and convince folks that those are not issues that we're trying to get in to hurt them with, we raised minimum wage, we helped a heck of a lot of people in doing that. There has been -- Democrats have done a lot of good in the last two years, I think they need to focus on their record of good and let Christopher Rants focus on the doom and gloom and I believe people will look at what's been done good, not doom and gloom.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, let's take a larger look at the picture. The conventional wisdom of all the talking heads out there is that this is a Democratic year. There's an unpopular war in Iraq, an unpopular Republican president winding up his term in the White House, what is your take on what 2008 looks like?

Sagar: Looks like a lot of work to me. We've tried to run a political campaign that includes our membership on a number of different levels. One of the things that we're particularly good at, it is as labor intensive as all get out, but talking to our members on a member-to-member basis. Polling data shows us that while members aren't particularly interested in talking about politics they have an expectation that their unions are involved. And they expect us to give them the information on which they can base their decision in November. They don't like to be told what to do, maybe that explains why they're union members, but guess what, they expect us to provide the information so they can make an informed decision. We're going to try everything we can do to make that happen.

Glover: Mr. Homan, same question to you. Is this a Democratic year? Is the Democratic tide blowing?

Homan: Well, I believe there is. President Bush is extremely unpopular. I believe that people want to have some change. But I can say we have to go out and work for that and we're going to have to engage our membership in the election process and ask them to get involved and do what we do.

Yepsen: Mr. Homan, I want to ask you both this question. What does Barack Obama have to do to reach working people? One of the things that became apparent in the primary with Hillary Clinton was that Barack Obama has trouble with working class voters, working people, lower income people. So, if you're an advisor to Barack Obama, Mr. Homan, what do you tell him he's got to do to reach working people?

Homan: Wow. I don't know. I think he needs to go out and talk to people. I believe that it wasn't that he didn't reach working people, I believe Hillary Clinton reached them to a larger degree. I believe Senator Obama would make a great president if he's elected.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, same question to you.

Sagar: Interesting year, we had a lot of good candidates out there, all of them drawing from a cross section of the Democratic electorate. People kind of narrowed in on who they had as far as their own personal beliefs as a candidate. I think if I was offering advice to him, he's a very good communicator, I think he needs to get out and talk to people. I'm concerned about the swift voting, if you will, of Barack Obama. I think regrettably politics in this country has kind of devolved into who can sling the most mud. I think it's unfortunate and it's not good for democracy.

Glover: Let's get a little closer to home, the fight for control of the Iowa legislature. The Democrats hold the Senate 30-20, they hold the House 53-47. Is the Senate not in play and the battleground is the House in your view?

Sagar: Well, I think if you talked to Mike Gronstal he'd probably argue about the Senate not being in play. Clearly there's going to be some folks that, you know, with retirements and things where the possibility to pick up some seats there is real. In the House there's always more folks in play, you've got 100 people running and in the Senate you've only got 25. So, there's going to be more races there.

Glover: Mr. Homan, if the fight comes down to who controls the House, how do you go about keeping Democrats in control there? Is that the fight?

Homan: Well, we want to keep Democrats in control. What we want to do is keep people that will focus on labor issues in control. If that's a Democrat, fine. If that's a Republican I don't care. I want people sitting in that White House that are going to take a look at what working people need in this state.

Yepsen: Are there any Republicans that AFSCME has endorsed for the Iowa legislature?

Homan: We have always endorsed Republicans if they meet the goals. Not at this point in time but we're not done with our endorsement process. We did endorse a Republican in the primary.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, we've only got a couple of minutes left. The floods have just sort of taken over everything in Iowa. What has it done to Iowa workers? We've got some people worried about losing their jobs, other people were saying we're hiring people to do clean ups. What is your assessment of the affect of the floods on working people in Iowa?

Sagar: A terrible disaster. Typically a lot of the neighborhoods that are affected are lower income, working class neighborhoods, many times people who have less ability to withstand those kinds of natural disasters. We're concerned that hopefully FEMA and some of those other government agencies has learned some lessons since Katrina. We're concerned about workers being abused in the clean up process. I think there was an article in the Register this morning about that. We'd like to see to the extent possible that the folks get the help they need and in a timely fashion.

Yepsen: Is there a danger, Mr. Sagar, that Iowa is going to lose part of its workforce because of this, people just say to heck with it, I'm leaving Iowa, I'm moving some place else?

Sagar: I think we lose more workforce every year when our kids graduate from college and move off to get a better paying job in another state. We'll lose some, there may be some companies that don't reopen their doors. But I think Iowans are pretty resilient people. I think we're going to bounce back from this and I know Danny's union, the steel workers and a number of the others have stepped up to the place providing benefits for their members. We're trying to do what we can to make this terrible situation better.

Glover: Mr. Homan, we've got less than a minute to go. I'd like to step back and do our Labor Day question we like to call it on this show. The state of organized labor in this state and in this country, membership is in decline and yet at the same time there's a big fissure in organized labor. What is the condition of organized labor?

Homan: Here in Iowa? I think the position of organized labor in Iowa is improving, I think we're growing. Our union is one of them. We have organized two of the largest groups in the state of Iowa with the home care and child care providers. Currently what we're doing with the flood, we're reaching out to our members. I've just come off two weeks of flood relief and we're out trying to find every one of our members who has been impacted by this flood and provide them with whatever financial or emotional support we can. I think labor will grow in this state. But it's like anything else, it's not going to happen unless we go out and work for it and work at it and that's what we're doing.

Borg: Gentlemen, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being with us today. Well, that's it for this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I hope you'll plan to watch next weekend. We'll be back at the usual program times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by 'Friends', the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

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