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Changing the Rules: John Gilliland & Ken Sagar

posted on March 6, 2009

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Borg: Changing the rules. Labor union issues confront Iowa's General Assembly. We'll discuss them with Iowa Business and Industry's John Gilliland and with the Iowa AFL-CIO's Ken Sagar 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. And by The Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

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

Borg: The identifiers are fairly benign. Perhaps you've heard the terms ... prevailing wage, fair share, scope of bargaining and choice of doctor. Those seemingly non-controversial terms are generating a lot of heat in Iowa's General Assembly and in work environments. In fact, those terms are virtual tip of the iceberg, masking a struggle between labor union interests and those trying to preserve Iowa's open-shop work environments. The struggle is going on now in Iowa's General Assembly and we're getting employer's perspective today from the Iowa Business and Industry Association Vice President John Gilliland and labor insight from Iowa AFL-CIO President Ken Sagar. Welcome to Iowa Press, gentlemen.

Borg: And across the table a gentleman you know, Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, I'd like to start with you. We're having a debate about working conditions and so forth in Iowa's labor force but we're having that debate against the backdrop of an economy that seems to be troubled. Give us your take on where this economy is, how we got there and what the problem is.

Sagar: We've got a tough economy, there's no doubt about that. I think if you look back historically back into the 80s we went into a supply side economic model and that hasn't worked particularly well for us. If you go back into the 30s what we had was a very difficult time, hopefully we don't get to that point now, but many decisions were made with regard to implementing rules to help workers improve the economy. We've got 60% of our economy plus is consumer driven. What better way to help our economy than to do things that will help rebuild the middle class, put money in the pockets of working people?

Glover: Mr. Gilliland, the same question to you. Give us your take on where the economy is because this labor management fight that we're having up at the statehouse is being waged against a backdrop of an economy that is pretty troubled.

Gilliland: It is tough out there and there's no doubt about it that this is the time that we need to be aggressive and invest in training our workforce so that we can continue to attract and grow better jobs in Iowa so that we can pull out of this.

Glover: So, how bad is the economy? How did we get here?

Gilliland: Well, it is tough but fortunately the ag sectors, the manufacturing sectors in Iowa are performing and have performed stronger than some of the other sectors so I think that is a good backdrop for us and we haven't seen the vast layoffs that we've seen in some of the other states.

Glover: How did we get here?

Gilliland: Well, a combination of factors. Obviously extension of too much credit is part of the problem. Fortunately Iowa businesses that I represent, many of them, have done a really good job of balancing that and are not overextended and so they're not going to have the difficulties that some employers are.

Yepsen: Let's stick with the economy for a minute before we turn to the specific labor issues at hand. Mr. Sagar, how do we get out of this? You watch the Iowa economy, write some prescriptions for the legislature and the governor and the business community. What should we be doing differently in Iowa to get our economy going?

Sagar: Well, I think one of the things we've got to think about is what we've done in the past. We've operated under a model for a number of years in this state that says we want to have a low wage state and we've accomplished that. We're 41st in the nation in wages. If you look at wages in perspective of how does that apply to our standard of living because we always hear Iowa, it's a low wage state, but the cost of living is low. If you take our nine state area we're 7th in wages and we're 8th if you compare that to a standard of living. What we need to do is develop policies that generate higher wage jobs, no more low wage economic development stuff, we need to do things that will help strengthen the middle class and frankly there's no better way to do that than to give unions a voice in the workplace and make that a process by which we can help generate more good jobs.

Yepsen: Mr. Gilliland, same question to you. Write some prescriptions of how we can get Iowa's economy cooking again.

Gilliland: Well, we need to be aggressive. It's not a time to be timid. You see states around the country they're having the same debate and so now is the time that we continue to invest in our workforce training, we look at the types of incentives that we can do to attract business, grow business, high-tech jobs. I think we all agree that we want higher paying jobs here, higher wage jobs so we do that by attracting those type of employers to Iowa.

Borg: Mr. Gilliland, do you agree with what Ken Sagar just said about Iowa being a low wage state? And if you do, does that make Iowa any different in the way that we compare now with the other states in the union as far as in this down economy?

Gilliland: I think we have a situation, like I mentioned earlier, where we're not seeing the vast layoffs in Iowa that you're seeing in some of the other states. So, our state is in a better position to come out of this than some of the other states. You look at states like Michigan, for example.

Borg: Is that because it's a low wage state?

Gilliland: Well, it's a balance. The cost of living is a factor. The overextension of credit is a factor. But I think we're in a better position than most of our neighbors and part of that is because of just the way our economy is based.

Borg: Mr. Sagar, does that mean that because we are a low wage state, you were saying it in a derogatory, negative aspect, but does that mean that more people are staying employed in Iowa than is the case in other states?

Sagar: I don't think I see that. One of the things, if you look at it, we're going to be short workers in the not-too-distant future. Governor Vilsack went through that process in about 2000, put a program together and analyzed where we were going to go in 2010 and we're supposed to be short 150,000 workers. Iowa is an aging state, Iowa is a low wage state, we give our kids a world class education and then we cry when they leave to go some place else to pay off their student loans. We've got to change our policies and practices.

Yepsen: Real quickly, Mr. Sagar, do you still think that's going to be true in light of what's happening to the economy. We're laying people off and unemployment is going up. How can you say we're going to be short workers?

Sagar: That is the standard that was set in 2000 when we talked about how many people we were going to be short. If you look at the demographics in this state, across the nation, the baby boom is going to go out the door in the not-too-distant future. What will we do with people who don't have the skill sets, what employers need.

Yepsen: A lot of people are going to be staying in the workforce longer now. Our 401Ks are not worth so much. Aren't we all going to have to stay working longer?

Sagar: Well, it may be one thing to stay in the workforce if you're sitting behind a computer screen, it's another thing if you're building tires.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, let's take a look at some of these issues that are being played out as we talk at the legislature. The first that came up was the prevailing wage, a bill that would require on public projects contractors to pay the prevailing wage to workers, basically union wage.

Sagar: That's not true actually.

Glover: That fell a single vote short in the house. What is the future of it? What can you do? And what does it say that you didn't pass it?

Sagar: Basically the issue is still alive right now. There has been a motion to reconsider. We're concerned that in a down economy with the stimulus package coming and the opportunity for many millions of dollars to come into the state we do not want to see -- as Iowa workers we're also Iowa taxpayers, we're investors if you will in the infrastructure of the state -- we want to see jobs created that give a level playing field to Iowa contractors and Iowa workers. Last year I believe we spent something like $115 million to out-of-state contractors. If we're getting the stimulus money to come into Iowa from the federal government why don't we want to make sure that our contractors, our employees in this state have an opportunity to get that money and roll it through the economy. Depending on which economic model you want to look at it goes through the economy four to seven times.

Glover: Is the issue dead?

Sagar: I don't think so.

Glover: Mr. Gilliland, same question to you. The prevailing wage came up and you were opposed to it. Is it dead?

Gilliland: We hope so. This bill is nothing more than an attempt by 10% of Iowans who belong to a union to force their agenda on the other 90% of us to subsidize the wages of union workers, wanting to force out non-union workers on these public construction projects and raise taxes on the rest of us.

Glover: I wouldn't suggest that Mr. Sagar would say this but I think what you're saying is you want 10% of Iowans to suggest that the other 90% ought to get paid better. What's wrong with that?

Gilliland: Well, again, we all agree that we all would like to get paid better and I don't begrudge anybody wanting that. But, again, the taxpayers are funding this agenda, that's where we come in and try to stand up for the other 90% of Iowans.

Yepsen: How do you respond to that, Mr. Sagar?

Sagar: I can't understand why we wouldn't want to have higher wages in this state. If in fact our economy is driven by consumers we need to make sure consumers have money in their pocket. There's no better way to do that than to make sure that every Iowan merit shops, union shops, whoever, has an opportunity to take the issue of wages, the issue of benefits off the table and have contractors compete on their ability to have a safe workforce, to make sure they have a safe workplace, to make sure they have appropriate training, to make sure they have good management practices. Let's not give our taxpayer money to the lowest bidder because what happens is those employers who are most willing to abuse the workforce and take advantage of the system are the ones we're giving our money to. We're saying, go build a dormitory so that my kids get to sleep there when they go to college to the lowest bidder? I'm not sure that's the appropriate way to go.

Yepsen: How do you respond?

Gilliland: It's the lowest qualified bid and certainly all of those safety concerns go into bidding but this is an attempt to drive out competitive bidding quite simply.

Yepsen: We have a lot of issues here to get through so I want to move on. We've discussed prevailing wage. Another issue, Mr. Sagar, that the labor movement is concerned about is something called open scope which the things that can be bargained at the bargaining table, the list in the law for public employee unions would be opened up, it would increase the number of things. Where does that issue stand?

Sagar: We're still talking about that issue. Frankly we think it's only fair to allow public sector employees to have the opportunity to bargain on a broader scope of issues. Why isn't it okay for police officers to bargain over whether or not they can get bullet proof vests? Why isn't it appropriate for firefighters to say that they need to have appropriate equipment?

Yepsen: Mr. Gilliland, what's wrong with that?

Gilliland: I agree. I think if that was how limited this bill was I would encourage support for it and help get it passed if we were talking about bullet proof vests for our fire and safety people. The problem is that the bill that was drafted last year was far greater than that and would cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, let's go to another issue that's being debated. It's something that is referred to around the statehouse as fair share. What it means is if there is a bargaining unit and if a union represents a bargaining unit non-members of that bargaining unit pay a fee to the union for negotiating on their behalf. Is that something that's going to happen this year? Why should it?

Sagar: We believe it should happen. In fact, we're looking at a bill that was introduced recently -- fair share is simply a fairness issue. What we are asking for is the opportunity to bargain, that's all we want. If an employer in the bargaining unit agreed on something that they wanted to do within the confines of their bargaining unit then so be it. I don't understand why business isn't interested in taking regulations off of their constituency groups. One of the things that we see is the Cattlemen's Association, for example, you don't have to be a member of the Cattlemen's Association but if you sell a cow in Iowa you're required to pay a dollar. Got beef? What's for dinner? Everybody has heard those kind of things before. Everybody who raises cattle benefits from the work that is done. We're saying within labor that we believe it's appropriate that people who benefit from collective bargaining agreements have an opportunity to negotiate a cause that says you have to pay for what you get here in terms of benefits. If you have enforcement issues, administration issues or negotiation issues that those individuals who benefit should pay a fee for that.

Glover: Someone benefits by the union representing them, if that union gets them better benefits why shouldn't they pay for it?

Gilliland: Again, this is about the people and taking money out of people's pockets involuntarily.

Glover: This is about getting money into people's pockets.

Gilliland: Well, into the union's pocket, that's how this legislation works. If you don't want to join a union you shouldn't be forced to pay dues to a union.

Glover: Then should you turn down the benefits that union bargains?

Gilliland: We could debate the mechanics of how that could work but, in fact, we suggested an amendment to do just that.

Yepsen: What would be wrong with having to do something maybe more prospectively on some of these -- for new hires, people who start working for a company to say prospectively looking ahead that you would have to pay a fee to the union? What would be wrong with something like that so that when a worker went to work that he understood that if it's a union job and I don't want to join the union I'm going to pay a little something to be represented here?

Gilliland: Quite simply you're forcing somebody to pay dues to a union and they don't want to join. If the union is not offering a service that makes it valuable enough for them to join the union then why should we force them to pay?

Borg: Mr. Sagar, isn't this a violation though of the original compromise, the legislation way back in the early 70s that gave public employees collective bargaining rights in Iowa? It was then said that we'll set up these collective bargaining units and people in there can join the union if they want to but you have to also provide the benefits to the other people who don't want to. Isn't that a violation of that original compromise that gave public employees the right to bargain?

Sagar: I think we're confusing a couple of issues -- one, the public sector bargaining rules and two, the fair share thing. Fair share would apply in the private and the public sector both. Those individuals who decide to go to work some place, typically people make those decisions on where can I make the most money, who has the best benefits and frankly they look specifically at places where unions have gone in and done this. They have a choice. They don't have to go to work at that union shop. They have a choice if they don’t' have a union and people decide whether or not they want to have one, everybody has a vote, it's a democratic process. If they have a union in the workplace and they don't want it they have a choice, they can decertify the union, the options are there.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, we're running out of time and we have too many questions. There's one last issue on the plate up there called choice of doctor involving workers compensation. A brief explanation of what that is and why you think the legislature should pass it.

Sagar: Basically it's a fundamental difference that we believe that individuals should have the right to choose their own doctor. We're not asking to do the doctor shopping thing like many employers do now. What we're saying is it's not about a company's bottom line, it's about an individual's health. I've got 168 in a week, I work for you for 40 hours a week, if I get injured I take that injury home with me, it affects my family life, it affects what I do in church or volunteer for the community.

Yepsen: Mr. Gilliland, what's wrong with that?

Gilliland: Well, I think we all agree that if someone is hurt that it's in everybody's best interest to get them the best possible care available. The way our system works the employee is the employer's most valuable asset. So, getting that person the best possible care is the best for everyone. But if this legislation passes we're going to deny those people access to that best possible care, we're going to deny them immediate referrals to specialists, we're going to delay their benefits and we're going to delay them returning to work. That's not in everyone's best interest.

Glover: Mr. Sagar, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't spend a little time talking about politics. Your labor organization and other unions have put a lot of time, effort and money electing democrats to the legislature. The democrats in that legislation rejected the first major piece of labor legislation that came up this year. Are there going to be some primaries next year?

Sagar: I think we're clearly going to look closely at those people who have supported us and we'll look closely at some of the others. We're trying to do an analysis to see where we have possibilities to do some positive things in terms of electing people who are going to support working family's issues. We are going to start putting together some committees in some districts and I'm sure that as time goes by we'll have a longer list.

Glover: So, your message to people in the legislature is if you don't support us, watch out?

Sagar: That's always been labor's message. The business community does the same thing. If you don't support ABI's proposals they'll find somebody to run against you. There shouldn't be any surprise that the labor movement has the same philosophy with regard to our agenda.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, don't you run the risk of weakening some of these democratic incumbents? They're called the six-pack, there's six democrats in the Iowa House of Representatives that have not gone along with you on prevailing wage and we're talking about those legislators. If you primary them aren't you going to weaken them enabling the republicans to win in November?

Sagar: It's entirely possible.

Yepsen: And that doesn't bother you?

Sagar: No.

Yepsen: Why don’t' you try the other tactic of defeating some republicans? You've got some seats out there that democrats narrowly lost last time. Why don't you go add to the democratic majority rather than try to knock some off?

Sagar: We'll probably do both.

Glover: Mr. Gilliland, the same question to you. Tell me about the political fallout from this standpoint at the statehouse. Democrats won the last election, in fact they won the last two elections. Isn't there a message there?

Gilliland: Well, we will continue to support those who support the other 90% of us who don't belong to labor unions and so regardless of party we'll continue to support those candidates for the legislature and if they've got the courage to stand up to this kind of pressure we'll certainly be with them in November.

Glover: But is this message that you're sending of let's go back to the right-to-work law, is that getting a little tired?

Gilliland: Well, as long as the threat is there Iowans have responded and have responded very loudly and rejected this idea.

Glover: What do you say to the message from the last couple of elections?

Gilliland: Well, there's a lot of other factors in play here as you well know and what was going on in the federal level I think had more to do with anything when you look at some of these state races.

Yepsen: Mr. Sagar, right-to-work has come up here. Iowa has a long tradition of being a right-to-work state. Why don't you try to change that law?

Sagar: I think effectively that's what we're trying to do by amending the right-to-work law statute to say we will allow employers on one hand and unions on the other who mutually agree to put a clause in their contract.

Yepsen: And why do you think that will work now when it hasn't worked in Iowa politics for the last 60 years?

Sagar: Times have changed. I think that people frankly are tired, unions may have 10% of the workforce but I think many of the things that we do cover many workers. We try to improve safety rules, that affects everybody that works. We work on minimum wage, that doesn't affect our members but it's the right thing to do to make sure that people have money to pay for their families, to be a contributing part of our society rather than a drain.

Yepsen: If unions are so great why is your membership going down?

Sagar: Actually it went up, two years in a row it's gone up. One of the things that we see is an overwhelming desire to oppose unionization in the business community. That's where we're talking about employer free choice act on a national level. Data shows right now that 53% of Americans would join unions if they weren't afraid that they would lose their job. Frankly that translates to 60 some million people. It would be a different country if that many people were involved in the labor movement.

Borg: I'm sorry but we're out of time. We could continue the conversation but thank you very much, Mr. Gilliland and Mr. Sagar, for being our guests today. Now, if you've been watching Iowa Public Television during the past week you know that we're providing some very special, in fact outstanding, programming for our annual Festival. And Festival means celebration and that's what it is, time of celebrating all that is good about this network throughout the entire year. And it's an opportunity for you to perpetuate the excellence with your continued financial support. We depend on your generosity and when I say we I mean this program, Iowa Press. We're now in our 38th season and we owe our longevity to friends like you and your consistent financial support. All of us here at statewide Iowa Public Television and your fellow Iowans say thank you. Festival continues through next week so we'll be back at the same early time, 6:30 next week, 6:30 Friday night. I'm Dean Borg, thanks for joining us today.

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. And by The Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's Private Colleges and Universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

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