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Labor Issues in Iowa

posted on March 11, 2011

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The art of compromise.  It is the heart and soul of collective bargaining and the legislative process.  So, does compromise prevail when state employee collective bargaining hits the legislative process?  We're asking two state legislators involved in changing Iowa's bargaining laws regarding public employees.  Republican Representative Lance Horbach and Democratic Senator Bill Dotzler on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: An old political axiom says, elections have consequences. It's another way of saying, elections bring changes. And even proposing changes brings reaction and resistance. We saw it this past week at the Iowa Statehouse, hundreds expressing strong emotions during a public hearing on changing state employee's collective bargaining laws. Those proposals are getting special attention from our guests today. Tama republican Lance Horbach chairs the House Labor Committee and Waterloo democrat Bill Dotzler is a member of the counterpart committee in the Iowa Senate. Gentlemen, welcome to back to Iowa Press. You've been here before.

Dotzler: Thank you.

Horbach: Thank you.

Borg: And you know the two people across the table here because they are up at the Statehouse covering debate every day, the AP's Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson.

Glover: Representative Horbach, let's start with you, you've been a key player in this debate. The House republicans this week decided to cut off debate on this collective bargaining bill. Why is eliminating debate a good idea?

Horbach: Well, we were starting to hear the same topics over and over and over again. Just as Dean said, you know, elections have consequence. I think elections have new, provide new answers and we have been providing answers to these questions. We had a very open sub-committee process, very open with 51 amendments in committee and now on the floor over 100 amendments are being addressed and we started debate on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and at some point the leadership said, you know, we need to answer this and be able to move onto stuff so that is why I think that the motion to call it for a vote arrived on Friday.

Glover: Senator Dotzler, is it a good idea to limit debate on an issue as important as collective bargaining?

Dotzler: Well, I don't think so. When they first passed the bill on collective bargaining back in 1974 they debated it for twelve days straight. And so I think that democrats have a lot of concerns about the collective bargaining bill, our friends the republicans on the other side of the aisle talk about changes that need to be made that favor the employer's side. Workers think that there ought to be some changes made to the worker's side also and they deserve to be heard.

Glover: Representative Horbach, there is certain to be some political fallout from this bill. Have you aggravated that political fallout by moving to cut off debate?

Horbach: Well, the political fallout for the bill or the political fallout for ending debate?

Glover: Both.

Horbach: Well, for the bill there's fallout everywhere. If we don't do something the cost of government is just going to keep going to rise and rise and rise and so we needed to come up with an answer. This bill was an answer. This wasn't a bill seeking a political headline, it was a bill seeking a resolution. We made multiple changes to the bill and for the fallout for that, the fallout is the taxpayers are going to continue to fall out if we don’t provide an answer. It's contentious, I agree, but we're trying to find stability for both sides.

Glover: Senator Dotzler, has this whole effort energized your base?

Dotzler: I think it most certainly has. I think if you go back to prior to the elections a lot of our base listened to what republicans talked about, about creating jobs and so far this legislative session we haven't heard anything from them about it. We have dealt with social issues and they also, you know, I think put a bill up there that takes away rights from working men and women in the state. And they are very excited about it and they felt that they got kind of flimflammed in the fall.

Henderson: Representative Horbach, there have been some republicans who said to me privately they are puzzled by this decision of House republicans to spend this time on this issue when it's going nowhere in the Senate. Has this been a waste of time?

Horbach: Well, the people asked us multiple questions during the campaign process and one of the questions was, what are you going to do for controlling the cost of government? What are you going to do -- why can't we get a process where we can keep the best teacher or keep the best worker? And on and on and on -- this bill is actually answering those questions, we're having that discussion. You're saying the Senate won't take it up but the people asked us to have that discussion. We had the discussion, we provided the answers, we're providing our answers to the Senate, they can choose to enter into this conversation or they maybe have other issues that they would like to prioritize. Either way I think when we get to the end of the session and the negotiation process this is going to be a valid topic of negotiation.

Henderson: Well, gentlemen, maybe you could negotiate in front of the viewers here. Senator Dotzler, are there any components in this bill that democrats in the Senate would consider?

Dotzler: I think everybody here knows this and I think Representative Horbach knows this, that there is nothing in that bill that will even make it out of subcommittee in the Iowa Senate. And we think it is a real bait and switch, you know, it's kind of a carnie trick where you tell people something is happening over here and in reality it's in a different place. Our budget does not have a problem because of state workers and I think that is the message they want to make. And if you look at what the wages are for public workers versus public sector, or private sector workers and if you compare apples to apples, education to education Iowa workers are paid reasonable. In fact, the Governor is even making our case for us, he is out telling everybody that he had to give up a private sector job that paid twice what he is making as Governor.

Henderson: I think it was, what did he say, three times?

Dotzler: Three times, whatever.

Henderson: Representative Horbach, what about this argument that public sector workers in Iowa, when you compare education with private sector workers, they actually make less?

Horbach: Well, this provision is exactly what Senator Dotzler would want. The bill says both parties have the opportunity to provide to the arbitrator benchmarking from private sector. So, if he thinks it's just for the school boards to use but if we have teachers or state workers that say we're underpaid compared to the private sector it will work to their advantage. So, we did find one are that the Senate would accept.

Borg: Let me ask it this way, Representative Horbach, you said a moment ago, if we don't do something now the cost of government will continue to rise. I penciled it down as you said it. Is that solely the reason for tinkering now with Chapter 20, the public employee's collective bargaining laws? Or is it prudent to now change that because something overall in the economy and in society has changed since these were first enacted?

Horbach: I think it's both. What we're trying to do is we're trying to make a system -- by the way, we are not pointing at one side or the other, there's people on both sides of this argument, real people, many union, many private sector non-union, or taxpayers, but the process is the problem. There is a collective bargaining process that has allowed for us to escalate the cost of, for example, the big focus is in schools where they can actually negotiate for a school to be able to, or have to tax to pay for that contract. We have removed that in this bill. You can not negotiate, the arbitrator can not consider the fact that they have to raise a tax to meet that contract or they have to lay other people, it's called diminishing service. So, there are items that we're trying to fix the process. All the people are still playing the same roles in this process but we looked at the process and the process over the history of years has caused the price of government, or the cost, to rise.

Borg: So, what you have said there is the arbitrator in collective bargaining in with school boards and teachers, the arbitrator has the ability to say, yes, you can afford it because you can go to the taxpayers and raise taxes.

Horbach: Correct.

Borg: And you're going to take that provision out of ...

Horbach: And we did more than that. Currently in Iowa law they either take the school board offer here or the collective bargaining offer here, that's the only choice he has. Now we're saying, you can enter private sector benchmarking in on both sides. We also said to that arbitrator, if you find a mode in between there that is more reasonable than either being offered you can go to that position. That currently is not available to them under Iowa law.

Borg: Senator Dotzler, do you see ulterior motives here other than, he said, not only is it the cost rising ...

Dotzler: Oh absolutely. Well, first of all, if you look at collective bargaining and the basic premise that this is not working and that the labor unions have the advantage I'd like to submit that how did teachers successfully negotiate their wages down to 42nd in the nation if the teacher's unions had so much strength? It took intervention by the legislature in order to get them up to a point where we weren't losing quality educators across this state. So, I really think that it's more about dividing workers against workers in this state and a misdirection of trying to blame public employees for our budget problems when the economy was a primary factor.

Glover: Representative Horbach, I'd like to ask why go into collective bargaining and Chapter 20 now? I recall the worst recession since the Great Depression and the 1980s, nobody suggested dealing with collective bargaining at that point, that recession was far deeper than this one. Why now?

Horbach: Well, first of all, categorizing it as dealing with collective bargaining is very broad. I want to remind you there are sixteen topics that are debated or bargained. We're only dealing with one of them there and we're also looking at the process. I don't care if it wasn't the issue back then, it was and it just wasn't maybe realized or the question wasn't asked by the voters, it definitely was asked by the last election that we look at the cost of government and that is exactly what this bill does, it goes through every question, provides an answer. There were a lot more answers there than what the final bill had. We retracted many points out of this bill that we found were either not workable or we didn't have a proper solution.

Glover: Senator Dotzler, I saw you shaking your head there. Respond to that.

Dotzler: Well, I would because there's provision in there, the free agent provision, which says that any individual can opt to get out of the negotiating process so whatever the union decides on they don't have to agree with it and they can negotiate directly with their employer, the state. Well, what person would negotiate their wages down lower than what the bargaining unit negotiated? I mean, why have that provision? I'll tell you why, because if you drop out of the union they can say, well, guess what, you don't have to pay for your healthcare, we're going to give you a little bit of added benefit here for not being a part of that labor union and because of that they will help drive people out of the organization and help break up the strength of working people who want to join together and bargain collectively.

Glover: So, you think that is an assault on the ability of ...

Dotzler: I think it is most likely assault, there's also another provision in that bill, the layoff provision that gets rid of seniority so the teacher's pet can keep their job but somebody who might disagree with the teacher can go away. And that is, you know, we had that before labor unions. Where I used to work before they had a labor union there employees had to give hams to their employers in order to butter them up to keep their job.

Borg: But the argument in education is that this is a way also that seniority won't keep older teachers just simply by seniority on the job if they are not effective teachers.

Dotzler: Well, we have processes within the structure to make sure that teachers get the skills they need and they can get reviewed. And so I think there's always cases, you can always point to one excellent teacher that had little seniority that got laid off and you can also point to tenured educators that might not have the skill sets. But for the most part Iowa teachers are some of the best in the nation, they deserve what they are receiving in benefits and wages.

Henderson: Representative Horbach, a few years ago democrats in the legislature passed a bill that actually expanded the scope of topics which could be bargained for in contract talks and Governor Chet Culver vetoed it. At the time, republicans said hey, this labor law is a delicate balance, it has struck a balance, let's not tinker with it. Now I hear Senator Dotzler and his crew saying the same thing about what you are saying. Is there any irony in this debate, that the people who opposed change are now having the same rhetoric thrown back at them?

Horbach: There are all kinds of those. For example, with the free agent, at that same time the unions were coming to us, we do not want to represent people who are not paying dues to us. Free agent, they don't represent them, they don't get the protections of the union, they don't get the benefits, they are absolutely on their own, they could be fired because they aren't wearing the right clothes. I'm just telling you there are flip-flops all over on this bill and this topic.

Henderson: Senator Dotzler, he is talking about what unions refer to as fair share in which unions want to require workers who aren't part of the union to pay a fee for union services. They have taken it a step farther and said, they're not going to pay a fee, they're going to go out on their own.

Dotzler: Yeah, and I understand his argument and I want to tell you I believe that it is fair that you pay part of the cost of negotiating your wages and benefits. You don't have to belong to the union. I was a union steward and I had to represent individuals who weren't members of the union and my union told me, you will do the best job you can do for those individuals. So, we just think it is fair, they don't have to belong, just pay their fair share.

Glover: Representative Horbach, let's look in the future a little bit, assuming this debate this year got settled in the last election and in this legislature, you argue that this is a relatively limited revision of the state's collective bargaining law. What is next?

Horbach: Well, I think we let it work, we see if it does work. One of the issues is, just as Dean brought up, that what about the good teacher. Was it California where the teacher of the year lost her job because she didn't have seniority? We don't want that to happen in Iowa. We want to have the best employees. But there have been bills, Wisconsin is a great example, where they went to clear the whole slate. Collective bargaining works, there's just some provisions that we have to fix. Iowa is very reasonable, both sides have been civil at the Capitol, labor, everybody has been civil, we have had long discussions, we want to see if this tweaking will actually provide the results that we think it will.

Glover: But you don't have a specific topic in mind that is your next step?

Horbach: I don't have one, no.

Glover: Senator Dotzler, what do you think is coming next?

Dotzler: Well, the bill is coming over to the Senate and that’s going to be it. But I think they're going to continue their attack on us. If they get away with this there's a thing up at the Capitol, we call it raging incrementalism. You take a little bit of benefits away from them one year, just like they did when I was in the minority and served with Representative Horbach in the Iowa House, the next year they came and attacked worker comp a little bit more and the year after that was a little bit more. So, this doesn't end. You know, we're having the same arguments right now about collective bargaining they had in 1974 and I submit that this has worked well for almost 40 years.

Glover: Didn't democrats seed this whole issue in the last election -- the election, as we said earlier, has consequences, when you lost the House and gave republicans 60 members of the House, what did you expect them to do?

Dotzler: Well, that is, you know, I don't think the public voted on those issues, they voted on the economy. I think they voted on jobs. They didn't vote about an attack on collective bargaining because our base wouldn't have went and voted for the republicans. They wanted to see something done with jobs and we're working hard on that in the Iowa Senate. We have a variety of different programs and what is coming out of the House of Representatives is an attack on programs that help small businesses. And I want to tell you one thing, if Governor Branstad thinks that he's going to create 200,000 jobs in four years with what they are doing to eliminate these programs for economic development he doesn't have a chance in hell of doing that.

Henderson: Oh my goodness. Representative Horbach, I'm wondering what impact, what has happened in Wisconsin and Ohio and other states, has had on the decision making among Iowa House republicans because your bill does not go as far, as you mentioned, as Wisconsin's did.

Horbach: On a daily basis I reminded members that we're going to maintain the high road, we're going to -- we actually scheduled, remember when they had the labor protest at the Capitol weeks ago we actually rescheduled the subcommittees so that those members who were bused in there could actually sit and talk to the legislators who were making the decisions. Then we've had a full process, three days of debate this week on the bill. So, once again, I credit all Iowans, union, non-union, taxpayer, everybody, we identified a problem in the last election, they sent us there as the majority to try to fix it, we had the opportunity, the slate was full, we could have done Wisconsin. We actually did a much more restricted plan on this bill, we even made amendments taking things off such as the legislature has to approve an arbitration result and the Governor could veto that. I thought that would be cumbersome, Bill and I both know that would be political, that had to go out. There was a 30% provision where the employees had to pay 30% of their health insurance. I tried to work it so that it would be amenable as possible, never did I expect Bill to accept the bill but I wanted to make it as amenable and understandable, clear, remain focused, not political, it's a political bill don't get me wrong, but maintain that we're trying to fix the process and it is not an attack on either side.

Henderson: Senator Dotzler, I'm wondering what impact Wisconsin has had on democrats.

Dotzler: Well, I think that they saw that when you get a control with a republican governor and both chambers that the wheels can spin right off of collective bargaining and I truly believe that if we would have lost the Senate we would have had identical bills to Wisconsin.

Glover: Senator Dotzler, this is Iowa is hardly, as you mentioned, the only place in America where this is happening, this is happening in Ohio, it's happening in Indiana, it's happening in Wisconsin, it's happening in Idaho, Utah. Is this a national strategy to hack public employee unions?

Dotzler: Well, I think it most certainly is. We know that public unions and private unions across this country, those members contribute to people who stand up for their rights and I think they see this as a political way of weakening that. At the same time, where's the checks and balances for corporations? Now they can donate money directly into campaigns because of their right of free speech.

Glover: Representative Horbach, how do you answer the charge that this is a concerted national attack on public employee unions which are a base of the Democratic Party?

Horbach: Well, I don't like the word strategy. This last election was the taxpayers saying did you forget about me? That is what this is. People are saying the cost of government, I mean, you say create jobs, only in government can I pass a bill where I can create 100 jobs tomorrow. In the private sector I can not pass a bill that will create 100 jobs outside the private sector. I have to whittle away at costs that employers are now incurring and one of those costs are, well multiple costs, property taxes, regulations and in this case, the cost of government in general, that money is now not able to go to hiring an unemployed Iowan or give a raise to an employee who deserves it or expansion, that money is now going to the Capitol. And what this bill is saying, we're going to try to reduce that cost, we're also trying to reduce regulations, yes, we're also trying to reduce property taxes so that money in the private sector can stay there and hire a job or hire another employee for a job.

Henderson: Gentlemen, I'd like you to give the viewers a sense of where democrats stand. Senator Dotzler, what would democrats like employees to bargain about?

Dotzler: Well, we offered some suggestions before that expanded the scope of bargaining because we felt that police officers and firemen ought to have the ability to talk about protective personal equipment. They go into fires and police officers wanted additional vests, we weren't talking about adding the scope of bargaining to increase the amount of wages, we were just talking about things that were important to our public safety workers and we wanted to add and make some modest changes.

Henderson: Representative Horbach, aside from this bill, in general what do republicans wish public employees bargain about? Just wages?

Horbach: No, if we did we would have taken, in the bill we would have accepted more language to be removed from the Chapter 20 bill. Time and time through this process I heard from the opposing party that all we want is the opportunity to be able to talk with our employer. Nothing in this bill says you can't talk about everything that is bargainable and not bargainable. The difference is that they want it to be mandatory in their contract. That is what we're trying to decide as leaders what to do.

Glover: Representative Horbach, a basic question, are public sector unions a good idea?

Horbach: I think that there was definitely a time for public sector unions, I still support their ability to unionize, that discussion has been made around the Capitol, I think it is warranted that they remain. I just think that there are some process changes that need to be made so that we can put some controls for the taxpayers and give stability to workers. Do you know how many times every year, 13 years I've been there, that people, state workers are saying, am I going to lose my job? And then another e-mail comes in how much, from a taxpayer, are you going to take from me? We're trying to get something we can afford and stable into the future.

Borg: Senator Dotzler, we only have about 20 seconds left. After the House passed this bill on Friday is it dead on arrival?

Dotzler: It will go into subcommittee and the labor committee and I'll tell you it will never get out of subcommittee the way it is set. And I know Senator Horbach has got his story and he's sticking to it but we think it is taking rights away from workers and a slap in the face to hardworking public employees.

Borg: But there's room for compromise?

Dotzler: Well, there always is room for compromise and we've always talked about that. But we'd like to talk about jobs in this state, not taking away the ability to create jobs.

Borg: Thank you. Thanks for being here. On our next edition of Iowa Press, Iowa State University Emeritus Economist Neil Harl answering questions about Iowa's economy and how the world events might be shaping the nation's climb back to economic stability. That conversation with Dr. Neil Harl only at 6:30 next Friday night and no repeat on Sunday because of our special Festival programming. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: Bill Dotzer Democrats government Iowa Iowa House Labor Committee Iowa legislature Iowa Senate Labor Committee labor Lance Horbach legislation politics Republicans state employees State Representatives State Senators unions