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Organized Labor in Iowa

posted on July 20, 2012

Holding the line.  And no picket lines for labor unions right now.  They're holding onto what has been won with past picket lines.  A conversation with two Iowa labor leaders.  AFSCME's Danny Homan and Iowa Federation of Labor President Ken Sagar on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Organized labor is working through tough times right now.  Just hanging onto scarce jobs is difficult.  For some, making wage gains is a dream.  Those unions representing public employees are especially challenged right now losing a hard fought battle against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's collective bargaining changes and similar challenges emerging in other states, including Iowa Governor Branstad's proposal to cut state payroll costs.  And all of this with the 2012 general election taking center stage.  We're getting perspective from Iowa Federation of Labor President Ken Sagar and the President of Iowa's largest public employee's union, Danny Homan, a former residential advisor in Iowa's prison system, now leading Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, that is AFSCME.  Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Gentlemen, Dean laid out some of the problems facing unions today.  Mr. Sagar, if you could, diagnose the health of private sector unions.  Membership isn't as healthy as it used to be.  Is there a diagnosis of trouble ahead?

Sagar: I tell you what, we've seen a lot of attacks on private sector unions, most recently on public sector unions.  That started basically back in the 80s when Ronald Reagan decertified the air traffic controllers and basically gave the green light to corporations across this country to start attacking working people.  It is pretty much undeniable that the decline in the strength and density of the labor movement has had a very detrimental impact on the middle class in this country.  The track for both is a steady downward trend and we've seen wages stagnate in this country since just before 1980.  Productivity is up, work per person.  Yet wages are fundamentally the same as they were in the late 70s and we've seen a pretty significant impact on our economy as a result of the decline of the labor movement.

Henderson: Speaking of public sector unions, they are the part of the union movement that appears to be adding some membership.  Mr. Homan, what is the diagnosis for public sector unions?

Homan: I believe with the attacks on the middle class and the attacks on public employees that the public employees are coming together.  We're at our largest membership ever in the history of our organization.  And even with what Mr. Walker did in Wisconsin --

Henderson: He would be the Wisconsin Governor.

Homan: Yeah, yes he would.  With his all out attack on public sector workers up there, the workers up there or the members are still joining the union or rejoining the union and not to the numbers that they had before the attack but they are coming back because they realize if they're out there by themselves they're just going to get run over.

Obradovich: Gentlemen, you have both mentioned attacks and I would say that they have taken a toll, that the public has a negative view of unions in the sense of blaming them, in some cases, for rising labor costs that may have cost jobs on the public sector side, blaming or maybe villainizing state workers thinking that they make too much money, they're taking too much tax money.  Have the unions lost the public relations battle with the public and their image?  Mr. Sagar, starting with you.

Sagar: Well, certainly the corporations have a lot more resources to sell the idea that unions are a bad thing.  I think if you look back historically many of the things that unions have done from legislative activities, for example, the work we do for worker's compensation.  That is not just for union members, that is for everybody who works for a living.  When we do efforts to make sure that we have fair taxes, that's not just for union members, that is for everybody.  Have we been on the short end of the stick with regard to public relations?  Yeah, we have and that is kind of regrettable.  As the union membership declines as a percentage of the workforce we have seen a lot more corporations take advantage of the workers that they have.

Obradovich: Mr. Homan, what can you do about that?

Homan: Well, what we're trying to do is speak out when we're attacked.  When the Governor released his proposal to have employees pay voluntarily, in violation of the law, 20% of their premium we didn't attack the part about us paying because we do pay.  That is the misconception and the misrepresentation.  State employees do pay.  But we tried to show that the man was out there violating the law.

Obradovich: --- reacting -- is that enough?

Homan: I don't know what else we can do.  We do not have the money available to us that corporations have.  So we're working with our membership to do a neighbor-to-neighbor program, to talk to their neighbors, to talk to their friends, to explain to them that there's a lot of fallacies and what this Governor and other governors that are attacking us is putting out.  Public employees are not paid more than their counterparts in the private sector.  They are paid less.  Our benefits, on average, are less than what they can get in the private sector.  But yet the spin that is put on that by the republican governors and republican leadership around this state, they just constantly spin it the other way.  So we're fighting back but trying to do it neighbor-to-neighbor.

Borg: Mr. Sagar, fighting back can sometimes be perceived as being too defensive.  Isn't that maybe part of the problem here that unions, like Mr. Homan said, fighting back, speaking out, as he said, have become in the public perception of not willing to share the pain of a down economy?

Sagar: I don't agree with that assessment.  I first started negotiating contracts back in 1983 and we bargained over health care at that time.  I mean, this has been going on for 30 years.  Our benefit plans over time are not what they once were.  We have shared the pain.  The problem is that corporate America, the one percent, republican governors, there is no amount that we can give back that will be enough.  And frankly I don't see American workers having to work at slave labor wages.  That is unacceptable.  What is wrong with people having a decent income, being part of the middle class, having the opportunity to contribute to America?  I don't see anything wrong with that.  Maybe everybody else isn't making enough.  Maybe we're not looking at this correctly.

Henderson: Mr. Homan, your colleague just mentioned contract negotiations.  This fall your union will enter into contract negotiations with state management.  What is your expectation given the history that you have with the former Branstad administrations?

Homan: My expectation right now is guarded based on some of the political stunts that this Governor has pulled.  And his demands that he believes that he can come to the table and demand that we will do things tends to make me believe he's not coming to the table to sit down and bargain with us other than to come in and tell us what we're going to do.

Henderson: So do you expect it will end up in arbitration?

Homan: I have a long history of 25 years in bargaining contracts.  Probably less than one percent of the contracts that I have bargained over those 25 years has ended up in arbitration.  I'm going to work as hard as I can to not go to arbitration.  But if that is where we've got to go, then that is where we've got to go.  I want to address Dean's question to Ken on sharing the pain.  This union, since 2011, has taken three years where we took no across-the-board increase.  We did that to preserve our health insurance.  In 2009 we took a zero across-the-board increase.  Six months later we gave up five unpaid days to help this state with its budget crisis because there was a crisis, there was a problem.  What more do the hardworking state employees in this state have to give up and have to sacrifice to where the realization that they are sharing the pain is there?

Borg: Do you talk to the Governor about things like that?

Homan: Oh yes.

Borg: You do?

Homan: Well, Dean, the Governor don't talk to us.  Okay?  I believe if you take a look at many of the press releases that I have done and many of the press interviews I have done with folks we talk about that all the time.  It's pretty common knowledge.

Borg: But you don't have an audience with the Governor?

Homan: I have had one conversation with Mr. Branstad and that conversation happened prior to him taking office.  It lasted for eighteen minutes.  That is the only conversations that we have had.  We do not have a relationship with this Governor, even when he was in office the last time, before this he met with or his representatives met with the then President Don McKee.  When Tom Vilsack was in office and when Governor Culver was in office we had meetings with either the governor or their staff.  We're not treated that way anymore.  We are treated as the enemy in my opinion.

Henderson: Mr. Sagar, is that the case in the public sector?  Do union representatives regularly meet with the CEOs of companies?

Sagar: There's pretty regular line of communications in private sector between the representatives of the company and the representatives of the union.  I know I have met with CEOs and upper level management, executive officers fairly routinely.

Obradovich: And what is the bargaining climate in the private sector right now?  Are employers trying to drive a lot harder bargains or is there more of a collaborative effort of union leaders and employers to try to work together to lower costs for companies?

Sagar: I really can't use a broad brush in terms of responding to that.

Obradovich: Is there a general trend that you've seen?

Sagar: It's a difficult economic time, there's no doubt about it.  When the President was elected he was handed basically a big mess to clean up and the economy hasn't come back as quickly as we all would have wished but that is difficult when you've got a party in office in Washington that is more interested in unemploying the President than re-employing millions of Americans.  Our economy could be substantially better if they'd have taken up the Rebuild America Act, if they'd have done a number of jobs acts.

Obradovich: And what about the consensus within union membership?  Are people resolved to say we're going to hold onto everything we have?  Or are union members saying, you know, some of us want to take some concessions now to try to preserve our jobs for the future?

Sagar: I think the majority of people aren't interested in concessions.  However, they are realistic and understand that much like the public sector workers took sacrifices to help the state in their budget time, many, many private sector employees will take a wage freeze, will pay more for their health care in order to make sure their employer survives.  Regrettably we see a lot of corporations now taking advantage of tough economic times while making record profits to take away from the workers and that is fundamentally unfair.

Henderson: Mr. Homan, you mentioned private sector wages versus public sector wages.  I recently read an analysis done by USA Today which concluded that public sector workers in Iowa earned on average about $6,000 more a year than their counterparts in the private sector.  You have figures that are different.  Who are we to believe?  Because you can find reports all over the place about what those comparisons are.

Homan: And I don't tell you who to believe.  I will tell you the Iowa Public Policy Group has done a study and says that public sector employees, based on educational experience, are paid approximately 8% less wages and benefits when you compare apples to apples.  If you want to go compare us to someone who is making minimum wage then yes, we are paid more and yes, we have better benefits.  But most of those folks don't perform the work that the membership that I represent do.  Correctional officers suffer assaults, they suffer things being thrown on them that are unspeakable.  DOT equipment operators are out there plowing interstates and highways in blizzards and snowstorms and out there patching highways that blow up.  So I guess it just depends on what you want to compare and statistics can be made to say anything the person that is doing the study wants to make them say.

Henderson: You have mentioned prison guards. 

Homan: Excuse me, correctional officers.

Henderson: You worked in the prison system.  Last week you raised concerns about an attack on a correctional officer in the Anamosa prison.  On Monday, John Baldwin, who is the head of the prison system, said basically you should quit harping in the public about these incidents because it spurs the prisoners on.  What is your response to that?

Homan: My response is Mr. Baldwin, those inmates know better than you the number of staff that are working every day inside our institutions.  They have nothing to do but count.  They will be able to tell you who is in a tower even though they can't see in that tower.  They know what is going on inside the prisons.  John Baldwin made those comments standing next to Mr. Branstad.  That to me is suspicious enough as it is.  We do not have the staff in our prisons to adequately protect not only the staff that work there but the inmates that are housed there and the public that enters those facilities.

Borg: Let's go to the 2012 election coming up here.  What would you like to be hearing, Mr. Sagar, from the candidates, presidential, legislative, congressional, that you're not hearing?

Sagar: I think we need to have a focus on average Americans on the middle class. 

Borg: President Obama is doing that.  Isn't Governor Romney also doing that?

Sagar: I'm not sure Governor Romney really has a way to understand what the rest of us are involved in, in terms of our lifestyles.  Somebody that gets a $77,000 tax deduction for their horse really isn't in my social cast, if you will and it's very difficult to imagine how anybody who has no basic understanding of the life of individuals in this country in our middle class, he has no connection with us.

Borg: Mr. Homan, where would you like to see the presidential candidates, congressional candidates, develop a little spine in issues?  Where would you -- what aren't you hearing?

Homan: We need to start protecting the middle class of this country.  The middle class of this country built this country.  This country wasn't built by the one percent.  I understand they have the money that they invest in some business.  But them investing the money doesn't make that business profitable.  It's the people that work for them.  I grew up in a middle class family.  My mom didn't work outside the home.  That doesn't happen today.  And because we're not trying to protect and build and grow the middle class I believe this country is suffering.  So I want to hear them talk about jobs.  What are we going to do to bring back the middle class of the country that built this country after the end of World War II?

Henderson: Mr. Sagar, Mr. Homan earlier mentioned Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Unions went all out in Wisconsin trying to get a recall election.  They got it.  Walker won.  Hasn't the reputation of the union movement and its ability to work elections, if you will, been damaged by that result?

Sagar: It's interesting -- I've heard that question a number of times.  I didn't hear the corresponding question when the labor movement won and repealed the anti-collective bargaining, anti-public sector stuff in Ohio.  That wasn't the "demise" of the right.  So I find it kind of interesting.  What we do have right now in Wisconsin is a large number of very active union people who are very interested in the upcoming elections.  We also have three sitting Senators in the Wisconsin Senate who were not there a year ago.  We also have categorical proof that secret money poured in from corporate and wealthy individuals across this country can have a big impact on elections and that is very regrettable.

Obradovich: Well, what lesson did you take out of that Walker recall election and also the elections of 2008, I'm sorry, 2010, that you can take into the 2012 elections?

Homan: The lesson I took out of Wisconsin, when you're outspent ten to one you may lose.  And what we have to do is we have to do what AFSCME and the other unions in Wisconsin did.  We have to really activate our base.  We have to get our members involved in the process, make them understand what is at stake.

Borg: But it didn't work there, they lost.

Homan: No, we didn't lose, we took back the Senate.  We lost on the recall of Mr. Walker and I believe there are several reasons why we lost there.  There were a lot of people, even some union members, that wouldn't vote to recall him because they wouldn't vote to recall him over a policy issue that didn't affect them.  We didn't lose. The members, our members, AFSCME members in Wisconsin are more energized in the political process today than they have been in 20 years.

Obradovich: What about in Iowa?

Homan: In Iowa, 2008, 2008 I believe everybody was involved. 2010 I believe there were some people that sat out the 2010 election for any number of reasons.  They could have been upset with Chet Culver, they could have been upset over how they felt Chet Culver didn't defend them.  I believe because of Chet Culver this state is enjoying the financial stability that many states in the country aren't.  We have over a billion dollar surplus.  Chet Culver is responsible for a large majority of that.

Obradovich: But that was the last election, Mr. Sagar.  How do you get people energized?  If you didn't have energized people pushing over the top in Wisconsin how are you going to make a difference here in Iowa?

Sagar: Well, I think Danny pointed it out -- we won some, we lost some in Wisconsin but we gained a lot of activists who were very involved.  There were a lot of people from around the country that were engaged in that.  We had union members from Iowa going up there.  We have a lot of people who are very engaged and very involved and they understand the consequences of bad --

Obradovich: What about the spending disparity that you just mentioned?  Citizens United had an impact.  What impact are you seeing from that on the race here in 2012?

Sagar: Danny and I well know the other side has always had more money than we have.  But one of the things that we have is a base of people who get it.  I mean, they understand.  We have more activists now than we did in '10.  I'm absolutely certain.

Obradovich: How many more?  Do you have a percentage?

Sagar: I would say at least 25% or 30% more right now and our program is just beginning to ramp up.  So I'm pretty optimistic about the coming election.  I think that we're going to have a lot of people engaged and involved that we've never had engaged and involved.  We have gotten more folks logging into our web stuff than we have had in the past.  I feel pretty confident about our opportunity to connect with our members because they have seen what happened in Wisconsin, they have seen what happened in Ohio and Indiana and they know that our Governor has said he's inspired by the kind of crazy activities that have been going on in these other states.  And frankly, that is disturbing to a lot of people.

Henderson: Mr. Homan, Chet Culver vetoed a bill that unions had backed and that is one reason why people sat out, correct?

Homan: Well, I don't know why they sat out, Kay.  But I know that --

Henderson: But the legislators who passed that law were all democrats, the House and the Senate were controlled by democrats.  Why didn't your membership just hold their nose, not vote for Chet Culver and then help legislators?  Because the House went republican in 2010.

Homan: I don't know what -- there's a lot of things that led to the demise of democrats in 2010.  I can't tell you why my membership and some of my membership didn't vote for Governor Culver.  I'm speculating and some that I've talked to they were upset with him over many issues, not just the veto of the bill.  I was extremely upset with him over the veto of that bill.  And he knows it and he knew it then.  But the bottom line is I think what has happened in this country is common, everyday, middle class folks are starting to see that if we turn this country over to the one percent that we're all going down.  It's just not going to be the poor.  It's going to be everybody in this country will suffer if we keep attacking people for having basic rights.

Obradovich: You talked about we're all in this together.  But is the labor movement all in it together as well?  Or is there some tension between public and private sector labor over issues such as tax increases on businesses, for example?

Homan: In Wisconsin, in Ohio, the entire labor movement came together to fight those fights, not just one recall, we did two rounds of recalls in Wisconsin.  We won the first time.  We took out some republican senators there.  We took out more the second time.  We missed on Walker.  We repealed a bill in Ohio that was worse.  Does labor have problems?  Yeah, there are different -- there are competing interests between different international unions and different workers.  But what we do have is I think if we're going to have a dispute, we're going to have that dispute and we're going to come out and we're going to fight for what is best for them majority of our membership.

Obradovich: Mr. Sagar, would your union members like to see, for example, tax cuts that would benefit employers and perhaps help your workers with wages?

Sagar: Well, let's talk about the tax cut issue because right now what they're trying to do basically is attack shift and they're trying to get all of Danny's people to get to pay more for health care so we turn around and give a tax cut to Wal-mart?  I don't think most people are in favor of that.  We're starving government right now and don't have appropriate resources to provide for the legitimate needs of citizens.  We have circumstances where my kid going to Iowa right now, he is paying more for his education at a Regents institution than the state pays.  We now have the highest, if not the highest, very close to the highest community college tuition in the state.  We're complaining that oh, we don't have the best education system anymore.  Well, guess what?  If you don't put the money in we're not going to have the best education system anymore.  We have to have the funds necessary to provide for the needs of our citizens and in my mind nothing is more critical than education for our kids.  That is our future.

Henderson: Gentlemen, folks who watched the program last week saw democrat Mike Fitzgerald, the state treasurer and republican David Vaudt who is the state auditor, agree that caps should be restored on the pensions that are paid out by the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System.  Mr. Fitzgerald, the democrat, said in some cases people are drawing pensions of $160,000 a year.  Would you support, Mr. Homan, reestablishing those caps on those pensions?

Homan: Let me say for the record it is none of my members that are drawing $160,000 a year.  I think we have to look at everything.  I'm not going to sit here and say I'll support a cap and I'm not going to sit here and say I will oppose a cap.  But I think we need to take a look at everything that we have available and we do that.  We have made changes to the public employment retirement system and we have done them voluntarily and we have done them in a bipartisan effort.  So if that is something that we need to sit down and talk about, fine.  But it's not my membership that are getting those big pensions.  My folks on average get a pension of about $17,000 to $19,000 a year.  We're not getting $150,000.

Obradovich: Just really quickly from each of you, what is the most important thing the legislature could do this year to help working people?  Very quickly.

Borg: Mr. Homan, most important thing?

Homan: Most important thing is we need to figure out how we're going to create some jobs.  We need to quit attacking folks for what they have and try to make things better.

Obradovich: And Mr. Sagar?

Sagar: Quit posturing.  Once you're elected get in and do something to move the state forward.

Borg: Gentlemen, we're out of time.  Thanks so much for being with us today.

Homan: Thank you.

Sagar: Thank you.

Borg: Well, we'll be closing the Iowa Press season with a final show next week and you'll see our season closing show at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see Iowa Press Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: AFL-CIO AFSCME Danny Homan government Iowa Ken Sagar labor organized labor unions