Pro-union Dems boost GOP chances

Iowa Republicans have been handed a gift by Democrats in the Legislature who want Gov. Chet Culver to sign a bill expanding the collective bargaining power of public employee unions. Democratic leaders rammed the legislation through while Culver was on spring break with his family in Florida on the presumption that he would quietly sign it. Instead, he's turned a spotlight on the somewhat shady process and handed Republicans a campaign issue that might help them regain control of the Iowa House in November.

The issue is House File 2645, which would strengthen the hand of public employee unions at the bargaining table by widening the scope of issues that are likely to go to arbitration to include work rules, disciplinary actions and other issues that previously received little consideration at bargaining sessions.

It would be the first significant change to Iowa's public employee bargaining law since it was passed in 1974 by a bipartisan Legislature and approved by Republican Gov. Robert Ray. That law allows public employees to join unions and bargain for wages and benefits, but they cannot strike. Impasses are resolved through binding arbitration.

From a union standpoint, the 1974 law was a weak effort. But it's one that most Iowans have been comfortable with for the past 34 years.

Now, union members believe that they helped provide the votes in 2006 to put Democrats in charge of both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch for the first time since 1966. They also believe they deserve something in return, and House File 2645 is it.

There are several ways to look at this situation, and they all amount to a no-lose deal for Republican candidates for the Legislature in a state where only about 10 percent of workers belong to unions.

A friend asked whether we might be seeing a resurgence in labor power in Iowa, given that House File 2645 sailed through the Iowa House and Senate in a scant six days.

More likely, we're seeing a last-gasp effort.

The quick action came near the end of the session when a lot of strange stuff happens. And it happened when the governor, who is raising a ruckus now, was on vacation.

The Iowa House is the key chamber for this or any other piece of labor legislation, because Democrats hold a slimmer 53-47 lead there, while in the Senate they have a 10-vote edge.

Last year, the House killed the so-called "fair share" labor bill that would have let unions collect money from the paychecks of nonunion members to cover certain union expenses.

Like the measures contained in House File 2645, fair share was barely mentioned during the 2006 campaign. Nonetheless, fair share was on track early in last year's session to pass both houses with the expectation that Culver would sign it, until the heat became too much and a handful of House Democrats bailed out. Leaders knew they couldn't get the 51 votes they needed, so they never brought it to the House floor.

After fair share, Democratic leaders apparently decided to wait this year until the end of the session to push through the public employees work-rules bill.

It passed the House with one vote to spare, 52-47. It passed the Senate on a vote of 27-23 a few days later.

Culver wants the bill to go back for reconsideration because there was no public input. That's a highly unusual move for a bill that's already passed both houses.

If that happens, though, officials say the bill would probably get fewer than 51 votes and fail.

Today, Culver is the only thing keeping the bill from becoming law.

He's between a rock and a hard place, and Republicans love it.

If you're a GOP strategist, it probably doesn't matter what Culver does, because once the law passes even one house, it's fair game for the fall campaign.

Now that the governor has stood up against the bill, Republicans can use his words against his party's candidates in the fall election.

If he signs it, so much the better. Republicans would call him a hypocrite.

The thing that has a lot of people scratching their heads is why Democrats in the Legislature went ahead and passed the bill without getting a sign-off from their own governor.

There's two ways to look at that. Either they got a sign-off and Culver reneged, or they didn't tell him what they were up to and just assumed he'd go along. After all, he was on board last year for fair share.

Judging by Culver's reaction, they didn't tell him.

That was clearly a strategic mistake.

My initial reaction to the larger issue is: Why not give unions the same bargaining powers for work rules, disciplinary actions and other issues that unions in the private sector have? If you're going to have collective bargaining, make it fair.

People opposed to the change worry that an arbitrator will put a city or county or school district in an untenable financial bind by siding with labor on an issue that will bankrupt public treasuries.

The pro-union people - like Dick Dearden, the Des Moines Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee - say that won't happen, because no arbitrator would ever knowingly put a city or school board in financial peril.

Not knowingly. But what about a city council or school board that is too naive to see what's at stake and point out the key financial issues to the arbitrator?

If they are that naive, and some boards and administrators are, then maybe their community deserves what it gets.

That's the argument I presented to Peter Pashler, who practices public-sector law and was the first director of the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, back in the 1970s.

Pashler did not agree with my survival-of-the fittest theory of local governments.

He said that what bothered him, and what bothers a lot of other people, including the governor, is a legislative process that didn't allow for any public input.

"A reasoned approach would have identified areas of the law that could have been improved," Pashler said. But what the Legislature did was an end run of the whole process, he said.


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