Iowa GOP's public sector union bill similar to Wisconsin

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A plan by Republican lawmakers in Iowa to quickly pass a bill that would drastically cut collective bargaining rights for public workers has several similarities to Wisconsin's signature 2011 law that led to massive protests in that state.

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The 68-page bill by Iowa GOP lawmakers cleared some procedural votes Wednesday in the state House and Senate. Full chamber debate could happen as early as Monday, less than a week after the legislation was introduced to the public.

The Iowa bill has similarities to Wisconsin's collective bargaining law, which prohibited public sector unions from negotiating employees' benefits like health insurance and several other working conditions. Academics who specialize in labor issues say few states have followed Wisconsin as closely as Iowa with its new bill. A law in Ohio in 2011 was overturned by a voter referendum.

"This is exactly the same thing that's happening in Wisconsin," said Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law. "It's a way to amend a public sector collective bargaining law that seemed to be working perfectly well in a way that on the surface doesn't seem to eliminate public sector collective bargaining, but really has the practical effect of eliminating collective bargaining."

Iowa's collective bargaining law, in place for more than 40 years, currently ensures roughly 180,000 public sector employees such as teachers, nurses and correctional officers can negotiate over several issues including their health insurance, extra pay, grievances and seniority. The proposed bill would cut out those discussions and specifically prohibit it.

Like Wisconsin, collective bargaining would be reduced from multiple issues to a discussion on base wages. There would also be a requirement for unions to manually collect dues from members instead of automatic paycheck deductions. Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said the consequences of forcing limited staff to chase down dues would have a "devastating" impact on unions' finances.

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There's also a proposed requirement that workers hold more frequent votes on whether to dismantle as a union. Like in Wisconsin, public safety employees such as law enforcement and firefighters would be exempted from some provisions.

Republicans insist the measure is about giving employers more flexibility to reward the best workers and fire the bad ones, though there are procedures already in place to fire bad workers.

Still, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig and chairman of the Senate's labor committee, acknowledged some comparison to Wisconsin.

"There are a lot of similarities and it's because although our issues are not what Wisconsin's are in degree, they are similar. Therefore the solutions are going to be similar," he said. "But to the matter of degree, we are not Wisconsin and we approach this from a different direction."

The bill would also remove seniority as a point of bargaining. That's troubling to Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a labor and employment law professor at Indiana University Bloomington. He said removing seniority provisions could lead to a teacher staffing shortage in Iowa. He said Indiana stripped some collective bargaining rights around the same time as Wisconsin. Dau-Schmidt cited data that shows Indiana is struggling today to competitively hire teachers.

"It will make working conditions for teachers worse and will probably lead to a shortage of qualified teachers in the state," he warned.

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walked introduced his collective bargaining bill, Republican majorities in the Legislature tried to pass the legislation quickly. Large demonstrations held up that effort and it culminated with Democratic lawmakers fleeing to Illinois to avoid voting on the measure. The bill was ultimately passed though it faced some legal challenges.

In Iowa, Democrats were left out of private discussions over the legislation. They could slow down some legislative activity with procedural moves, but they will have little authority to stop the bill's passage. Paul Secunda, director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, said Iowa has a different history of organized labor than Wisconsin, and he doesn't see Iowa having "the boots on the ground" needed to turn out crowds of 100,000 to the state Capitol.

Dozens of people did fill legislative rooms Wednesday to oppose the bill. John Campbell, a Des Moines steel worker representing USW Local 310, cautioned that residents would feel immediate effects from the bill if it becomes law.

"All we want to do is go to work, earn a decent pay and come home in the same way we left. That's all, and provide for our families," he said. "And if we're not allowed that kind of dignity ... then I don't see the point of saying I'm so proud to be an Iowan."

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Associated Press writer Linley Sanders contributed to this report.