Iowa Supreme Court upholds changes to public-sector collective bargaining rights

In two separate rulings issued on May 17, 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a 2017 law that amended collective bargaining rights for the state’s public-sector workforce. The court ruled 4-3 in the state’s favor in both cases.
What was at issue? In 2017, then-Gov. Terry Branstad (R) signed into law a series of amendments to Iowa’s public-sector labor relations law. As a result, collective bargaining units with less than 30 percent public-safety personnel (defined generally as firefighters and police officers) cannot negotiate insurance, hours, vacations, holidays, overtime, and health and safety issues unless their employers elect to do so. Collective bargaining units exceeding the 30-percent threshold are exempted from these restrictions.
Who were the parties to the suits? The plaintiffs, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 61 (AFSCME Council 61) and the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), argued the amendments violated their equal protection and associational rights under the state constitution. The defendants were the state of Iowa and the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board. Both cases were filed in state district courts, which ruled against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs appealed these decisions to the state supreme court.
How did the court rule? In each case, the court ruled 4-3 in the state’s favor. In the majority opinion covering both cases, Justice Thomas Waterman wrote: “The 2017 amendments do not infringe on a fundamental right of association. The plaintiffs ‘come to use with a problem suitable only for political solution.’ The plaintiffs are free to attempt to persuade public employers, such as the State and local governments and school boards, to voluntarily bargain over formerly mandatory terms. The plaintiffs otherwise must look to the ballot box and the elected branches to change this lawfully enacted statute.” Justices Susan Christensen, Edward Mansfield, and Christopher McDonald joined Waterman’s opinion.
Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins dissented. In his dissent, Cady wrote: “[The] Iowa statute ends up treating many similarly situated public employees in Iowa differently based solely on the bargaining unit they belong to and not for the reason the constitution would justify different treatment of public employees. Our constitution requires laws to treat similarly situated people equally unless there is an adequate reason otherwise. In this case, the overinclusiveness and underinclusiveness written into the statute drowned this reason out.”
What are the responses? Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver (R) supported the ruling: “Since its implementation, I have heard story after story of school districts and local governments implementing creative solutions to improve the education of Iowa’s students and the provision of services Iowans need. This reform is about returning power to locally elected officials and giving them the ability to pay more to great teachers and employees, fire the occasional bad actor and protect Iowa taxpayers.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen (D) opposed the ruling: ” By taking away the rights of teachers, firefighters, nurses, correctional officers and other public servants, Republican politicians have done harm to all Iowa workers. Working Iowa men and women are the real victims of the assault by the Branstad/Reynolds administration and Republican-controlled Legislature.”
The case names and numbers are AFSCME Council 61 v. Iowa (No. 17–1841) and Iowa State Education Association v. Iowa (No. 17-1834).
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