We could not in good conscience patronize campus facilities to discuss our work to advance economic opportunity and justice for all Iowans when a serious threat to workers’ rights was being mounted in front of us.
An Open Letter to the President of Grinnell College
The Iowa Policy Project Board of Directors met Tuesday in Grinnell. This would not normally be particularly noteworthy, but circumstances are not currently normal in Grinnell.
Grinnell College is a true asset to the state of Iowa, a private college with a strong educational reputation. Our organization has enjoyed holding our board meetings on the college campus in recent years, but this week decided we could not in good conscience patronize campus facilities and chose to relocate our scheduled meeting to a nearby off-campus restaurant.
We are deeply disturbed that the college’s leadership has so far refused to honor the results of a recent election in which student workers exercised their legal right to indicate their desire to bargain collectively with their employer. We were even more deeply disturbed that December 10th, one day prior to our meeting, the college took the extreme step of attempting to deny Grinnell student workers any rights as employees, via an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board. With this move, college leaders signaled their clear intent to trigger a federal Board decision that they know could in turn strip rights from millions of college and university employees (if they also happen to be students) across the country.
The college’s position matters to us because it matters for Iowa and the nation. We cannot promote the work our organization does to encourage economic opportunity and justice for the people of our state — including the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain — and ignore a serious threat to those rights being mounted right in front of us.
We wish the college, its students, administrators, instructors and staff the best, and hope we will be able to return to campus for our next meeting upon learning the college has reversed its position.
At this critical juncture, Iowa can take the high road to shared prosperity, or go down a dead end.
Iowa can unlock the potential of each individual and allow all workers to share in the fruits of their labor by making public investments in the foundations of a strong economy. Well-resourced schools, access to higher education, decent wages and protections, economic supports, clean water and renewable energy, and a cleaned-up tax system, all can pave the way to opportunities and broadly shared prosperity that Iowans want.
Unfortunately, policy choices have put us on a road that prioritizes corporate profits over worker wages and corporate tax cuts over the public investments that allow for a strong, sustainable economy. We are at a crossroads and our policy choices today and in the near future can either pave the path to economic opportunity in every corner of our state, or create roadblocks to prosperity for everyday Iowans.
Our people-first roadmap offers the way forward. It lays out the evidence-based, responsible solutions to our state’s most pressing issues, pinpointing several stops along the way that would mark progress for our state, such as:
Creating the workforce of our future and ensuring our children reach their potential. Iowa can and should ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need for every child to succeed, no matter where they live. We also must restore our commitment to higher education with more state support, lower tuition, and aid to reduce student debt.
Boosting economic security and supports for working Iowans. Giving Iowans’ lowest wage workers a long overdue raise, ensuring workers get paid what they’re legally owed, shoring up our system of compensation for workers who get hurt on the job, and restoring worker rights to collective bargaining can ensure that all Iowa workers are getting a fair deal. Iowans also need a boost in child care assistance, which can make or break the ability of a family to work.
Restoring a public commitment to the health and well-being of every Iowan, particularly seniors and people living with disabilities. Reversing the privatization of Medicaid and pursuing cost savings through innovation and efficiency rather than reduced services and worker wages are critical steps to ensuring access to health care for all Iowans — now and in the future.
Ensuring clean water and renewable energy for a healthy, sustainable Iowa. We can and must balance the state’s need for clean and abundant water with our agricultural economy by reducing water pollution. Likewise, Iowa should restore its legacy of leadership in renewable and efficient energy in order to create a cleaner, greener state for future generations.
Cleaning up and restoring balance to the tax code. Right now, Iowa asks the lowest income Iowans to pay a higher share of their income in state and local taxes than those with the highest incomes. We can fix this by cleaning up corporate tax loopholes that squander precious public dollars that could otherwise be invested in shared opportunity for Iowans.
Iowa is at a critical juncture. We can take the high road that leads to progress and shared prosperity, or go down a dead end. The policies in this roadmap provide a clear route to a stronger Iowa. For more detail on each stop on the roadmap,please click here.
This Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen in the future, reversing current trends against working families.
As always, Labor Day is a day to celebrate Americans’ work ethic and spirit — things that hold promise for better times ahead.
But it is not a time to celebrate what has been happening in Iowa.
A look at the landscape for working families shows this Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen a year, two years, maybe 10 years from now.
Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused. Iowa’s minimum wage is a measly $7.25 an hour and has been held there for 10 1/2 years; some 400,000 workers — and their families — could gain with a raise to $12. (IPP report, 2016) Twenty-nine other states have acted, including all but two of Iowa’s neighbors.
Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:
“(T)he wage structure in Iowa is more compressed than it is nationally or in the Midwest. Low-wage workers in Iowa make about the same as low-wage workers everywhere else, but at the higher wages, Iowa workers fall further and further behind. Higher wage jobs are scarcer in Iowa than in most states. And wages in many professions — such as nursing or teaching — trail national and regional peers by wide margins.
“The key point here is not just that wages have stagnated, but they have done so over an era in which the productivity and educational attainment of Iowa workers have improved dramatically.”
If the wage levels weren’t lagging enough already, policy makers have utterly failed Iowa workers by refusing to assure that wages owed are actually paid. Wage theft — refusing to pay wages owed, or violating overtime and employee classification rules — is winked at by a state system that devotes too few resources to enforcement. Lawmakers have refused to act.
Lawmakers deliberately smacked working people with significant legislation in the last General Assembly in at least two other areas:
• They curtailed collective bargaining rights of public employees, making it tougher for them to organize, and tougher for them to negotiate. In the arena where the state, counties, cities and schools should be leading by example on how to treat employees, the Legislature has chosen to push Iowa toward a race to the bottom. And make no mistake about the impact on the economy: Public-sector jobs are 1 in 6 of all jobs in the state.
• They also passed legislation to erode workers’ protection and financial security long provided through Iowa’s workers’ compensation law. A study of the effects of one change, reclassifying shoulder injuries, found that the typical worker with such an injury could expect to receive 75 percent less under the new rules.
On top of these, we see the University of Iowa unilaterally acting to eliminate, or eliminate funding for, its own Labor Center that serves thousands and helps Iowans understand what rights they have in the workplace.
And we can count on a continuing assault on Iowa’s strong and accountable public employees’ retirement plans — not to help employees or actually save money, but to feed the ideological drive against public services that is illustrated in examples above. How better to damage those services than to lessen the attraction of jobs that provide them?
Celebrate Labor Day for the people who work to make our nation great. Keep in mind throughout the day that forces are trying to undermine the security of working families — and that Iowans can come together behind policies to support all.
Think of how much better that Labor Day burger off the grill will taste — in some future year — with a side of responsible minimum wage and workplace protection laws, topped off with a stronger economy that will result as more Americans prosper.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. firstname.lastname@example.org
ALEC-friendly lawmakers, eager to crush public-sector unions, may have instead given them new organizational life.
If Iowa lawmakers thought that their Draconian revisions to Chapter 20 could break the back of public-sector unionism, the last two months have proven them spectacularly wrong. Since early September, almost 500 of Iowa’s public-sector bargaining units have been forced into recertification elections.
Under the new rules, locals had to pay for the election themselves — and then win a majority of the entire bargaining unit (not just the votes cast). AFSCME’s Danny Homan remarked that of those pushing the new restrictions, “not one … could win an election under the rules they gave us.”
As is evident in the returns, public-sector workers have not only dug in their heels against the attack on their rights to bargain, but have begun to push back. ALEC-friendly legislative leaders, so eager to crush public-sector unions and silence their political voice, may have instead given them new organizational life.
Consider some of the numbers from the September and October elections (summarized in the graphic above). Of those voting, almost 98 percent voted to keep the union. In 229 elections, all the votes cast were “yes” votes.
Of the 32 bargaining units (accounting for about 1,000 workers) decertified, only five lost the majority of votes cast; in 21 units, nonvoters — counted as “no” under the new rules — tipped the balance. In six other units, no one voted.
A look at the 32 decertification returns suggests results that are starkly undemocratic: At Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, for example, nurses voted 74-27 to stick with SEIU 199. But, because they needed 99 votes to capture half of the bargaining unit, they lost. In the Iowa Falls Community School District, a Teamsters 238 local voted 27-0 to certify. But because they needed 33 votes to capture half of the bargaining unit, they lost.
As an example of the success of strong organizing in the face of the rules imposed upon workers, Iowa State Education Association locals in 233 locations mobilized for recertification votes — winning 229 of those and losing only four by a total of 15 votes. Even in those four isolated cases, ISEA was favored by a majority of those actually voting — just not enough to satisfy the special restrictions placed on them by lawmakers.
Colin Gordon, senior research consultant to the Iowa Policy Project
Iowans must ask if we can continue to attract and retain good workers if we provide them no hope of gaining ground against the rising cost of living.
A bill just introduced in the Iowa Legislature would make sweeping changes to Iowa’s laws governing public employees, union and non-union, from teachers to snow plow drivers to child abuse caseworkers to nursing home inspectors.
Here we focus on one aspect of that bill, HSB84: the provisions that would drive down employee compensation on both the wage/salary side and the benefits side.
First, HSB84, prohibits an arbitrator from granting a wage increase in excess of the rate of inflation, or 3.0 percent, whichever is less. This applies to all public workers represented by a union — state, city, county, school — except for public safety workers (police and fire).
That restriction on an arbitrator will weigh against anything better than the cost of living, maxed out at 3 percent, since any impasse that leads to arbitration would enforce that limit. As the bill would remove all other topics from negotiation, there is no way for unions to negotiate for something else — better benefits, hours, working conditions or vacation — to compensate for a low wage offer.
The law also takes increases in the employee share of health insurance costs off the table. This means that any premium increase above inflation (and health care costs have been rising faster than prices generally for a very long time) will mean a loss of real wages, even in a year of low inflation overall.
What does this mean? The mathematical certainty is declining real income for public workers. Anytime inflation exceeds 3 percent, employees could lose ground. Anytime inflation is less than 3 percent, they could get no more than just enough to cover the rising cost of living, even to make up for those years of higher inflation. They could never catch up — unless the public employer agreed to it.
Suppose this mandate had been part of the collective bargaining law passed in 1974. What followed was a decade of inflation well in excess of 3 percent every year. After 10 years, the paychecks of public workers could have lost 37 percent in purchasing power. That’s a decline in your standard of living by over a third in one decade.
While inflation moderated in subsequent decades, it nonetheless exceeded 3 percent in 12 of the next 32 years (1985 through 2016). By now, wages would be just 59 percent of what they were in 1974. With employee health insurance costs thrown in, the real take-home pay of public workers could have fallen by half, or more.
Finally, the law prohibits bargaining over any wage increase or benefit based on seniority. Where public workers now can move up the pay scale through seniority, there is no guarantee that such pay scales will even exist in the future. The entire schedule of pay bumps based on experience and seniority could be eliminated by the employer. Employees would have no recourse.
We need well-qualified, experienced, dedicated workers teaching our children, taking care of the elderly, driving our buses and snow plows, protecting children from abuse and neglect. Iowans must ask if we can continue to attract and retain good workers if we provide them no hope of gaining ground against the rising cost of living.
Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director of the Iowa Policy Project