Iowa union files lawsuit against collective bargaining law

AP News
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Posted: Feb 20, 2017 3:45 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A new Iowa law that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for public workers is unconstitutional and should be immediately blocked, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by a key union in the state.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61 argues that the law violates language in the Iowa Constitution that ensures equality to citizens. The group — Iowa's largest state employees union, representing 40,000 public employees — also asked for an injunction to halt the law's enforcement.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad on Friday signed the law, which prohibits public sector unions from negotiating issues such as health insurance and supplemental pay. The law is similar to a 2011 collective bargaining law passed in Wisconsin that sparked large protests and legal challenges.

"The governor signing this bill is not the end. This is only the beginning," said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61 in a conference call about the lawsuit Monday. "We intend to use every legal opportunity we have to challenge the constitutionality of this law."

Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes declined to comment on the merits of the lawsuit but said he wasn't surprised Homan "has desperately decided to run to the courts with expensive litigation."

The lawsuit was filed as Branstad prepares to resign to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Donald Trump. Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, the incoming governor, also supports the law.

The lawsuit focuses on aspects of the law that exempt certain public safety employees from some prohibited negotiations. Those exempted workers include some law enforcement officers, firefighters, park rangers and peace officers designated by the Iowa Department of Transportation.

The lawsuit argues that the law establishes two classes of public-employee bargaining units. The suit says that designation violates language in the state constitution that requires "uniform operation" on laws of general nature and states the Legislature shall not grant privileges or immunities not equally available to all citizens.

Several workers are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including a correctional officer and a university police officer. Both are not included in the exemption because of how the law is written. The state of Iowa, among other entities, is named among the defendants.

Branstad has said the law would give local governments and school districts more flexibility with their budgets and give employers opportunities to reward good employees. On Monday, Hammes reiterated those points and said organized labor has "hid behind an outdated law that routinely won out against the best interests of Iowa taxpayers." The collective bargaining law was passed in 1974 by a Republican governor.

Hundreds of people had gathered at the state Capitol to protest the bill and to testify against that narrative, including dozens of public workers like teachers and correctional officers. They believe the law will make it harder for local officials, especially in rural areas, to recruit good workers.

In the days before the bill was signed into law, several dozen local governments and school districts signed new employment contracts that will delay some bargaining restrictions by a few years.

The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, could be the beginning of lengthy litigation over the issue. Homan, the union president, said he expects the lawsuit to be resolved through the state Supreme Court.