Democrats on the House Labor Committee fought back against a new Republican proposal during a marathon meeting on Wednesday night. On Monday House Republicans had introduced without warning a bill to change collective bargaining rights for public school teachers. The proposal would weaken teachers’ negotiating abilities during contract disputes by giving more power to an arbitrator on final contract decisions. Democrats contend that wasn’t the original intent of Chapter 20 rules, the law that lays out how teachers and school districts negotiate and prohibits teacher strikes.
Throughout the meeting Democratic committee members pointed out the success of the current law, which was set up under a Republican governor and legislature. Democrats noted that only four cases went to an arbitrator in 2014. “If there’s 100 cases that went to arbitration you might think it’s not working right,” said Representative Jerry Kearnes before the meeting. Others argued that the current setup encourages teachers and districts to work together to narrow down areas of dispute to one or two topics. Allowing an arbitrator to choose anything in-between “undermines the whole process,” said Representative Todd Taylor. That could also cause increased costs with more fact-finding and hearings necessary.
However, most of the meeting focused on what Democrats felt was the real motivation behind the rule change: an attempt by Republicans to delay and distract from the education funding debate. Republicans still insist on a 1.25% increase in supplemental state aid to schools, while Democrats are sticking with their 4% increase proposal.
“I think this whole meeting, this whole bill, is just a big distraction for what’s really important,” Representative Sharon Steckman said. “I’m really offended, as a 30-year teacher, that you’d use teachers as a whipping boy for not funding education.” Taylor categorized it as “a bill designed to bully teachers.”
“House Study Bill 204 is a direct attack on the very people who should be the number one focus of this state: our teachers and our kids,” argued Representative Bruce Hunter. He claimed Democrats were ambushed on the topic, having little warning that it was coming. Hunter noted that he hadn’t heard many Republicans speaking about arbitration changes in relation to school funding until this week.
Representative Abby Finkenauer criticized the additional consequences the bill could have. “75% of our teachers are women,” she said. “This bill only goes after teachers. It doesn’t go after superintendents, who are 86% men … With this bill we’re going after our teachers, our children, our women. This is some pretty terrible public relations for the Republican Party.”
Democrats offered two “strike-after” amendments to the bill, which essentially would have changed the entire purpose of it. The Republican chair Greg Forristall noted they weren’t germane, but allowed discussion and a vote on both. Taylor first introduced an amendment to add teacher class sizes as a part of the negotiating process. “This is a good amendment on a bad, bad bill,” said Representative Kirsten Running-Marquardt. Later, Finkenauer offered an amendment that would include teacher prep time as a negotiating topic. Both amendments were voted down by the committee in a party-line 10-7 vote.
Taylor mentioned that there were an “unlimited number of amendments we could have come up with.” It wasn’t quite an all-out filibuster-style event, but it was close. Democrats drug the committee late into the evening, lasting a little over five hours in all. Scheduled to start at 4:00, Democrats caucused for about an hour and a half before returning to the room, where each Representative spoke at length on the bill and amendments. Hunter ended his comments of the night by warning Republicans, “You may have been inconvenienced tonight … that’s nothing compared to what 43 of us are going to do if this bill hits the floor of the House of Representatives … we’ll do everything in our power to make sure this bill does not become law.”
Notably, only one of the ten Republicans spoke on the bill, the chair Forristall. “House Republicans dedicated more than half of the new revenue this coming year to K-12 education,” he said. “That makes it our number one priority … This is not an attack on anyone. This is an attempt to reform a 40-year-old system, which administrators and board members from around the state tell me is tipped in favor of the employees.” He contended that the reason arbitration is seldom-used is because school districts are afraid of it. Earlier in the week, Iowa Public Radio interviewed House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, who argued that teachers are getting too large of raises.
The bill passed out of committee 10-7, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats opposing it. The education funding increase is already in a joint committee, and Senator Herman Quirmbach, chair of the Senate Education Committee, predicted the arbitration topic was going nowhere. “That isn’t going to be part of the discussion,” Quirmbach said earlier in the week. “By rule the conference committee cannot address any subject not in the original bill.” He added, “I don’t know why anyone would want to do away with a law that prohibits teachers from striking.”
by Pat Rynard