Since the fall of 2017, tens of thousands of public sector employees in Iowa have participated in annual recertification elections to maintain their union representation.
Recertification became a mandatory requirement for public sector unions across the state when the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature instituted sweeping changes to the state’s decades-old collective bargaining law. In addition to limiting contract negotiations to base wages only, the legislation also required local bargaining units to hold recertification elections to determine whether employees wanted to retain their union representation.
In 2017 and 2018, public employees overwhelmingly voted to recertify more than 400 local bargaining units across the state. This year, recertification elections concluded Tuesday, again affirming the desire of a majority of public employees to maintain union representation.
State Rep. Jeff Kurtz, D-Fort Madison, was not in the Legislature the year collective bargaining changes were implemented, but he is a retired locomotive engineer with BNSF Railway and a past head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen legislative department.
“They had very good luck in the past, since this law was passed,” said Kurtz, referencing his recent conversations about recertification with the Lee County Labor Chapter. “It does put an undue burden on the union and on union members to try to get this done, and it costs a lot of money to do. I see no benefit for anybody to do this.”
Recertification elections are about more than casting a yes or no vote, Kurtz said. The union is responsible for educating its members on the process and how their vote, or lack thereof, would affect the union.
“It’s not that you simply have a meeting and cast a vote, there’s a lot of education to it,” he said.
Unions affected by recertification elections include those representing public safety officers, teachers, social workers, municipal employees and other public sector workers.
“I think the membership understands exactly what they would lose if they did lose their union,” Kurtz said.
Adversity Inspires Activism
Between its once-vibrant manufacturing sector and longtime Democratic voters, Southeast Iowa is considered a union-heavy part of the state. As factories have closed and union members have become less reliable Democrats, however, Rep. Kurtz has noticed the shift in his local community.
“Labor and unions are important down here,” he said. “The things that have changed is a lot of our union members have become more conservative. I feel like they don’t understand what’s at stake when we go into an election. By voting on issues other than their jobs, it makes it hard to protect their jobs.”
In Lee County, Teamsters Local 238 in Keokuk, the sheriff department’s PPME Local 2003 and AFSCME Local 2005 in Keokuk were among the many bargaining units recertified as a result of the fall elections.
Kurtz represents a corner of the state that was key to the modern labor movement in Iowa.
On May 6, 1970, teachers and custodians in Keokuk went on strike to protest low wages. Four teachers were jailed over the course of the three-day strike. Since then, no teachers in Iowa have gone on strike thanks in part to the implementation of arbitration. In 1974, the state’s collective bargaining law went into effect as a way of disincentivizing strikes.
Southeast Iowa was once a manufacturing hub in the state, but like many blue-collar pockets across the country, factories have closed and wages have remained stagnant across several decades.
“It’s eroded down here in Southeast Iowa, definitely,” said Carrie Duncan, of New London, on local union membership. “We’ve lost so many manufacturing facilities around. It was very strong labor, but I see a turnaround coming in this area.”
Especially in light of the collective bargaining and workers’ compensation changes enacted in 2017, Duncan said she has seen an uptick in activism among everyday union members who were not engaged in the past.
Duncan, working at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, is vice president of the Lee County Labor Chapter and a member of the Des Moines-Henry County Labor Alliance. She is politically active, running for former Mount Pleasant Rep. Dave Heaton’s House seat in 2016, and plans to participate Friday in the March to End Corporate Greed with Sen. Bernie Sanders.
‘A Melting Pot For Labor’
“We’re turning upward now again,” Duncan said. “You can see it in things that are happening here in labor in Southeast Iowa. It’s going to turn around, because it had really, really eroded terribly. This was a melting pot for labor in the state, but we lost Siemens in Burlington … unfortunately, people have had enough now and labor is taking a stance.”
Despite the burden recertification elections have placed on public sector unions, Duncan said the local efforts taken to educate members on the voting process has helped them understand the ramifications of Republicans’ 2017 votes to shakeup collective bargaining.
“We’re getting stronger because of the education and recertification,” Duncan said. “Some people just didn’t know how the pieces of the puzzle were put together that way. I’m a firm believer in the men and women of the working class that, you know, once they’ve put all those pieces of the puzzle together, they’ll say we’ve had enough, we’re not taking it anymore. We’re standing up and fighting back.”
State Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, remembers his 27 years as an employee of the Iowa State Penitentiary at a time when workers there constantly fought for the competitive wages and benefits enjoyed by today’s employees.
Now that workers have experienced changes to wages, insurance benefits and a diminished emphasis on seniority, Taylor has noticed more of a sense of urgency among union members.
“It’s actually probably unified them even more than they were before,” said Taylor. “Before, they were all members, but they weren’t terribly active. And so now they’re mad about something, so they’re active and they’re coming out and voting overwhelmingly to recertify, especially the bigger unions because they know what they have and what the state took away from them — in regards to their rights in the workplace — to bargain even for just simply their seniority.”
If the collective bargaining changes implemented in 2017 had happened back when he was working, Taylor said employees likely would have gone on strike.
“I remember the battles that we fought and what we gave up to get where we’re at, and people today didn’t fight those battles,” Taylor said. “But they will be fighting them, because now they’re starting to realize that they have the benefits and they’re starting to lose them one by one.”
By Elizabeth Meyer