What Is Recertification And Why Does Iowa Make Public Unions Do It?

Iowa labor unions protest a 2015 visit by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker/Iowa Federation of Labor photo

Nearly 180 public unions in Iowa are currently in the midst of being forced to vote on keeping their union, or else the state will take it away.

It’s called “recertification,” and it’s mandatory of certain public unions in Iowa since the Republican-majority legislature passed an anti-union law five years ago.

Changes to Chapter 20, or the collective bargaining law, reverses the way public unions normally operated in the state.

Instead of continuing along as normal, voting for or against their union only if members wanted to decertify, the new law made decertification the default, forcing union members to constantly vote to keep their union.

Additionally, union members who do not vote are counted as “no” votes, meaning turnout is a matter of literal life or death for a union. (And the union has to pay for each arbitrary election, too.)

“It very, very much is one of the most undemocratic things you can think of,” said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

But how did it come to this?

The original anti-union governor

The first domino that fell in conservative states rolling back union rights came in 2011. Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker apparently saw an opportunity to severely diminish the growing political power of unions in his state. He made Wisconsin the first state to restrict most public union bargaining rights (notably, not his favored police and fire unions).

Teachers protested en masse, knowing Walker’s ultimate goal was gutting this threat to his political power. It turned out they had reason to worry: Just four years after that vote, union membership in affected public unions in Wisconsin was cut in half.

To Republican governors, however, this looked like a great idea. More than a dozen passed similar laws in their own states in the decade since, including in Iowa.

“It really sent a signal to other state governments across the US,” Wishman said. “It was expected of very conservative states to go after public unions.”

But that’s come at the price of quality education.

In five states (not including Iowa) that enacted restrictions in 2011 and 2012 alone, teacher salaries decreased by 5% and benefits by almost 10%, according to a 2021 report. That one policy change led to fewer teachers and worse student outcomes in those states.

Iowa joins the anti-union party

Iowa’s 2017 anti-union law was signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad and limits the bargaining of around 180,000 public employees.

City garbage collectors, teachers, state prison workers, and more (but not police unions) could now only bargain on wages—and were barred from asking for more than 3% raises or the cost of living increase, whichever was lower.

“It’s built into the law that public employees will never, ever get a raise equal to or above inflation, no matter how good a job they do,” Wishman said.

And though unions still recertify at high rates in Iowa, it’s more difficult to convince someone that a union can address your grievances when you’re “seeing one-page contracts,” Wishman said.

He sees two ways of fixing the problem: One way is to scrap Chapter 20 altogether, going back to how public unions were allowed to bargain prior to 2017. The second is to go beyond that, giving public union employees the same rights as private-sector employee unions have under the National Labor Relations Act.

“We need to have a massive change in both the Legislature as well as the governor if you want to see change in this,” Wishman said.


By Amie Rivers

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1 Comment on "What Is Recertification And Why Does Iowa Make Public Unions Do It?"

  • “Additionally, union members who do not vote are counted as “no” votes, meaning turnout is a matter of literal life or death for a union. (And the union has to pay for each arbitrary election, too.)”
    Indeed. So, with all the good news about unions who managed to recertify, one of the major unions in our community wound up no longer a part of the union. The vote was 17-1 in favor of recertification – but the membership was 34, and those 16 absent voter were all recodred as a “no”. 17-17, so the recert failed. Grrrr! (I’m sure our union people are NOT pleased)

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