Widow of Iowa correctional officer killed on the job speaks in support of unions

Widow of Iowa correctional officer killed on the job speaks in support of unions

Sara McFarland is comforted by Melissa Speed during a rally to support unions and works at the Iowa State Capitol on Monday, Feb. 26. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

February 26, 2024

Sara McFarland wants to make sure her husband’s on-the-job death—during the inmate escape attempt at Anamosa State Penitentiary in 2021— wasn’t in vain.

Her husband, Robert McFarland, was a correctional officer at Anamosa. He and nurse Lorena Schulte were murdered on March 21, 2021, by two inmates trying to escape from the medium-security facility. 

“Robert loved his job and dedicated his life to public service—he was damn good at his job. He enjoyed training new officers in the correct and safe way to do their jobs” Sara McFarland said. “Robert was also a very proud union member. 

“As brother and sister union members, we must unite in Robert and Lorena’s memory and demand action from lawmakers. Employees deserve to be safe and respected every single day as they carry out their duties.”

Since losing her husband three years ago, McFarland has been fighting for public workers’ rights in Iowa. 

She shared her story during the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO’s Monday rally at the Iowa State Capitol.

Monday’s event was to draw attention to how Republican lawmakers’ policies are hurting unions and all Iowa workers. This was the second labor rally in less than a week at the Capitol. Last Wednesday, the Teamsters held a rally to protest a bill under consideration in the Iowa Senate that aims to decertify public unions for actions of their employers they have no control over

Issues discussed at Monday’s rally were Republican lawmakers keeping Iowa’s minimum wage at $7.25 and preventing jurisdictions from raising it locally, Iowa’s “right-to-work” law, and the flaws in Iowa’s law that require public entities to accept the lowest bid for public improvement projects.

Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, also noted unions are still mad about the 2017 legislation that gutted collective bargaining under Iowa Code Chapter 20.

“Not only do we need to fix Chapter 20, there ain’t a dang reason why somebody who is a public employee doesn’t get the same bargain rights as anybody that’s standing behind me,” said Wishman, who had about 100 or so union workers, Democratic lawmakers, and supporters serving as backdrop.

“So let’s not just fix Chapter 20, let’s make Chapter 20 as strong as it possibly can be. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have a vision for the future that doesn’t involve corporations owning this building.”

As part of the Chapter 20 changes, public sector employees—with the exception of public safety, which does not include correctional officers—are limited in what they can negotiate for.

Sara McFarland talked about her frustration that corrections unions are excluded from that public safety carve-out. 

“Today we stand here not just to mourn, but to demand change and demand it now before one more family gets told the horrific, heart-breaking news that their husband, wife, or loved one isn’t coming home,” she said. 

“I promised Robert I would not stop fighting until his brother and sister officers were safe at work. That they have a say in their work environment and that they go home safe every day to their families. Let us all not rest unveil every workplace is a sanctuary of safety and respect.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of the McFarlands’ last name. 

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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