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Iowa Democrats prepare for Wisconsin-type collective bargaining threat

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DES MOINES — “Wisconsin comes to Iowa next week” was the message Iowa Democrats delivered Thursday as they prepare to square off against Republicans over House Study Bill 117, legislation that makes changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws for public employees.

If passed, the legislature or governor could veto decisions made by an arbitrator, and public employee unions would no longer have the ability to negotiate health care or retirement plans. It would also allow employees to become “free agents,” who can negotiate their terms of employment directly with employers even if they are in a union shop.

Both sides said they expect large turnouts for a public hearing on the bill Monday night, and are already making arrangements for audio to be provided to those who are not able to find space in the Iowa House.

“It’s our intent to have our voices be heard and to make sure Iowans know the bill that’s moving forward ends our current collective bargaining system in Iowa,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Des Moines).

Another piece of legislation would require an arbitrator to consider benefits and salaries in the private sector when making a ruling on a public union’s contract.

“I think we stand in unity with the House Democrats, it’s about educating people,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs). “People talk about our collective bargaining system being out of balanced. It is so out of balance that education was able to bargain themselves up all the way to 42nd in the country in teacher pay. Does that sound out of balance against government?”

Gronstal added he believed it’s about “pitting Iowans against Iowans.”

But Republicans said changes are needed and having public employees who do not contribute anything towards their health insurance is unrealistic. According to state records, about 13 percent of state employees pay a share of their health insurance coverage.

“When I look through e-mail traffic and when I talk to people back home, it’s that government continues to cost too much,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha). “Some of the total compensation packages aren’t reflective of what’s going on in the private sector.”

But during a recent open enrollment period, more employees moved into a free HMO plan that costs the state less than the plans that require the employee to contribute. And recent studies by the Iowa Policy Project and the New York Times both found private sector employees earned significantly more than the public sector.

Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan think tank based in Iowa City, found Iowa males working as public employees earned 12 percent less than their private sector counter-parts, females earned 16 percent less. Even when adding in other forms of compensation, such as retirement and health care benefits, the study found public employees still earned less.

The bill which would require analysis of public and private sector wages does not state specifically how it would be considered.

Last week, around 1,000 protesters gathered outside of the Capitol to show solidarity with the Wisconsin public unions and to show their disagreement with proposed legislation in the House. Then on Saturday, another 500 protesters showed up in the snow to condemn Republican efforts to alter collective bargaining rights.

Four recent national polls show the public supports union bargaining rights, although an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found a majority thought it was fine if public employees paid more toward their health insurance and pensions, and freezing pay increases for a year.

Of the top groups making outside campaign expenditures nationally in the 2010 elections, excluding party committees, the only ones that favored Democrats were public employee unions — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association. Many have suggested if they were weakened, Republicans would then have a monopoly on some of the largest campaign contributors.

Many states throughout the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, are debating some form of legislation which would alter public unions or collective bargaining rights. A study out this week by the Economic Policy Institute found states that have adopted right-to-work laws have not increased their employment.

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