(CN) – In a blow to Iowa’s public labor unions, a state judge upheld sweeping changes limiting the rights of more than 180,000 government workers to collectively bargain for health insurance, better pay and other benefits.
Polk County Chief District Court Judge Arthur Gamble sided with the state in a 23-page ruling Monday, finding that Iowa had established a “rationally credible concern” that public safety could be jeopardized if the state did not preserve more generous bargaining rights for police officers and firefighters than other government workers.
Amendments to House File 291 made by state lawmakers were signed into law in February by former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
The law allows collective bargaining rights for 30 percent of public safety employees, including firefighters and police officers. The changes exclude other safety workers, including university campus police officers and airport firefighters. More broadly, the law limits most public employees so they can only negotiate for base pay.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61, abbreviated as AFSCME, represents 400,000 government workers including University of Iowa campus police officers.
It mounted a legal challenge to HF 291 on the grounds that it violates the state’s equal-protection laws by treating similarly situated government workers differently.
There have been no strikes by police officers or public employee strikes since the Iowa Public Employment Relations Act came into effect in 1974.
But Judge Gamble nevertheless found that the state had established a public safety issue that could arise if police unions or other groups chose to go on strike.
The judge noted that while strikes had not occurred, the dismantling of collective bargaining rights could lead to the erosion of morale, job dissatisfaction and civil unrest.
“A reasonable legislature could rationally conclude it is necessary to preserve the rights of collective bargaining units of at least thirty percent [of] public safety employees in order to preserve a reliable corps of law enforcement authorities to deal with emergencies,” Gamble wrote in Monday’s ruling.
Public employee unions do not have a constitutional right to organize or collectively bargain in Iowa. The state did not have to “prove,” in the traditional sense of the word, why police and firefighters have greater bargaining powers. It only had to offer a “plausible justification,” the judge wrote.
AFSCME had argued that the notion that employees would strike on university campuses, or indeed anywhere in the state, was remote because strikes by public employees are barred by the Public Employment Relations Act.
The union called the state’s attempts to raise the specter of civil unrest arising from possible strikes an “irrational fear,” according to the ruling.
But Gamble said the burden was on AFSCME to show that it was not in the government’s interest to allow public safety officers greater protections, and emphasized the importance of keeping public safety officers happy to avoid job dissatisfaction among their ranks.
“Given the potential for some form of labor unrest following the passage of H.F. 291, a reasonable legislature could rationally conclude that a reliable corps of public safety employees is a priority in order to protect the public in the event of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a public health emergency,” Gamble wrote.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ spokeswoman Brenna Smith said that Monday’s ruling meant that two “highly-respected” judges had rejected the unions’ claims.
“Last session, the legislature updated Iowa’s 43-year-old collective bargaining law to bring fairness for Iowa taxpayers and flexibility to local governments, schools and state government to manage their resources with the opportunity to reward good public employees,” Smith wrote in an emailed statement. “We’re already hearing from school administrators that the law is giving them more flexibility to manage their budgets and provide students with the best education possible.”
AFSCME did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the ruling.
On Oct. 18, Polk County District Court Judge Michael Huppert dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Iowa State Education Association challenging HF 291 on similar equal protection grounds.
Thousands of government employees, including teachers and correctional officers, voted last week to recertify 36 out of 436 eligible public-sector bargaining units, according to the Des Moines Register.
Under the new law, a majority of public service workers in each bargaining unit must vote to retain their union every time their contracts are up for renewal, the AFSCME said on its website.