DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday dismissed four lawsuits by state and local employee unions that argued the Iowa legislature violated their constitutional rights in a 2017 bill that substantially reduced their collective bargaining rights.
In a 4-3 decision that explained its rationale in all four rulings, the court held that the legislation did not violate the equal protection provision of the Iowa Constitution, nor did it violate public employees’ right of free association. In so doing, the court rebuffed efforts by public employee unions to strike down what they saw as the gutting of their rights to collectively bargain on a wide range of wages, benefits and working conditions.
“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” the court said. “We conclude the 2017 amendments withstand the constitutional challenges. The plaintiffs concede there is no constitutional right to public-sector collective bargaining or payroll deductions.”
Iowa’s rewrite of its public employee bargaining law was modeled on the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 bill that sharply curtailed public employee bargaining rights. Iowa Republican leaders pushed the bill through in a matter of days with little debate, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad promptly signed the bill and it went into immediate effect.
Among other things, the amendments to the public bargaining law that had been in place since 1974 preserved most mandatory bargaining rights of unions consisting of 30 percent public safety officers, such as police officers and firefighters. Remaining public employee unions under that 30 percent threshold, however, are limited to bargaining over “base wages” but not benefits, working conditions or a wide range of other issues.
The Iowa justices were deeply divided in the four decisions, with three justices issuing six dissenting opinions, including one by Chief Justice Mark Cady. The chief justice said he agreed with the public employees on the constitutional question of equal protection in the way it divided Iowa public employees into distinct classes with different bargaining rights.
“I agree with the conclusion in the majority opinion that the rational reasons identified are an adequate justification for disparate collective bargaining treatment among public employees,” Cady wrote. “I also agree it is not the role of courts to find criticism of public policy based on disagreement over policy.”
But, the chief justice added: “In this case, the legislation offends our Constitution.”
Five separate decisions were handed down by the court Friday, each addressing a unique issue presented by the plaintiff public employee unions. In only one case on a procedural issue – UE Local 893 – did the justices unanimously side with the union. In Iowa State Education Association, the court upheld the legislation’s ban on payroll deductions for union dues; in Service Employees International Union, it dismissed plaintiffs’ argument that the Iowa Board of Regents had legally accepted the union’s contract offer before the legislative amendments were enacted; and in United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, the court agreed with the state’s definition of what could be negotiated under the term “base wages.”
The court majority laid out its rationale for upholding the 2017 public bargaining amendments in an appeal brought by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
AFSCME argued that the amended bargaining law violated its members’ constitutional rights of equal protection and freedom of association.
Iowa’s version of equal protection in the Iowa Constitution, says: “All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
Applying a rational-basis test, however, the court majority held that the legislature had sufficient basis for treating police officers and firefighters differently from all other state employees, including the increased health and safety risks those workers face on the job, and avoiding labor unrest among public safety employees.
The main rationale advanced during the legislative debates on the collective bargaining amendments – collectively titled House File 291 – centered on the health and safety risks public safety employees face on the job.
“It is inarguable that the legislature could rationally conclude public safety employees face significantly greater risks to their health and safety than other public employees,” Waterman wrote, and he cited recent incidents where police officers were killed in the line of duty.
“We note that on November 2, 2016, just over three months before the enactment of House File 291, two police officers were fatally shot in their squad cars in Des Moines and Urbandale, respectively. And the preceding summer, five police officers were gunned down in Dallas, Texas, and another three officers were shot dead two weeks later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
Also, the court held that the legislature could reasonably conclude that giving public safety employees expanded bargaining rights would discourage them from going on strike.
As for the constitutional freedom of association argument, the court said the amended statute does not diminish unions’ right to collectively bargain over certain topics, nor does it does inhibit their ability to recruit members, engage in political activities or express their views. Moreover, while the legislature reduced mandatory bargaining issues for most public employees, the court said state government bodies, counties, municipalities and school boards are free to negotiate with unions on those issues if they so desire.