Labor protest in the Wisconsin State Capitol
Photo credit: Emily Mills (CC-By-NC-ND 2.0)
Labor protest in the Wisconsin State Capitol
Photo credit: Emily Mills (CC-By-NC-ND 2.0)

Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) signed the historic collective-bargaining reform legislation that provides public employee contract negotiations to be limited only to wages. Supporters of the reform measure argue that public employees need to pay more for their health benefits to make it more equitable with those in the private sector. In addition, the reform measure will save Iowa taxpayers money, just as a similar reform measure, Act 10, in Wisconsin saved $5 billion.

The debate over collective bargaining will most likely shift to the Iowa courts as labor leaders argue the law is unjust and violates the so-called constitutional right to collective bargaining. The Des Moines Register reported that AFSCME leader Danny Homan stated the union will “continue to fight this” and that the law is unfair. Under the law, public safety officers such as police officers and firefighters are exempt. This is one aspect, in addition to the “right” to collective bargaining, that opponents of the law are hoping to argue violates the law.

Opponents of the collective bargaining law will argue that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the of the United States Constitution and a similar clause in the Iowa Constitution. Governor Scott Walker’s (R-WI) Act 10 measure was also challenged in the courts by labor unions. In Madison Teachers, Inc. v. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that Act 10 did not violate the United States Constitution or the Wisconsin Constitution. Further, the Court ruled that “collective bargaining over a contract with an employer is not a fundamental right for public employees….”

Act 10 also faced a legal challenge in the federal courts. In Wisconsin Education Association Council, et al. v. Walker, et al., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld Act 10’s restrictions on collective bargaining. In regard to the argument that Act 10 discriminated or treated different groups of public-employee unions unfairly because of the exemption of public safety officers, Judge Joel Flaum wrote:

“Wisconsin is correct that the collective-bargaining limitations constitutionally promote flexibility in state and local government budgets by providing public employers more leverage in negotiations. This alone, however, is not enough to save the provision because the differential treatment of public safety and general employee unions must also be rational. On this point, the district court upheld the classifications because Wisconsin could rationally believe that Act 10’s passage would result in widespread labor unrest, but also conclude that the state could not withstand that unrest with respect to public safety employees. We agree that Wisconsin reasonably concluded that the public safety employees filled too critical a role to risk such a stoppage….”

In other words, public safety officers serve a unique role in protecting society, and having them strike would not serve the public interest. Historically, this is the argument President Ronald Reagan used when he ordered the air traffic controllers back to work and when Governor Calvin Coolidge settled the Boston police strike, stating that there was no right to strike against public safety. Act 10 survived another federal court challenge in the Seventh Circuit in Laborers Local 236, AFL-CIO, et al. v. Scott Walker. Once again the court upheld the law as constitutional.

The reform to Iowa’s Chapter 20 collective bargaining law may not be a carbon copy of Wisconsin’s Act 10, but the legal questions that arise will be the same. It is clear based on the opinion of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that not only was Act 10 constitutional, but collective bargaining is not a fundamental right. In addition, it does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, and it can exempt public safety officers because of the public service they provide.

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