Iowa Supreme Court Building Photo credit: Ctjf83 via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 3.0)

DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Supreme Court in two decisions released on Friday morning upheld public employee collective bargaining reform enacted in 2017 when the legislature amended the Public Employee Relations Act (PERA).

The reform, signed into law by former Governor Terry Branstad, ended payroll deductions for union dues and limited the scope of collective bargaining to base pay for bargaining units comprised of less than 30 percent public safety employees.

The Iowa Supreme Court in 4-3 decisions sided with the state affirming district court decisions in AFSCME Iowa Council 61 v. State of Iowa and Iowa State Education Association v. State of Iowa.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote the majority opinion in both cases.

Joining Waterman in the majority in both cases are Justices Edward Mansfield, Susan Christensen, and Christopher McDonald. In the dissent were Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel.

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches. We conclude the 2017 amendments withstand the constitutional challenges,” Waterman wrote.

The plaintiffs complained that while the state by law could no longer withhold pay for union dues, they still withhold pay for charitable causes and dues for some non-union organizations, thus violating the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.

Waterman noted that the state stopped withholding from all public employee unions not just certain unions. He wrote, “The Iowa Constitution does not require public employers to collect dues for the very unions that sit across the bargaining table negotiating at arms’ length for higher wages and costlier employee benefits at taxpayer expense.”

“Public employees do not have a constitutional right to payroll deductions for union dues. There is no constitutional equal protection violation merely because voluntary automatic payroll deductions continue for charities or organizations that do not target the public fisc. Employees remain free to retain their union membership and to pay their union dues directly,” Waterman added.

The plaintiffs also complained that public safety employees and non-public safety employees were treated differently under the law.

“In our view, the foregoing authorities make clear the Iowa Constitution permits the State to treat public safety employees differently from other public employees and to treat bargaining units comprised of at least thirty percent public safety employees better than bargaining units with a smaller percentage,” Waterman wrote.

Waterman noted the plaintiffs did not offer a different threshold that would pass constitutional muster in their view.

“Ten percent? Forty percent? Ninety percent? Perhaps in the plaintiffs’ view preferential treatment can be allowed only for public safety employees isolated in their own bargaining unit with no one else, as in Wisconsin. It is not the court’s role under our separation of powers to redraw the chosen thirty percent threshold,” he wrote.

ASFCME also claimed the collective bargaining reform violated public employees’ right to freely associate with their union.

Waterman pointed out that the change in the law “does not prohibit or restrict unions from soliciting members, disseminating materials, engaging in political activities, or expressing their views.”

ASFCME also claimed they were unfairly targeted by the law as a form of political payback by Republicans.

“The text of House File 291 is facially neutral. The plaintiffs offered no evidence that the thirty percent threshold was chosen to target AFSCME,” Waterman wrote. “House File 291 was enacted within the power of the general assembly. Accordingly, we will not inquire into the subjective motives of individual legislators, regardless of whether political payback inspired some of them.”

Cady joined the minority dissent but wrote a separate opinion in AFSCME Iowa Council 61 v. State of Iowa. He agreed that the state’s reasons for separating public safety employees from other employees valid. He also agreed that it is not the role of courts to “find criticism of public policy based on disagreement over policy.”

“The problem with the law is not its purpose or justification to discriminate, but how the general assembly failed to apply this purpose in articulating the law. Instead of treating public employees differently by dividing them into one group of public safety employees and another group of other public employees, the general assembly passed a law giving different rights to public employees based on their membership in a collective bargaining agreement. The problem is that bargaining units in Iowa contain both public safety employees and other employees,” he wrote.

Appel called the public safety employee classification in the bill a “grab bag.”

“The identification of public safety employees is made not on the basis of an employee’s duties or functions, but rather by the title an employee holds,” he stated.

Appel said that the classification is overinclusive and underinclusive making it suspect and how they are grouped in collective bargaining units can be both overinclusive and underinclusive as some units with consisting of more than 30 percent public safety employees with a supermajority of other employees have broader collective bargaining rights. At the same time, he states, public safety employees who make up 29 percent of a collective bargaining unit do not.

“Make no mistake, House File 291 is really odd,” he wrote.

The floor manager of the bill in the Iowa House praised the decisions.

“I am gratified by today’s ruling and knew all along that our collective bargaining reforms were constitutional,” State Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, said.

“Since our reforms were implemented, we have received many positive comments from schools, cities, and counties who have thanked us for these changes. Today’s decision affirms our commitment to providing local governments with flexibility and giving taxpayers a seat at the table,” he said.

“As the Supreme Court correctly states, Democrats lost at the ballot box. Now they are attempting to use the courts as a weapon to reverse the will of the people. This strategy is at the detriment of hard-working Iowa taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill for more legal costs,” Holt concluded.

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Denny Homan lamented the ruling, but said his organization planned to continue to fight for their members.

“Today’s ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court was a disappointing step backward on the long walk toward justice for public service workers. But those who keep our communities safe, healthy and strong are undeterred by this attack. In a system rigged against working people, we know that sticking together is the best way to win the rights and freedoms we deserve. Our strength lies in our commitment to never quit on our communities, or on one another. We are more determined than ever to organize and fight on behalf of all working families,” he said in a released statement.

“In the coming months, we will be unveiling new efforts to mobilize public service workers in ways never before seen by the State of Iowa. Now that the Supreme Court has issued their ruling, we move forward with clarity, purpose, and resolve. We will show our strength through collective action, continuing to demand dignity and respect on the job. Day by day, member by member, and arm in arm, we will remain a strong and vibrant force for working people. We will continue fighting to sustain our families, improve our workplaces, and strengthen our communities. No court decision can stop that,” he added.

Read the Iowa State Education Association v. State of Iowa decision below:

Read the AFSCME Iowa Council 61 v. State of Iowa decision below:

Photo credit: Ctjf83 via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 3.0)

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