With Republicans in control of state government, Iowa union leaders approached this legislative session with apprehension, but say they never envisioned lawmakers would approve such dramatic changes to laws governing worker rights and pay.
GOP legislators, with support from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, have tightened the workers’ compensation system, severely limited the scope of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions and banned local minimum wage increases, reversing raises in some counties. Amid budget shortfalls, Republicans allowed only a small increase for K-12 schools and reduced funding for state agencies and Iowa’s three public universities.
GOP leaders said they made tough but necessary budget choices to ensure stability and have approved changes that will spur business activity.
Others describe it as a war on workers.
“I knew unions were going to be in for some tough times,” said Danny Homan, president of the state’s largest public employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. “I never envisioned that they would go to this extreme.”
Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, offered a similar assessment, adding he’s especially worried lawmakers simultaneously pushed several laws restricting worker rights.
“In a typical experiment, you might introduce one variable to see what the impact would be,” he said. “They have introduced so many variables here, and I think they will have many unintended consequences. We put our state on a path in the wrong direction.”
Republicans and business groups acknowledged the Legislature has approved major changes, but they argue that after nearly 20 years with Democrats in control of one or both chambers, the state needed to update its laws.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix said Republicans were delivering on campaign promises and carrying out the will of constituents.
“Iowa voters sent us here to change the way we do business,” Dix said. “They didn’t want us to continue on the same path.”
Matt Everson, Iowa director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said small businesses needed legislative action to rein in costs because it allows them to grow and ultimately add employees.
“This was part of the whole picture,” he said. “All of these things the Legislature is doing for businesses is just creating a climate for Iowa to compete with Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City and Omaha, and those states, to get people here. It creates a more competitive business climate for Iowa.”
The changes in Iowa have drawn attention around the country, especially since the state had a reputation of taking a middle-of-the-road stand on public policy, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Bronfenbrenner said the changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation system have been especially significant. Although 36 states have changed workers’ compensation laws since 2014, Iowa’s reduced coverage places limits on the most job-inhibiting injuries, she said, such as shoulder injuries and permanent injuries impacting the whole body.
When combined with other laws approved by the Legislature, Bronfenbrenner said she thinks more Iowa residents would have to rely on Social Security disability and Medicaid.
“This is basically going to be putting people into poverty,” she said. “I have not heard of anybody doing these kinds of cuts, but now they’re going to get ideas from Iowa, that used to be such a progressive state.”
Claudia Pettit, an officer with the local Teamsters union, said many workers feel bewildered.
“Some of are battling terminal diseases and they are worried, severely worried, about what’s going to happen to not only their jobs, but their insurance and how they’re going to take care of their family,” she said. “I think that is shameful for us to put a worker in that situation. I think Iowa failed them.”
Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg, of Cedar Rapids, called the session “the worst assault on workers by the Iowa Legislature, certainly in my 15-year career and probably longer.”
Homan said it’s hard for him to believe how much has changed and how quickly.
“They are going to everything in one time, get it all done, wipe everybody out, and we’ll see what’s left,” he said. “This has been a nightmare scenario.”
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