Labor spotlight

Iowa teachers choose to keep their union

Thousands of participants in the March for Iowa’s TeachersCourtesy of Iowans for Public EducationGathered on the steps of the Iowa Capitol last February are some of the thousands of participants in the March for Iowa’s Teachers, which protested proposed changes to the state’s collective bargaining laws.  

Iowa teachers, defying a hostile political climate, are sending the hopeful message that organized labor is still the voice they choose.

Educators and other public employees in Iowa, forced to recertify their unions each time a contract expires under new GOP-driven collective bargaining laws, overwhelmingly voted in October to retain their representation.

“It would be ironic if the attempt to squash the unions actually ends up strengthening them,” said Karen Nichols, the founder of Iowans for Public Education.

Of 468 statewide recertification elections this fall, unions won 436, according to the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board. The Iowa State Education Association said 216 of its 220 locals that voted were among those recertifying.

“Teachers who are treated with dignity, who are compensated fairly and who have a voice in curriculum and administration are better teachers who better serve our students,” said social studies teacher Jonathan Grieder, explaining why he voted to recertify his bargaining unit, the Waterloo Education Association. “Unions are vital to ensuring that teachers get a fair shake at the bargaining table.”

Iowa’s state Legislature approved the new laws in February, dramatically scaling back the issues that can be negotiated by public employees and creating separate bargaining processes for public safety and non-public safety workers. Educators, for example, may negotiate only base wages. Some issues, including evaluation procedures and staff reductions, are explicitly excluded from talks, while others, such as grievance procedures and seniority-related benefits, can be negotiated if both union and employer agree to discuss them.

It was “absolutely a national attack that came into Iowa,” said Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro. “They said they needed to tweak the system and then they went in and gutted it.”

Yet more than 85 percent of the 33,252 eligible voters statewide — nearly 23,000 of them educators — voted to retain their unions. Ballots not cast were counted as no votes according to the new laws, meaning bargaining units had to be approved by a majority of employees covered under their contracts, not just a majority of people who voted.

After years of strong collective bargaining, Wawro said, the union members never thought legislators would hurt them and they are fighting back.

Deborah Vaughan, an English teacher in Vinton, is a member of the Vinton-Shellsburg Education Association whose contract has not yet expired. “Though our bargaining rights have been stripped, we need to maintain those we still have,” said Vaughan. “One of the big reasons I will vote to maintain the union is that it still gives us some legal protections in the workplace. And it’s one of the few tools for guaranteeing a high quality of teacher for our students.”

About 80 percent of public school educators in Iowa, a right-to-work state that does not permit the collection of agency fees, are members of the union. “People already have chosen to be our members,” said Wawro, “and they are willing to talk to nonmembers and to build relationships. Because we are right to work, we have to have one-on-one conversations and we have to make sure local leaders are informed,” she added. “We’re only as strong as our locals.”

The Iowa State Education Association has more than 400 locals in 306 school districts. “We’re definitely seeing that it’s important to have one voice to lead the charge across the state,” Wawro said.

Nichols points out that Iowans “love public education: there’s a schoolhouse on our quarter.” Historically, she said, the state’s public schools were envied around the nation. But, said Grieder, “so long as we continue to attack teachers, we will never achieve that status again.”

Vaughan is hopeful that the new laws are “a temporary setback.”

“I am a believer in collective bargaining,” she said. “It’s really the only voice the little guy has for balancing rights and responsibilities. If we let unions go, we can’t get that voice back.”

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