In Iowa, they had the power to put criminals behind bars, but Linn County Sheriff’s Department sergeants didn’t have a seat at the bargaining table.

Linn County Sheriff’s Sergeant Steve Erceg was instrumental in organizing his own unit into the IBEW in 2014.

That’s why late in 2012, Sgt. Steve Erceg approached his old friend, Mike Knox, a lead organizer in the IBEW’s membership development department, with questions about the union.

“We’re the second largest county in the state,” Erceg said, “but we were making less than the sergeants at five or six other departments, and we needed help getting it fixed.”

The problem, he said, wasn’t with the sheriff or any of the command staff, but with county officials who weren’t allocating the funds to properly compensate the 21 sergeants on staff. That meant very few deputies, who were well paid and happy with their representation, were taking the sergeant’s exam required for promotion -- a problem for the sheriff, who needed to groom the next generation of leadership.

In good faith, the sheriff tried to make things work, convincing county officials to give each of his sergeants a $10,000 raise at the time, and everyone agreed to try to make a go of it without a union.

“I told them at the time, if you’re talking about a union now, you’ll be talking about it again,” Knox said. Two years later, he was proven right.  Having not had a raise since, Erceg said one of his fellow sergeants asked about talking to the IBEW again.

“I told him we’d go back to Mike [Knox] on two conditions,” Erceg said. “Everyone had to be on board, and the sheriff had to know about it.” So Knox approached Cedar Rapids Local 204. At the first meeting, all but three of the 21 sergeants signed union cards immediately, and the remaining holdouts followed soon after.

After a lengthy fight with the county, which considered the sergeants to be supervisors ineligible to form a union, in September 2014, the group voted 19-1 to join the IBEW. By February 2015, they had a first contract, assuring them a 21-percent raise over the next five years, and bringing their pay in line with what they should have been making from the start.

“It was a huge victory for us,” Erceg said. “All we ever wanted from the start was to be compensated appropriately for a county our size. We loved our jobs, and we didn’t feel like we were asking for a lot.”

Local 204 Business Manager Dave George said working with the Linn County sergeants was a great experience. “They knew what they wanted, they stuck together, and we were able to help them get it. You can’t ask for a better outcome than that.”

The local news covered their successful effort, and before long, Knox and Local 204 began hearing from other law enforcement units interested in learning more about the IBEW.

First, they heard from the bailiffs in nearby Scott County. Then, Local 204 got a call from the assistant prosecutors in Linn County, who were concerned about the widening gap between their own salaries and those of County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden and his top deputies.

“It’s not hard to figure out why these groups want the benefits of a union,” said Local 204 Assistant Business Manager Matt Fischer. “In the public sector, they can see what their colleagues are making both at home and in neighboring counties, and they want to be treated fairly and paid what they’re worth.”

For both groups, Knox and Fischer asked Erceg to join them at the initial meetings to talk about his experience with the IBEW. “I was honest with everyone,” he said. “I told them it’s a long process, but you have to stay together. More importantly, you have to want it. I said you’re not going to get everything you want the first time, but you can get a little bit at a time, and in the end, you’ll have a seat at the table.”

Knox said Erceg’s message was invaluable to both groups, and when the time came for elections, both units voted overwhelmingly to join Local 204 – the bailiffs, 11-1 in February 2015 and the attorneys, 13-2 in May. By the end of June, both groups signed their first contracts.

“We were able to get both done quickly because of our previous experience with the sergeants,” Fischer said, “and we think everyone came away happy with the results.”

The positive press surrounding those two organizing efforts brought Fischer and Knox yet another group of officers looking for better representation at work. This time, it was the Cedar County sheriff’s deputies, whose department had done away with step raises, disadvantaging newer deputies who had no way to gain ground on the higher salaries of their more experienced co-workers.

Erceg, who at this point could only be considered the local’s secret weapon, was called upon yet again, and he gave the deputies the same spiel he’d used twice before. In May 2016, members of the group voted 10-0 for union representation and reached a first contract in February of this year. That three-year agreement took effect on July 1.

Meanwhile, back at the Linn County Sheriff’s Department, Erceg said things are going great. Applications for sergeant are up as much as 500 percent, and the sergeants have made the most of their seat at the table, working with the sheriff to move to more flexible 12-hour shifts.

“The sheriff’s happy, the sergeants are happy. We couldn’t be any more pleased with our decision,” Erceg said.

Knox and Fischer have had preliminary conversations with even more public safety employees who have been closely following the success stories around Local 204. “We’re hopeful we can keep this momentum going,” Knox said. “People in Eastern Iowa who need a voice in their workplace know where to come for help.”