Iowa workers rallied at the state capitol in 2011 to protest neighboring Wisconsin's crackdown on public sector unions. In 2017, their own legislators targeted them in an eerily similar way. Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user Phil Roeder

In Iowa, it’s no longer enough to simply vote for union representation. Now, public workers – those working for the state, counties, cities and towns – are being forced to repeat the process every two or three years thanks to anti-union legislation that requires “recertification” votes in the year leading up to a new contract.

In the first round of voting since Republican legislators passed the law in February, tens of thousands of public employees across the state showed just how much they value their voice in the workplace, electing to stick with their unions by a margin of more than 45-to-1.

Four IBEW bargaining units were among the 436 statewide who chose to keep their unions during last month’s voting. And despite the big wins, the ordeal left working people and labor activists feeling targeted and threatened.

“This law was designed to hurt public sector unions, plain and simple,” said Des Moines Local 55 Assistant Business Manager Mike Sawyer. “But they didn’t count on this reaction. They wanted to squash us, but they’re going to be surprised because this is going to make us stronger in the long run.”

The process, which started Oct. 10, was hurried and confusing, frustrating union leaders and the working people they represent. “That’s what they wanted,” said Rich Kurtenbach, a business representative at Waterloo Local 288. “This was rushed from the very beginning. These politicians had trouble finding a competent vendor to do the telephone polling, and then they even designed the survey to hurt us.”

Voting ‘yes’ required workers to go through multiple extra steps to confirm their selection. “If you wanted to vote ‘no,’ you pressed the button and it was done,” Kurtenbach said. “But if you were voting ‘yes,’ you got two extra questions.” It was like they were asking, ‘Are you sure you really want to vote that way?’ They treated working people like children who couldn’t be trusted to make their own decisions.”

Anti-union lawmakers also stacked the deck against working people by counting all non-voters as “no” votes. “Nobody else is held to that standard,” Sawyer said. “When you vote in any other election – from U.S. president to class president – the decision is made by the people who show up. With this, these lawmakers were starting us at a huge disadvantage.”

The law also requires unions to pay $1 per eligible voter, adding an ongoing expense to each expiring contract. “So now we’re paying for people who could potentially vote against us,” Sawyer said. “How’s that for adding insult to injury?”

Nevertheless, across the state more than 93 percent of public-sector bargaining units recertified their union representation, with nearly 88 percent participation. For the IBEW, it was an even bigger win. All four bargaining units up for recertification voted to stick with the union, all by overwhelming margins.

Sawyer said he spent a lot of time at the Mt. Pleasant Municipal Utility, where Local 55 represents  electric, water distribution and clerical workers, talking about why it was important that they stick together and maintain the contract they’d fought for. The effort paid off when 23 of the 25 eligible bargaining unit members chose to maintain their representation.

At Cedar Rapids, Local 204, a unit of bailiffs at the Scott County Sherriff’s Department are up to renew their first contract next year. In Feb. 2015, when the unit was organized, they voted 11-1 to join the IBEW. This time, it was 12-0.

“The anti-union folks got this very, very wrong,” said Local 204 Assistant Business Manager Matt Fischer. They let people from outside our state come in and tell them that it would be a good idea to come after unions, and they underestimated how much our members value having a voice at work. It was a miscalculation, and when the next election comes around, we’ll be there to remind them.”

The outside group, he said, was the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative business lobbying group better known by its acronym, ALEC. ALEC provides draft legislation to Republican lawmakers in state legislatures and regularly targets unions, often taking aim at prevailing wage and project labor agreements and promoting right-to-work.

Local 288 had three public sector contracts expiring next year, but an early contract extension and an automatic recertification because of an error on the part of city officials meant just one unit had to hold an actual election. Of the 31 City of Waverly employees represented by the IBEW, 29 elected to stick with the union.

“The consequences could have been awful if not for the incredible hard work of our stewards and the awareness of our members to realize what these right-wing politicians were up to,” Kurtenbach said. The Waverly unit held a meeting on the first night of voting and he asked the members, “What would you do if the union was gone?” The open discussion helped make real the consequences of a ‘no’ vote for the members. “This opened their eyes,” he said. “None of these politicians campaigned on hurting working people like this, but they were happy to blindside us when they got their chance.”

For the few public-sector units across the state who voted ‘no,’ or failed to receive a majority of eligible voters, those contracts were immediately ruled invalid and a two-year ban was imposed on reorganizing the unit.

That was nearly the fate of a small IBEW unit at Benton Community Schools, where Cedar Rapids Local 1362 Business Manager Shelley Parbs said the group of maintenance and food service employees came close to having their contract invalidated despite winning a huge majority of those voting.

“The way this process was set up was intended to cause situations like this,” she said of the majority requirement that turned a 15-2 vote for the IBEW into a narrow win. “There were 28 members of that unit, but only 19 voted,” she said. Two were spoiled ballots – likely caused by the confusing process – and nine didn’t vote, which effectively counted as ‘no’ votes. Only a single ‘yes’ vote ended up saving the employees from coming into work the next day without a contract.

“These are the very people who need someone representing them,” Parbs said. “Of the people who cast a ballot, 90 percent were with us, but the system was rigged in favor of the anti-union crowd. It still is, and working people need to stand up and fight back when next year’s elections roll around.”

Those elections should be on the minds of the Republican lawmakers, Sawyer said. Statewide, across 468 bargaining units, nearly 28,500 public-sector workers chose to keep their unions while just 624 voted against recertification. More votes will come next year for contracts set to expire in 2019.

“If we can get those folks who were with us to show up at the polls next November, we’re going to send a message to these lawmakers,” Sawyer said. “Don’t mess with working people. Our people understand their votes have consequences. This has opened their eyes.”