Iowa’s Supreme Court on Friday narrowly upheld a 2017 law that took away bargaining rights for many area state employees, an early signal of the court’s new conservative majority solidified by two recent appointments by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
In cases filed by the Iowa State Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees the divided court ruled 4-3 that the law withstands constitutional challenges and will remain in effect.
The law rewrote the state code that had been in place for 40 years by drastically reducing the number of issues public employee unions could negotiate with state and local governments.
Under the law, at least 30% of a union’s members must work in public safety —such as police officers or state troopers — in order to quality for expanded bargaining on such things as health insurance, vacation time, work conditions and evaluations. Other unions are limited to discussing base salaries but little else.
The unions challenged the law saying it violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution by treating similarly situated state employees differently.
Both decisions written by Justice Thomas Waterman, an appointee of former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad who signed the bill into law said the court will not declare a law unconstitutional unless it clearly infringes upon the constitution.
“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” Waterman wrote.
He was joined by a new conservative majority including another Branstad appointee, Edward Mansfield and two justices recently named to the court by Gov. Kim Reynolds — Susan Christensen and Christopher McDonald.
The majority concluded the Legislature was rational in giving certain public safety employees the right to bargain over many more issues than those in unions in which fewer than a third of members are public safety workers.
The three dissenters include Chief Justice Mark Cady, David Wiggins and Brent Appel. Cady also was appointed by Branstad but often sides with Wiggins and Appel, who were appointed by a Democrat.
Appel wrote that the law’s arbitrary definitions of public safety employees and the differing bargaining rights are not rationally explainable.
Cady said the way the Legislature divided up public employees and awarded some greater negotiating rights than others “falls far too short of our constitution’s demands.”
“Our constitution requires laws to treat similarly situated people equally unless there is an adequate reason otherwise,” he said.
The law also prohibited the state, cities, counties and school districts from allowing payroll deduction for employee union dues while it continues to allow deductions for other purposes including charitable contributions or dues for other professional organizations.
The unions challenged that portion of the law also on equal protection grounds, but Waterman said the 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.”
Appel said it’s obvious the real purpose was for the Legislature to weaken unions by making it more difficult for them to collect dues but he conceded “the Legislature is free to promote, or hinder, the ability of public employee unions to engage in collective bargaining.”
AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said the ruling is disappointing but the union is planning new efforts to mobilize in ways never before seen in Iowa.
“We will continue fighting to sustain our families, improve our workplaces, and strengthen our communities. No court decision can stop that,” he said.
Rep. Steven Holt, the Republican who managed the bill in the House, said Democrats lost at the ballot box and attempted to use the courts as a weapon to reverse the will of the people.
“Today’s decision affirms our commitment to providing local governments with flexibility and giving taxpayers a seat at the table,” he said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said she appreciates the court “standing up for the rule of law and upholding this legislation passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by the governor.”