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The Fight Over “Fair Share”: Unions Were Dealt Setbacks by the Iowa Legislature PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 25 April 2007 02:26

Reader issue #630 Both sides sound eminently reasonable.

Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business & Industry, is an eloquent voice against Senate File 413, known as the "Fair Share" bill: "People should not have to join a union to get a job. There's 60 years of law in Iowa that says that."

Jan Laue, executive vice president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, speaks clearly for Fair Share: "You still don't have to belong to a union to get or keep a job [under Fair Share]. You're accepting all of the benefits that the union gets for you, so you are a part of it. If you don't want to be a part of it, then you ought to go work somewhere else."

Those, in a nutshell, are the two major sides on Fair Share. The legislation would allow the levying of fees on workers in government jobs who choose not to join the union that represents them. Whether those fees would be levied, and what amount, would be decided through the collective-bargaining process between employers and unions.

The bill passed the Iowa Senate 28-21 on March 8 and is on the House's "unfinished business" agenda. The current Fair Share bill is a neutered version of the original legislation, which would have covered the private as well as the public sector. The legislation was scaled back in an effort to secure votes.

Twenty-two states presently have right-to-work laws, which forbid making union membership or payment of union dues/fees a condition of employment. Those states are generally in the South and the Great Plains. If Fair Share passes, it wouldn't exactly remove Iowa from the ranks of right-to-work states, but it would be a step in that direction.

As the Iowa General Assembly tries to finish up its work on a state budget this week, the future of the Fair Share legislation is uncertain. Democratic leaders would like to bring it up for a vote, but only after they've secured the votes to pass it. Most observers think those votes simply aren't there right now.

But whatever happens with Fair Share this year, you'll hear about it next year. With Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office, unions see this as an opportunity to seriously undermine Iowa's right-to-work law.

More importantly, the reality of Senate File 413 is that it's an interim measure, one that worries business interests and doesn't satisfy labor unions.

"If the public-employee proposal for this moves forward, or even if it stalls, it's still around for next year," said Elliott Smith, executive director of the Iowa Business Council. "I think both [proponents and opponents] will be actively engaged on the issue throughout 2008.

"Next year, they'll come back and still have an opportunity to consider this issue. You're going to have either side, pro or anti on this issue, wanting it either completely out of there or completely enacted. I don't see the benefit of going halfway on this from either direction.

"It's the proverbial foot in the door."

Ralston said the bill faces an uphill struggle, but that it's not going away. "Each day that goes by and that bill is not brought up for debate in the House, it makes it more and more difficult to pass," he said. "It will be a long, lengthy, emotional debate, and that doesn't happen quickly.

"Some of the folks in unions in Iowa are the most effective political organizers that I've ever met ... . It's truly and sincerely the case: It ain't over 'til it's over. This won't be over this year until the end of session ... and then it'll come up again next year."

Smith concurred. "There is still considerable pressure on Democratic leadership to bring the issue back," he said. "It'll be a long interim for Democratic leadership if they don't do that."

And Laue said that the AFL-CIO still wants a broader Fair Share bill. "It was more of a decision by the legislature to trim down the bill," she said. "Our original proposal was to address both public and private sector."

But she was coy on labor's long-term agenda: "We have to see what happens this year."


What's at Stake

Both unions and business interests are fighting hard on this issue, but you'd be advised to ignore most of the rhetoric.

It's not that the antagonists are lying. It's just that the agendas they're laying out aren't their real agendas, and the language should sometimes be scored with patriotic music.

Smith framed the Fair Share bill as a question of choice: "It's ... a proposal that would remove an element of choice for workers in the state."

The main argument of Dan Smith, executive director of School Administrators of Iowa, was a philosophical one: "We feel that the right-to-work law in Iowa as it exists is a concept that Iowans believe in."

If Ralston is to be believed, this is nearly a constitutional issue. "People ought to be able to have a job, and have that job without having to be affiliated with an organization that they may or may not want to belong to," he said. "They ought to have the opportunity to have a job, and then they ought to also have the opportunity to belong to the organizations they choose to belong to."

Laue, on the other hand, casts it as a question of equality, that people who get the benefits of union activities ought to shoulder some of the cost. "It makes sense to treat all employees the same," she said. "It's a matter of fairness. It's a matter of freedom."

These arguments are all disingenuous to a large extent.

Business doesn't oppose Fair Share because of worker rights; business is afraid that the bill will give unions more resources, which might then result in higher wages and costs.

And the driving force for unions is the increased revenue that they'd get from people who choose not to be union members. The Iowa Business Council's Smith called it "a membership- and revenue-building device."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006 there were 199,000 people (out of 1.4 million workers) employed under a union contract in Iowa, but only 160,600 belonged to a union. For unions, those are the real stakes: the 38,400 people who presently pay nothing to the unions that are required to represent them.

Regardless of motivation, the effort in Iowa is unusual. "We see attempts periodically to undermine and weaken state right-to-work laws," said Greg Mourad, director of legislation for the National Right-to-Work Committee. "Attempts to outright repeal, like what's going on in Iowa right now, are pretty rare. ... No functioning right-to-work law has ever been repealed."

"It's been on the books for so many years that people sort of take it for granted," said Bernie Horn, policy director for the Center for Policy Alternatives. His organization opposes right-to-work laws. "It's really bucking a culture. ... If labor is able to win a couple of these, it would be quite a major victory."

According to the Center for Policy Alternatives - a resource for legislators with a progressive bent - the right-to-work question is one of wages. On its Web site, the organization states: "Because workers' organizing rights are diminished in states with right-to-work laws, an average worker earns about $7,131 a year less than workers in free bargaining states ($30,656 versus $37,787). Across the nation, union members earn $9,308 a year more than nonunion members ($41,652 versus $32,344). Clearly these laws only provide a right to work for less."

That's the real agenda of business, Horn said: "They don't want unions, because then they'll have to pay higher wages."

Right-to-work laws, he added, hamstring unions. "They have less leverage," he said. "They have to do more with less money."

Ralston conceded that businesses are worried about higher wages. "They are concerned about increases in the cost of doing business," he said. "That is a primary concern." But among a handful of anti-Fair Share people interviewed for this article, he was the only one to admit that.

Businesses were more likely to argue that eroding Iowa's right-to-work law would have a negative impact on the state's economy.

Scott Tunnicliff, president and CEO of the Bettendorf Chamber of Commerce, said that a right-to-work law is "something that business thinks is valuable."

And whether the law is actually valuable is irrelevant, he said. Companies that are making site decisions, he noted, might see Iowa's right-to-work status and "would not always look deeper into the nuances of business climate," he said. People making site decisions aren't looking to select a place to do business, he said; "they're looking for a reason to eliminate."

There is also the practical matter of attracting workers, Tunnicliff said. Enacting Fair Share in the private sector, he said, would represent "a transfer of dollars ... from employees into the coffers of organized labor." It would be similar to a new income tax on nonunion employees.

Laue disputed the assertion that Fair Share in any form would harm the state's economy. She said that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri all allow the type of agreements that would be permitted by Fair Share. "Their economies are not suffering at all because of that. The idea that our economy will suffer if we somehow are able to negotiate Fair Share agreements is pretty phony."

Another key issue, Laue said, is that Fair Share doesn't require unions to levy fees against nonmembers. Rather, it would allow Fair Share fees to become part of the collective-bargaining process. In other words, an employer could tell the union that it would refuse to sign a contract that includes fees charged to nonunion workers.

"The legislature is not mandating this," she said. "This is voluntary. It's negotiable."

Ralston said the legislation would affect "the funds available to organized labor" and would also impact siting decisions by businesses. "Those are true and practical applications of this legislation," he said.


Complications of Federal Law

Much of the challenge in deciphering the right-to-work/Fair Share debate is that the language on both sides is loaded. Who doesn't support a right to work? Who doesn't believe people should pay their fair share?

But behind the innocuous terminology is a philosophical battle: If workers vote to let a union be their exclusive representative, should people who choose not to be members have to pay for that union representation?

Federal law makes that a complicated issue.

The Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the Labor-Management Relations Act, was passed by Congress in 1947 and outlawed "closed shops" - companies required by contract with a union to hire only union members.

The law allowed "union shops" - companies that force workers to join a union within a certain time frame after being hired - but also permitted states to pass right-to-work laws that forbid union shops.

The wrinkle is that in right-to-work states, people who don't join a union get many of the benefits of union membership. Unions are obligated under federal law to represent all workers, whether they're members or not. This requirement, called the "duty of fair representation," was established by the courts in the 1940s in cases related to racial discrimination by labor unions.

The effect of the principle is that employees who don't belong to a labor union that has won the right to exclusively represent workers get the same wages and benefits as union members, and the union is required to represent them in grievance procedures. But they don't have to pay anything to that union.

Understanding that federal backdrop is critical to understanding the Fair Share debate. Otherwise, you might get suckered by a half-truth.

Ralston, for example, argues that the principle of Fair Share isn't a problem; it's the way the bill tries to accomplish its aim. "If the issue is that the unions should not have to represent folks who aren't in the union, we would agree with that," he said. "And what we ought to be working on is changing the law in such a way that unions don't have to represent nonmembers. What the Fair Share proposal does is goes at it from the other end, and says that everybody has to pay."

That sounds like a fantastic solution. It's a shame that the Iowa legislature can't do what he's proposing, though. That goes against the duty of fair representation, dictated by federal law and the courts.

His response, in a follow-up e-mail: "My point is that if the issue truly is that unions don't want to have to represent nonmembers in dismissal hearings or the like, our organization would agree with the unions. ... They shouldn't have to represent nonmembers. We would work with them to support a change in federal law to remove the mandate that they represent nonmembers."

Although Ralston initially left out the fact that his aim couldn't be accomplished at the state level, he's making the point that there are approaches beyond that which the unions have suggested.

But there's another angle here. A union provides not only direct services to employees but also negotiates for their compensation rates and benefits. Ralston agreed that if nonunion workers get a financial benefit from collective bargaining - if their wages or benefits are better because of the union - then the current system is unfair, and that wouldn't be corrected by the change he suggests to federal law. "If your premise is that those wages and benefits wouldn't be established without the union, you're right," he said. "I'm not sure everybody buys that premise."

Misleading information isn't limited to people against Fair Share. Horn of the Center for Policy Alternatives repeated a line of reasoning common among labor leaders: "People are getting a benefit without paying for it."

He likened the situation to taxes. People who choose not to join a union aren't much different from taxpayers who don't like how the government spends their money: "I pay taxes to the federal government, even though I don't like the war in Iraq. ... It's just not that unusual that people who may have voted on the other side have to pay what the majority wants. That's democracy."

Mourad, of the National Right-to-Work Committee, noted that representing nonmembers is something that comes with the privilege of being an exclusive representative. Unions, he said, don't have to pursue exclusive representation.

"Once they have claimed that power, they then have a duty to represent all employees," he said. "They don't have to claim the power of exclusive representation. They can organize a union and then go to the employer and say, ‘We'd like to bargain with you for our members only.' ... The reason they choose not to is because they want to be the only representative at the bargaining table. It gives them more power."

I asked Horn whether representing nonmembers was simply the cost of the right of exclusive representation. He didn't disagree, but then changed the subject and said that business - rather than people who aren't union members - throws out that argument. "You could put it that way, but that's not who's making the claim," he said.


A Stealth Issue

It might be telling that there aren't many advocates for Fair Share who are speaking publicly for it. Danny Homan, president of the statewide American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees - the organization that stands to benefit the most from the current incarnation of the bill - did not respond to three phone messages and an e-mail inquiry over the past two weeks.

Democratic legislators are also hesitant to speak about it. Representative Rick Olson, who's managing the bill in the House, did not respond to a phone message or an e-mail inquiry.

Among local legislators, Democrats Nathan Reichert, Elesha Gayman, Jim Lykam, and Cindy Winckler did not respond to an e-mail and a phone inquiry from the River Cities' Reader. Two Republican legislators from this area, Steve Olson and Linda Miller, wrote that they oppose the bill. (Republican Jamie Van Fossen did not respond.)

Among Quad Cities-area senators, Democrats Joe Seng and Frank Wood voted for Fair Share, while Republican David Hartsuch voted against it.

This lack of public discourse could be a function of Fair Share being a "stealth" issue - one that labor leaders hoped to push through the legislature without much debate.

The AFL-CIO's Laue said, "This is something that's long been on labor's agenda," but business leaders said that they didn't hear anybody campaign on it. "It was not a declared priority of anybody," Tunnicliff said.

That's one explanation for the bill's strange journey through the legislature, in the sense that it only applies to government employees in its current form.

Laue said that there's no logical reason for the bill to be limited to public-sector workers. "I think what some folks were thinking was that it would take away the economic-development argument ... that it would lessen the opposition of the business community because it would not affect private business."

That didn't happen. As Tunnicliff said, even the scaled-back Fair Share is "a big deal to us ... a threat to our status or perceived status as a right-to-work state."

"That weakening of the bill did not buy us off at all," said Mourad of the National Right-to-Work Committee.

Those opponents of Fair Share know that if the watered-down version passes this year, organized labor will return soon with the argument that there's no rationale for limiting it to the public sector.

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