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Despite setbacks, labor has high hopes for 2010
To say that Iowa’s 2009 legislative session was a disappointment for organized labor would be an understatement.
None of labor’s four priorities — choice of doctor, prevailing wage, open-scope bargaining and fair share — garnered the 51 votes needed in the Iowa House to pass, despite a 56-44 Democratic majority that organized labor helped build.
And looking ahead to 2010, Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, told the Associated Press he is doubtful the labor bills will pass any time soon, saying next year’s legislative elections make the issues too complicated.
Despite these setbacks, Iowa labor leaders remain optimistic that their agenda could succeed in 2010. It’s only a matter of time before they find the majority they need to pass their legislation, they say.
“I like to think that good legislation gets passed regardless of whether it is an election year or not,” said Marcia Nichols, political and legislative director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. “If it’s good public policy, then it’s good public policy during an election year, too. I’m optimistic we will continue to move forward and get the votes we need to get legislation passed.”
Iowa hasn’t taken a hard look at its labor laws since the early 1970s, when public employees were first given the right to bargain, said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO. So it is understandable that labor unions need to educate the voters on why their issues are important.
“We need to explain the issues better and be more clear to ensure the public is educated on what we believe are fairness issues,” he said.
A majority of Iowans still opposes so-called ‘fair share’ legislation, which would allow unions to charge nonunion employees for services they receive from the union, according to a recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. But a slimmer margin opposes a ‘prevailing wage’ standard, which would set minimum pay and benefits for workers on government construction projects. And a majority favors expanding collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, which is another piece of the labor agenda in Iowa.
“The more people learn about these issues the more they support them,” Nichols said.
Organized labor’s short-term focus is on educating legislators, Nichols said. But with elections just around the corner, labor will also pledge to do what it can to help those who already support its agenda.
“You dance with the one that brung you,” she said. “That applies to us and the people who help us out. Certainly we are going to work to get our friends re-elected.”
Sagar said the looming election in November 2010 shouldn’t make it more difficult for labor bills to pass earlier in the year. He thinks it could actually make it easier.
“The folks who support these issues are the labor activists who do the yard signs, do the door knocking, do the phone banking, provide rides to the polls,” he said. “These are the folks who really make a difference during elections. There are a lot of close elections in this state.”
Sagar pointed specifically at Democratic Rep. Dolores Mertz of Ottosen, who won re-election in 2008 by 42 votes.
“I think we have about 1,000 people in that district, so it’s not a highly unionized area of the state,” he said. “But when you win by 43 votes, they make a huge difference.”
It’s telling that Sagar used Mertz as an example. She was one of six Democrats who helped kill prevailing wage legislation and has been an outspoken critic of labor’s other priorities. During a March taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press,” Sagar got a lot of media attention for comments he made indicating that Democrats who did not support labor’s agenda could face primaries in 2010.
“I was actually surprised that people were shocked that we would say that,” he said. “We support those who support us and oppose those who oppose us. This isn’t breaking news. What organization doesn’t do that? Look at the Iowa Taxpayers Association, who took out sitting Republicans over tax issues. The Association of Business and Industry has an analysis process to figure out which candidates to support. Labor does this, too.”
There are many legislators in both parties who don’t seem willing to make the commitment to improve the lives of Iowa’s middle class, Sagar said.
“And that’s what the bills are about,” he said. “Improving the lives of working families.”
It’s still too early to tell, though, what the electoral strategy of organized labor will be in 2010, Sagar said.
Ultimately, as the discussion continues to take place and the public becomes more familiar with the issues legislators will have no choice but to pass them, Nichols said.
“You’re seeing changes in polling; you’re seeing the issues discussed in the media,” she said. “Because we haven’t talked about these issues for decades, people are hesitant. We need to do a better job of educating people.”