Public forum on collective bargaining bill sparks huge turnout

Michael Craighton

Hundreds of people turned out for a public hearing on a labor bill that would effectively curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. The bill echoes similar legislation that caused massive protests in Wisconsin last month, although the response to the bill currently in the Iowa House has been much more tepid.

The bill would restrict bargaining on thing such as insurance terms, factors relating to employee layoff and pay.

One significant difference between the two bills, one which will likely keep Iowans’ responses from reaching the level of those in Wisconsin, is the fact that it is not attempting to alter the ability to bargain on pension issues, said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Agency. Pension questions are already an illegal topic in bargaining sessions in Iowa.

The House gallery was completely full, and a line formed outside with people waiting for those inside to leave so they could get a chance to watch and listen to the hearing.

Those unable to get a seat in the House gathered for a rally in the rotunda area, where the voices of the speakers in the chamber were being piped through a large speaker. The crowd erupted into cheers as each pro-bargaining speaker finished his or her address.

The opponents of the bill in the rotunda carried signs with slogans like “Kill the Bill,” “Public Safety is Worth the Cost” and even one with the clenched fist symbol with “Solidarity” written in block letters beneath. Chants of “solidarity” occasionally broke after a particularly rousing speaker.

In the chamber, most of those who spoke were against the bill, House File 525. Of those who spoke in support of the bill, the most common point made was how much private-sector, middle-class workers pay for their benefits. Supporters of the bill commonly cited the effects curtailing collective bargaining would have on public safety and on the quality of public services. Some also spoke about how the public employee benefits are compensation for the often hazardous work they perform.

Unions and organizations in attendance included groups representing teachers, nurses, police and firefighters and laborers such as road maintenance workers.