Ames School District reacts to controversial collective bargaining Bill



Jessica Enwesi

As Aileen Sullivan, an Ames High School chemistry teacher, prepares for her next class, she finds herself wondering where things went wrong.

Besides working as an educator in the Ames Community School District for more than 20 years, Sullivan has been a prominent advocate for the protection of teachers’ unions and rights across the state of Iowa.

Sullivan, along with a committee of teachers, has dedicated her time and resources to fight for collective bargaining rights as the chief negotiation officer for her district.

“We are the group in charge of negotiating,” Sullivan said. “There’s probably 370 or so contracts and people that we represent with our master contract.”

But the list of responsibilities concerning Sullivan’s position seemed to have shrunk overnight, when on Feb. 16, the passage of House File 291 and Senate File 213 effectively barred teachers and their respective unions from negotiating their contracts.

It’s been more than three weeks since the controversial collective bargaining bill swept through the General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad. Yet, Sullivan is still bewildered by its contentious amendments.

The bill, which would install a wage cap in arbitration meetings and scrap overtime pay, vacation days and health care plan negotiations, was highly contested by public service workers, who accused GOP lawmakers of attempting to “profession bust” or union bust.

“[This bill] goes further. It’s ‘profession busting,’” Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), told a hearing panel during the bill’s open forum.

Wawro’s organization has been at the forefront of this legislation, working alongside public sector employees to provide legal support for educators in the state.

“[Iowa legislators] have carved out the heart of what is important and vital to our profession and our ability to have a voice in the direction of our work environment,” Wawro told a packed room of protesters and lawmakers just hours before the bill was signed.

The protesters’ chants, rallies and overnight debate were futile, and Sullivan said the bill’s magnitude and reach sends a clear message to educators in Iowa.

“[This bill] is saying that we are labors and we should only negotiate to get paid over the wage that we earn,” Sullivan said. 

The bill’s stipulations were not the only thing that surprised educators. The speed in which the bill passed both assemblies raised concerns.

Coy Marquardt, executive assistant for the ISEA, has seen his organization tackle collective bargaining bills in the past but has never seen one move as fluid as the one recently signed into law.

“In my years in this position, I’ve never seen a bill move that fast in under two weeks,” Marquardt said. “But here’s the thing, there are a lot of educators who are still reeling from the decision made by lawmakers.”

Although some teachers may feel rattled by the bill’s passage, they will still have a few years to help mobilize efforts to have it repealed.

 According to The Des Moines Register, the Ames Community School, along with 188 districts, moved to push hundreds of pending union contracts into their approval stages before the legislation could be passed.

Tim Taylor, superintendent for the Ames Community School District, has also never witnessed a collective bargaining bill move so quickly but believes the district’s decision to push and freeze union contract could help protect educators.

“We have already settled contracts for the next two years, so we have a lot of security from teachers who are relieved,” Taylor said. “The advantage to this is that we have two years to change legislature’s minds and create new amendments to be made into law.”

Sullivan said the far-reaching bill has forced teachers and other citizens to pay attention to their state legislatures.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think this helps us to keep track of what’s happening in other districts and who’s running for office and how we would want to be elected,” Sullivan said. “We are not the only districts disappointed with the collective bargaining bills, but it [helps us] say, ‘Hey, we elect these guys and look what they did to us.’ We are not voting for them again.”