Navigation Bar

Home -> [ UE NewsIndependent Union Connection ] -> Iowa Story

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy
    The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector    
In Iowa's Public Sector

Picketing the Department of Human Services office in Cedar Rapids in the mid-1980s.
Carol Coffland (with sign) and co-workers picket the Department of Human Services office in Cedar Rapids in the mid-1980s.

Part One Part TwoPart Three

An effective union. A fighting union. A democratic union, run by the workers themselves. These are the goals of Iowa public employees who have made UE Local 893 one of UE’s largest and most influential local unions.

Covering three decades, theirs is a story of almost epic proportions — from a state employees’ association, to merger with a major AFL-CIO affiliate, to a bold revolt and establishment of an independent union, to eventual affiliation with UE and further growth.

UE had no members in Iowa ten years ago. Today UE represents 6,500 Iowa workers and their families, all but one hundred of them in the public sector. The women and men of Local 893, Iowa United Professionals, have been a driving force in this dramatic change.

This is the first in a series of articles on the Local 893, IUP story.


The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector

Without knowing it at the time, a social worker who wore turtlenecks and a secretary who dreamt of improving her life helped ignite the long fight for rank-and-file unionism in Iowa’s public sector.

That was in the early 1970s, when public employees in the Hawkeye State did not have the right to bargain collectively with their employer. And the Iowa State Employees Association, which claimed some 4,000 members, was an organization with an identity crisis when Dan Kelley took a job with the state Department of Human Services in 1973.

"I’d always believed in unions," Kelley tells the UE NEWS. "My family believed in unions. You’re supposed to join the union when you get a job. I joined the union. It was kind of a joke."

The problem, he says, was that "They didn’t know if they were a union or not." The association’s executive board included both the pro-union sons and daughters of coal miners as well as union-hating right wingers.

Kelley made friends with Jan Whitaker, a social worker with an excellent professional record. The ex-Marine’s fondness for turtlenecks often made him look like a priest but caused the agency’s uptight management unholy irritation. Whitaker was fired for violating the dress code. "I thought it was probably time to get real involved in the union," Kelley recalls.

Whitaker’s co-workers fought his discharge and won. "We got him a job in another county, but a county close enough so he could commute, which was a major victory," Kelley says. "It was probably the first time anybody had backed [management] down."

Not long after, an African-American clerical worker in the Human Services Department’s Cedar Rapids office applied for an open job as an income maintenance worker. Management told Mary Evans she could not be hired because "she would tend to give preference to those of her own race."

Workers banded together and convinced management to reconsider its foolish and racist decision, recalls Judy Putnam. Mary Evans got the income maintenance job, and later went to school and became a social worker.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Putnam, who began working for the state in October 1970, relates this incident to the many grievances fueling a "worker revolt" in her office. Chief among those grievances: long, irregular and uncompensated hours, often into the evening — Putnam regularly put in a 50-hour week. Professionals were not paid for hours over 40 in a week.

High-handed bosses were also an issue. "Management really believed that they knew best," says Ray Smith. "They were very paternalistic." And unbelievably petty. The Linn County Human Services director began his day by checking to see if workers were at their desks first thing in the morning — regardless of how late they had been working the night before. Joe Fleming remembers how the boss would even search the men’s room for "idlers."

Workplace protests forced management to ease up — and gave the social workers and income maintenance workers a sense of their power. "It was very heady," Putnam says. "We realized we were changing the way things were around here." State social services workers were ready for a more serious form of union organization.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Kelley became actively involved in, as he puts it, "dragging people to chapter meetings," and pushing the state employees association to fight for a public-sector collective bargaining law. Although they may not have cared for the 30-year-old activist’s long hair and beard, old-timers tapped Kelley as chapter president. Within a year, Kelley in 1974 became president of the state-wide organization. He quickly began recruiting young people, driving out the anti-union forces — and joining the teachers in lobbying for a collective bargaining law.

The lobbying paid off. Iowa state employees gained collective bargaining rights, as well as the attention of the nation’s largest public-sector union. Kelley and his allies endorsed the affiliation of the state employees association with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to gain more effective union representation. Kelley briefly went on the AFSCME staff as the union launched a major organizing effort throughout the Hawkeye State in 1976.

Among those who readily lent a hand was Ron Ewald. Not long out of college, Ewald went to work for the state as an income maintenance worker on April 10, 1975. "Young and energetic and idealistic," Ewald and Terry Reed organized the Department of Human Services offices in Dubuque, Clinton and other Mississippi Valley communities.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


"We brought close to 20,000 workers into the union," Kelley recalls. "It was incredible. And most of them paying dues." (Iowa was then, as now, a so-called "right-to-work" state, meaning that workers represented by a union can not be required by contract to pay dues or otherwise contribute to the cost of maintaining the union.)

State law required the union to win an absolute majority of the eligible voters — those who didn’t vote were counted as voting "no," an obstacle which makes the union victories all the more impressive. "People really wanted change, and they voted for the union," explains Kelley, who was elected the first president of AFSCME Council 61.

State social services workers went into AFSCME with high hopes. The first two-year contract, reached in 1977, encouraged those hopes.

When Judy Putnam had tried to transfer from her first state job at the Mount Pleasant mental hospital in Henry County to the Johnson County social services office, the office director curtly informed her that she hired only people from Johnson County. The first AFSCME contract contained sensible, basic measures like transfer rights — overriding the petty prejudice of bosses like the Johnson County director Putnam encountered.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Linn County Social Services employees picket the Cedar Rapids office in 1981

As members of AFSCME Local 3012, employees of Linn County Social Services, picket the Cedar Rapids office in 1981. Fed up with excessively high dues, lack of representation and disrespect, many of these workers were already organizing to leave AFSCME and establish their own union. But in the meantime, they rallied for the best possible contract.

But problems with the high-flying AFL-CIO union soon became apparent.

The leaders of the old state employees association envisioned a powerful, statewide local union. Early in the process, AFSCME Pres. Jerry Wurf told Kelley: "We don’t like large unions that function like yours do." Wurf decreed that the state employees would be divided into a number of locals, coordinated by Council 61. Kelley served only one term as Council 61 president.

The union stopped organizing. In Ottumwa, income maintenance worker Bill Austin had a hard time becoming an AFSCME member. "My father had been a union member during his working life at John Deere, so after the collective bargaining law passed, I wanted to join the union. But there was no one around to give me a dues card. There was no organized effort to get members."

Grievances were backlogged in the hundreds. Al Pieper, an AFSCME staff representative in the 1970s, said the union had "created a system for grievance-handling that was incredibly stupid, stupid beyond belief." Workers began dropping out of the union.

Social services workers saw the professional unit used as a bargaining chip by AFSCME in making deals for larger units. In a union increasingly controlled by prison guards, professional workers found their concerns ignored.

"They really thought that professionals should just work until they dropped," Kelley says. "And they would argue with us in negotiations. AFSCME staffers would put forward management’s position, which was ludicrous."

Social services workers were increasingly annoyed by the union’s failure to service its contracts, by its high dues and lack of respect for its members. AFSCME officials showed little interest in processing professional unit grievances dealing solely with professional issues; when workers pushed the union into handling their grievances, AFSCME rarely agreed to take professional unit grievances to arbitration.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Matt Hanlon remembers the "disconnect between the union leadership and its members." Based on his father’s union experiences, Hanlon expected rank-and-file involvement in his own union. But with AFSCME, he says, "it was just like two separate groups, the people who ran the union and the people who were members, and it just didn’t make sense."

Factionalism and corruption plagued AFSCME’s Iowa organization within just a few years, leading to plummeting membership rolls. The state organization fell into arrears; the national union was forced to place Council 61 in receivership. A late 1970s headline in the Sunday Des Moines Register proclaimed: "Chaos in AFSCME."

Council 61 "wasn’t functioning." Pieper says bluntly, adding, "Workers were angry, and justifiably so."

Workers like Judy Putnam who had sparked worker revolts in state social services offices felt let down by their union. AFSCME officials, Putnam said, "were more management than management." Their motto: "Don’t rock the boat." "There was always a tone of ‘we don’t want to cause trouble,’" Hanlon recalls. Adds Fleming, "AFSCME’s approach to bargaining was ‘you have to give something to get something.’ My response was always, why not sit down and ask for something reasonable? Why do you have to give up something?"

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Starting in about 1978, rank-and-file activists who had helped to organize the union issued a newsletter to express their concerns. Meanwhile, Kelley and AFSCME staffer Al Pieper considered options. What began as a joke became a goal and then a plan: leave AFSCME and establish an independent union.

Kelley and Pieper realized that if only the social workers seceded, the independent union’s membership would be dangerously thin in some county offices. Social workers worked alongside income maintenance workers, who were in the technical unit. As it happened, most IM workers thought they ought to be in the professional unit with the social workers. Kelley and Pieper crafted a plan to move the IM workers from the technical to the professional unit as a first step in the larger plan to leave AFSCME.

Eighty-five percent of IM workers signed a petition asking for their job classifications to be moved into the professional unit. In negotiations for the 1981-83 contract, two IM workers sat at the table with the committee for the professional unit. "AFSCME just didn’t have the courage to tell them to go home," says Kelley, who served on that bargaining committee. "And finally, at the end, management forced the issue, basically saying, on the verge of wrapping up this contract, ‘what unit are these people appropriately in?’ And we said, ‘well, 85 percent of them say that they want to be in our unit.’"

To AFSCME’s surprise, the Public Employment Relations Board agreed to an election; the income maintenance workers switched to the professional unit.

Not long after, the State, and AFSCME’s refusal to challenge management, gave the architects of secession a major organizing issue that rapidly moved the plan forward.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


At a mid-1980s demonstration

Dan Kelley (left), social worker and a founder of the Iowa United Professionals, with co-workers at a mid-1980s demonstration. A new software program purchased by State government worsened working conditions and resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iowans receiving welfare or other benefit checks late, if at all. IUP members protested management incompetence.

Social services programs, many partially funded or initiated by the federal government, proliferated in the 1970s. Iowa social services workers, many who had gone to work for the state right out of college, had never experienced the threat of layoffs. Until 1981. Worried for themselves, and for their clients, Department of Human Services employees were horrified at the prospect. Worse, supervisors would be bumping into bargaining unit jobs and union members would be on the street.

Judy Putnam, Joe Fleming and other Cedar Rapids DHS workers still vividly recall a meeting at a motel in Coralville on a cold, snowy night in October 1981 to discuss the layoffs. AFSCME officials proclaimed that the State was within its rights and that contact language protecting workers from management bumping would be illegal. The some 50-60 workers present were enraged. "That was the spark that started driving the disaffiliation," said Putnam. "It was the layoffs and AFSCME’s lack of response that brought everything to a head."

Eastern Iowa locals insisted that the union take a stand and mount a challenge to the layoffs. AFSCME officials in Des Moines threatened to expel the protesting locals for disrupting relations with management!

The dissatisfaction with AFSCME became open as well as widespread. Many social workers and IM workers had grievances with the union, says Fleming, but after that October 1981 meeting, "we realized we weren’t alone with our dissatisfaction. Dan [Kelley] led a lot of us to realize that there was another way and a better way. I was one who was willing to do something about it, but didn’t know how to approach it."

Pat Morrissey was also willing. Morrissey began working for the state Department of Human Services in February 1976, and readily signed an AFSCME card when asked by Dan Kelley. But Morrissey became disgusted with AFSCME’s failure to service the contract or address the social workers’ long hours. "When Kelley talked about breaking off from AFSCME, I was right there from the git-go," he says.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Adams and Pieper

Picketing then-Vice President George Bush in Waterloo. Barb Adams, a Des Moines social worker who became the first IUP president, with Al Pieper, a former AFSCME staff representative who became one of IUP’s first staffers.

Dissatisfaction with AFSCME reached a boiling point when the Department of Human Services reorganization took place in March 1982, with the anticipated loss of jobs. Meetings took place in homes and bars; Kelley used his extensive contacts as a former president of both the state employees’ association and AFSCME Council 61 to reach key activists and local officers. At a 1982 meeting of some 30 grassroots leaders in the backyard of social worker John Kramer, workers gave a name and made a commitment to a new union of their own creation: the Iowa United Professionals.

The AFSCME local in Cedar Rapids declared a "budget surplus" and issued members rebate checks — which were promptly signed over to the Iowa United Professionals. The Waterloo local followed suit. (Not surprisingly, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City became the base of IUP Local 1, Waterloo IUP Local 2.)

The first cards were issued on July 9, 1982.

The rank-and-file movement faced a daunting task. Without finances, they had to somehow make contact with nearly 2,000 professional unit employees at welfare and rehabilitation offices and corrections facilities in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, at some 150-200 worksites.

"I was willing to do anything," Morrissey recalls. "I crisscrossed the state, to get people behind us and had cards signed." So did Ron Ewald. "We drove around and did a lot of personal, grassroots organizing. We’d spend our evening after we got out of work doing that stuff, and on weekends." He and Terry Reed revisited the AFSCME locals they had helped organize to explain how IUP represented a chance for effective, democratic unionism. "It was the only honest thing to do," Ewald says. "It was the right thing to do. That’s why I did it."

IUP newsletters could be found spread out over two of the four rooms in the home of Sylvia and Dan Kelley, to be hand-folded and hand-addressed. There was no money for reimbursing IUP organizers for travel or phone calls — and there were hefty phone bills. "We were driven, off on a holy crusade," Dan Kelley says.

The dissidents could expect no help from any quarters within the labor movement. An outstanding friend at this critical stage was Rev. Gil Dawes, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, who made meeting space available and assisted with mailings.

More than 60 social services workers from around Iowa gathered at the Hawaiian Inn in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 25, 1982 for the IUP founding convention. They wrote a constitution, and elected officers, among them Barb Adams, president, Ron Ewald, vice president, and Pat Morrissey, secretary. Since July they had collected the signatures of 370 of their co-workers.

In the weeks ahead, after many hours of grassroots organizing, IUP supporters obtained the signatures of more than a third of the 1,800-member professional unit needed to seek a decertification election. The petitions were filed in December 1982.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


At the founding convention of IUP, September 1982. Nancy Wittenberg, chair of the constitution committee, and Terry Reed, a rank-and-file leader who later joined IUP’s small but dedicated staff.

AFSCME was so out of touch with the professional unit that officials were unaware of the secession movement until about two weeks before the IUP convention, claims Kelley. The AFL-CIO union’s response was largely ineffectual. "They were a day late and a dollar short on everything they did. We ran a phone bank for three days before they ever thought of running one," Kelley says. IUP newsletters accurately predicted AFSCME tactics, giving the new union credibility and weakening AFSCME’s impact.

AFSCME imported paid organizers into Iowa; grassroots IUP organizers relied on personal contact. AFSCME did mailings; IUP supporters distributed literature in their workplaces. "I didn’t even think about the resources and money they had, and the money and resources we didn’t have," Ewald says. "It was just a grassroots sort of thing, it really, truly was."

Some 30 of the leading IUP activists were formally tried and convicted and barred from AFSCME for life. But the young rebels who fueled the IUP drive were unconcerned by AFSCME’s threats, political connections or resources — or by the reality that they would be without a contract for at nearly a year and a half if they succeeded in their decertification bid.

In Waterloo, Morrissey recalls, the personal dedication of co-workers like Bert Hartman, Jackie Mace, Phyllis Bowersox, Margaret Iverson and Beth Branstead made the difference in delivering the vote for IUP.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Morrissey, Pieper, Kelley

At the second IUP convention in 1983. Pat Morrissey, secretary, Al Pieper, staff representative, and Dan Kelley, organizing director.

In a January 1983 election conducted by the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), the professional unit voted 553 to 513 to decertify AFSCME, just 13 more than the 540 necessary. "I thought it was a landslide!" laughs Ewald, who says he never considered the possibility of losing.

Neither did AFSCME; Council 61 had a first-class mailing ready to be taken to the Post Office.

Many of those voting against decertification did so out of loyalty to AFSCME. Bill Austin voted against decertification; he doubted if the professional unit was big enough to stand alone as an independent union.

But Austin was part of the big majority that backed IUP as the social service workers’ bargaining agent in a second election on April 7, 1983. The vote was 699 for IUP, 240 for no union, despite AFSCME’s efforts to achieve a big "no" vote. "I felt it was important we have a union," Austin says. He soon became involved in the union, serving as the first president of IUP Local 7, later as treasurer of the statewide organization.

"People really wanted a union," stresses Kelley. "That’s what initially brought us into AFSCME." "People liked the fact that we were going to fight for their jobs," adds Ewald.

Part Two >

UE News - 04/00

Home -> [ UE NewsIndependent Union Connection ] -> Iowa Story

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links

Copyright © 2003 UE. All Rights Reserved