Struggle for Workplace Democracy
Iowa's Public Sector
Coffland (with sign) and co-workers picket the Department of Human
Services office in Cedar Rapids in the mid-1980s.
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.
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.
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.
the first in a series of articles on the Local 893, IUP story.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
HIGH HOPES FOR UNION
"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
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
HIGH HOPES CRASH
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
But problems with the high-flying AFL-CIO union soon
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
"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.
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
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
JOKE BECOMES PLAN
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
OUT OF TOUCH
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 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
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.
OUT WITH THE OLD
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
"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.
UE News - 04/00
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