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


Part OnePart Two Part Three

Ten years ago UE had no members in Iowa. Today, UE represents 6,500 Iowa workers and their families; most UE members in Iowa are employed in the public sector. The women and men of Local 893, Iowa United Professionals, have been a driving force in this dramatic change. Local 893 is one of the union’s largest and most influential local unions. This is the  Local 893 story (part 2 of 3).

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector
Mary McElroy and Pat Morrissey

Mary McElroy and Pat Morrissey, Local 893 leaders in Waterloo, recall IUP’s early days as they look at a photo album.

Social services workers now had a real union — but no contract. Until a contract was negotiated, the professional unit would come under the Merit system, the complicated set of rules predating the collective bargaining law. The Public Employment Relations Board rejected IUP’s request for early bargaining, ruling that negotiations would begin in the fall for a contract running from July 1, 1984 to July 1, 1985.

The many months without a contract proved not to be a major problem. To Pat Morrissey, a child abuse investigator in Waterloo, coming under Merit with a fighting union couldn’t be worse than being stuck with AFSCME’s unwillingness to enforce its contract. For Ron Ewald, an income maintenance worker in Iowa City, the emphasis was on continuing to organize, to sign up workers and involve them in the union. "It didn’t seem any different to me," he says. "We knew we were going to have a contract." Any major assaults by management would be ammunition for IUP going into negotiations; most supervisors realized that, he said.

Matt Hanlon recalls that when supervisors in the Cedar Rapids office did try to take advantage, workers got an education in the importance of having a union contract. "There were those who thought the benefits under the AFSCME contract came from the goodness of management’s heart in the first place," he says.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


In its first negotiations, IUP became the first state employee union to go to interest arbitration. The first contract, a one-year agreement, achieved a breakthrough in paid-time off but nothing else that hadn’t already been obtained by the other state employee unions. Those unions had settled the previous year, so there was little chance of ploughing new ground. However, IUP gained two extra holidays — and to this day the professional unit continues to enjoy more holiday time than other state employees.

The 1985-1987 contract, proudly ratified by a 90 percent margin, was another story.

IUP averaged more than 20 percent over two years, with some workers getting as high as 35 percent. IUP established call-back pay, hour-for-hour compensatory time.

But the sweetest victory in that second contract was a prohibition against management bumping into bargaining unit jobs during a reduction in force — the very protection that AFSCME and the State said couldn’t be won. For IUP members like Cedar Rapids social worker Joe Fleming, the job security was more valuable than the pay raises.

IUP could boast steady growth in each pay period and the gradual spread of IUP locals. Crucial to this growth was the new union’s determination to provide workers the kind of on-the-job representation missing in AFSCME, and to encourage membership involvement. IUP leaders debated, and acted on, proposals to make the stewards system work, including stewards’ training.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Bill Austin recalls that in his Wapello County office a number of older social workers were skeptical about unions in general. One came to Austin in tears; after years of dedicated service to the State she had received her first reprimand. "There was a new computer system with glitches in it, and she had gotten this reprimand because she hadn’t done well with the job," Austin explains.

"She filed a grievance. Her immediate supervisor reduced it from a reprimand to a clarification of expectation," Austin says. "There were about six or seven of these older social workers who all decided the union was not a bad idea. They all signed dues cards. That was one of our major breakthroughs there."

Mary Lou Welter

Mary Lou Welter

Mary Lou Welter entered State service in the mid-1980s as a clerical worker. Hers was a bargaining unit legally represented by AFSCME, but she quickly learned there was another union in the Johnson County Human Services office. "We in the AFSCME unit used to go over and ask IUP people about how to get stuff done, because it was almost impossible to find anybody in AFSCME."

A co-worker had been promised an upgrade; meanwhile she was working out of classification without getting paid the difference, Welter says. The clerical workers sought advice from IUP’s Ron Ewald. "So we were trying to find an AFSCME steward to get some kind of grievance filed and it was like pulling teeth to try and find anybody. We finally found an AFSCME meeting and went two or three times, and finally found someone and get something done."

Welter and her co-worker had to ask if they could join AFSCME. On April 1, 1988, Welter became an income maintenance worker. In about "five seconds," she recalls, she was asked to sign an IUP card. Asked if she noticed any difference in working conditions going from an AFSCME-represented bargaining unit to IUP, Welter laughs and says, "Yeah, like a world of difference."

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


A rough period for organized labor nationwide, the early 1980s were an inauspicious moment in which to launch an independent social services workers union in Iowa. The state’s farm crisis has had a continuing ripple effect — Iowa has experienced negative population growth over the past 20 years. As farmers went bankrupt, agriculture-related manufacturing plants closed. The state’s budget took a big hit. Ronald Reagan in Washington and a conservative clone in Des Moines pursued punishing budget cuts.

IUP had promised to give social services workers a voice off the job as well. Responding to attacks on social services, the union frequently protested national and state policies. IUP participated in the Human Rights Coalition and the Iowa Progressive Coalition.

In the summer of 1984, Local 1 staged informal picketing in front of the Cedar Rapids office to point out the need for additional staff and to correct the misinformation that foul-ups were due to worker error. And the union collected $200-worth of canned goods for donation to the local food pantry.

IUP members picketed welfare offices around the state, calling on the State to hire more child abuse investigators. IUP Pres. Barb Adams authored an op-ed column in the Des Moines Register that called attention to this issue. Iowa social services workers could take pride that theirs was a different kind of union.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Sylvia Kelley

Sylvia Kelley

The fight for comparable worth marked an important early phase of IUP’s political lobbying, suggests Sylvia Kelley. Now a UE field organizer, Kelley was a part-time state employee and one of IUP’s original staff. She had major responsibility for the union’s handling of the comparable worth issue.

Despite the conservative trends, the Iowa legislature voted to commission a major study on gender equality and the pay structure in state jobs. "Lo and behold, they found out that women were being paid far less than men for jobs where the skill levels and the factors were relatively equal," says Kelley.

The legislature set aside funds for major upgrades to correct the pay inequity uncovered by the study. During brief negotiations the State proposed and AFSCME accepted a bizarre formula that advanced some state employees by a pay grade while at the same time dropping them by a step. Not all female workers entitled to an upgrade were scheduled to receive one under this deal. Initially, the IUP-represented income maintenance workers were not slated to get anything. Increases for social workers would be largely nullified by the step-back.

"It was one of those situations where AFSCME did all it could to sell us out, because they didn’t want our bargaining unit to have those pay raises, because it made them look bad, plus they were just a bunch of macho male prison guards anyway, [who thought that] there was no way those women were worth it," Kelley says.

IUP refused to accept the deal. "We’re the only state employee union standing firm on the principle of comparable worth," declared the union’s president, Ron Ewald.

In the midst of negotiations with IUP, Gov. Terry Branstad ordered the State’s representatives to leave the bargaining table. IUP filed charges. IUP insisted on taking major grievances on comparable worth to arbitration. Can’t do it, said the Public Employment Relations Board. IUP sued the State and won.

Kelley and other IUP representatives met with legislators, urging that the comparable worth settlement be implemented fairly.

Comparable worth raises were eventually achieved through contract negotiations and the grievance procedure.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


In 1986, in the midst of battling with a conservative, cash-strapped state government for comp worth and contract improvements, IUP faced a major challenge from AFSCME.

IUP faced continual opposition from AFSCME. Pockets of AFSCME activists who had never reconciled themselves to the establishment of IUP could still be found in state offices around Iowa. In addition, the independent union was undermined by what Dan Kelley terms the "invisible hand" of collusion between AFSCME and the State. In 1984 an AFSCME decertification bid went nowhere. But two years later, the AFL-CIO union showed surprising strength as 30 percent of the bargaining unit signed a decertification petition.

AFSCME poured staff and resources into the campaign, but ultimately couldn’t overcome its own legacy of high dues, poor service and insensitivity to members’ needs. (Although AFSCME then represented some 25,000 state employees, fewer than 4,000 paid dues.)

An AFSCME-represented clerical worker at the time of the decert, Mary Lou Welter recalls how AFSCME staffers tried to enlist the clericals’ aid in talking to professionals. "Forget it!" Welter told them. "You’re lucky I talk to you!"

AFSCME had hopes that IUP would be particularly vulnerable in Iowa’s western counties, where the independent union had been slow to build membership. But an AFSCME organizer was surprised to discover that although they might not have been paying dues, social services workers there thought that IUP was doing a decent job.

IUP leaders — all of them full-time state employees — donated vacation time to travel the state and talk to co-workers. Once again, AFSCME mailed literature, IUP members handed leaflets to their co-workers in the workplace.

When the election took place Jan. 21, 1987, IUP retained its bargaining rights for the professional unit by a solid majority. The total: 724 for IUP, 521 for no union.

"While their numerous mailings and outright lies confused some professionals, we feel that ultimately the lies backfired on them," concluded the IUP leadership in a newsletter issued shortly after the election. "Professionals were turned off by the negative, unprincipled nature of their campaign."

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


IUP spoke out forcefully as the Branstad Administration attempted to resolve budget problems at the expense of children and the social workers who assist them. "There’s potential for a lot of kids getting hurt," said IUP Pres. Mike Maddigan of increased workloads. In 1991, state social services workers picketed their offices to inform the public of the effects of the governor’s budget cuts, which included layoffs and closure of Human Services district offices.

IUP sounded an alarm about the dangers of privatization.

Branstad achieved the difficult feat of temporarily reuniting Iowa’s state-employee unions in 1991 when he vetoed pay raises approved by the legislature in line with an arbitrator’s decision. IUP joined with AFSCME and the State Police Officers Council in a lawsuit to overturn Branstad’s veto. The unions also filed a complaint with PERB to undo the governor’s layoffs.

IUP also responded to this clear violation of Iowa’s collective bargaining law in the streets; IUP members picketed state offices on the last workday of the State’s fiscal year, to commemorate their "last honest paycheck." IUP pointed out that in vetoing pay raises, Branstad also vetoed $22.7 million in spending reductions and actually increased state spending overall — all in the name of austerity. And IUP pointed out that only unions that did not endorse Branstad were on the receiving end of layoffs.

The Struggle for Workplace Democracy in Iowa's Public Sector


Ron Ewald

Ron Ewald

The court victory which restored the pay increases — giving IUP members a 5 percent raise — "was the greatest thing in the world for organizing," recalls Mary Lou Welter. "That really galvanized people." The lawsuit, says Joe Fleming, "was a big expense and a big gamble that brought a lot of people to the union."

IUP looked to expand the union’s ranks, by signing up members in the professional unit, and also through organizing in state employment, the private sector and elsewhere in the public sector. Unsuccessful efforts were made to organize the other state professional unit and, in cooperation with the Iowa Education Association, state clerical workers. The Cedar County Secondary Road Dept. crew voted 31-0 to join IUP in December 1988 as a result of workers’ personal contact with then-Pres. Ewald and Terry Reed, a former rank and filer then on the union’s staff.

Internal organizing, made possible by the union’s record of achievement, made for steady growth. From about 400 members in 1984, IUP’s rolls swelled to 700 in 1986 and more than 1,000 in 1992. At the 1992 convention, Treas. Gene McKinnis reported that IUP had ended the fiscal year with a positive cash balance for the first time in at least three years; Gary Walker, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, said the union’s treasury was in good shape in spite of layoffs and the expense of the taking the State to court.

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