Teachers react to loss of union rights

Teachers all across Iowa are among the more than 184,000 public employees of the state of Iowa who are angry about the changes to the collective bargaining law that were recently passed by the majority Republican state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. The changes happened despite the uproar of thousands of union workers protesting at the state capitol.

The changes alter Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law in 1974 by Republican Gov. Robert Ray. At that time, Iowa public employees gave up the right to strike in exchange for being able to collectively bargain. The main point of Chapter 20 is to “promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees by permitting public employees to bargain collectively.” Collective bargaining means that employees and their management are able to collaboratively negotiate over wages, benefits and the conditions of work.

The changes to Chapter 20 severely alter more than 40 years of public collective bargaining in Iowa. “The bill specifically targeted teachers in its line of attack in that it devoted 18 of its 68 pages specifically to teachers and the changes affecting our profession,” said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA).

Collective bargaining  not only affects teachers, but it can also affect any public employees, including  firefighters, police officers, transportation workers and  custodial workers.

The new collective bargaining  law changes what can and cannot be negotiated by public employees.

“The changes to the law do not  change ‘how’ negotiations are to be conducted. They affect ‘what must, what may and what may not’ be negotiated.  The changes have increased the number of subjects which are excluded from bargaining,” said Adrian Talbot, director of human resources for the Cedar Falls Community School District.

Some of the points that teachers could previously bargain included their wages, hours, vacation time, health insurance, seniority, compensation, and health and safety rules. All of these except wages are now excluded from bargaining because of the changes to Chapter 20. Wage increases are limited to not more than 3 percent.

“The only thing the district is required to discuss with these bargaining groups is wages. Until now, the work we do at the table is mostly making sure our teachers are paid fairly, our insurance premiums stay reasonable and our contract language is being upheld.  If there are problems, we try to find ways to solve them,” said Jaci Feuss,  chief negotiator of the Cedar Falls Education Association (CFEA), which represents the teachers. Feuss is also a kindergarten teacher at  Hansen Elementary.

“CFEA has had a good relationship with CFCSD, so I am hoping we will be able to continue to work together to maintain as much of the contract as possible and continue to find solutions for the things we can’t.  We are no longer allowed to discuss transfer procedures, health insurance, supplemental pay for coaches of all kinds or evaluation,” Feuss said.

Changing the collective bargaining law has a big influence on how education in Iowa is going to function. Government administrators could choose to defund benefits that public employees currently have in their contracts.

The Cedar Falls School District may suffer fewer repercussions from the changing of Chapter 20, compared to other school districts, Feuss said.

“We are very lucky in Cedar Falls because we are a district that has increasing enrollment every year, and we are building new buildings to welcome more and more students and families coming to CF. Teachers will stay where they are needed and respected,” Feuss said.

Urban districts that can offer larger wages could lead to teachers and staff leaving smaller school districts, according to Wawro of the ISEA.

“Of course this legislation will have an immediate and long-term negative effect on rural school districts as teachers move to areas that are able to pay more and offer more professional offerings. Rural districts will suffer because this bill has put them in competition with large urban districts that are able to increase their budgets due to increased student enrollment,” Wawro said.

A similar case happened in Wisconsin after that state passed a nearly identical law in 2011.   According to a study by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 75 percent of the districts in Wisconsin were “losing their teachers more often” because wealthier districts recruited them.

Local educators have strong feelings about their occupational matters.

“I feel gobsmacked by the proposed changes in collective bargaining for state employees, including educators. The proposed legislation appears to be a move to remove power and voice from those who serve our state in vital capacities and whose contributions to our economy, our safety, our quality of life and our future I value highly,” said Donna Mallin, an English teacher at Peet Junior High.

Peet English teacher Nate Norby said, “Unfortunately, Iowa isn’t investing in education as much as I would like. I think it is important to bring talented individuals to the schools in Iowa. However, if the pay isn’t competitive, it can be difficult to bring people in. I believe Iowa is currently 25th in the nation, and if some of the proposed changes happen, our state could look a lot like Wisconsin. There is a reason I moved to Iowa and not Wisconsin.”

High school English teacher Scott Lawrence-Richards said, “For the past six years [the Iowa legislature and governor] have under-funded public education, not keeping pace with inflation, and this year, with absolutely no Democratic votes, the legislature and governor signed into law an increase of only 1.1 percent allowable growth — this even against the governor’s recommendation of 2 percent, which would still have fallen short of inflationary growth.

“But it hasn’t stopped with under-funding. Teachers are now legally gagged from discussing issues like workplace safety and teacher rights and supplemental pay and class size and insurance.  In short, the Republicans have silenced the voices of teachers.”

Lawrence-Richards predicts detrimental effects. “This assault on public education by Republican legislators will leave Iowa schools struggling to maintain quality and will discourage skilled educators from working in a state which represses the rights of its public employees,” he said. “Look north to Wisconsin where the reforms the Republican Iowa legislature is enacting were put in place about five years ago to see the consequences of these policies — declining student test scores, the closing of state universities, the flight of skilled teachers.  This is a bleak path.”

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