Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Hundreds gather in statehouse for public hearing on Iowa’s labor law

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Hundreds of union workers crowded into the Iowa House chamber, into four separate meeting rooms in the state capital and onto three floors of the open “rotunda” area the runs through the center of the building Monday night. A union rally was staged in the statehouse just before a public hearing there about a bill that would make changes in Iowa’s labor law.

Danny Homan, president of the union that represents the largest share of state workers, accused Republicans in the Iowa House of trying to “gut” Iowa’s labor law.

“You know what? They don’t care about you. None of ‘em!” Homan said during the rally. “So it’s time that we let them know we’re not going to take it any more.”

Homan sounded off a sort of roll call for the different unions represented at the rally, from teachers to Teamsters.

“They miscalculated in Wisconsin. They woke up a sleepin’ giant. They did the same thing here,” Homan said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal — the first person to speak at the rally — said union organizers in the last century fought, and some died, for the right to bargain collectively.

“We are not going to let a bunch of House Republicans take away what our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought for,” Gronstal said.

Of the 61 people who spoke at last night’s public hearing, only five were supporters of the bill. Iowa Association of Business and Industry president Mike Ralston said while workers in the private sector are paying more and more for their health care, the vast majority of state workers get “free” health insurance.

“This has left everyday working Iowans scratching their heads, asking for reform,” Ralston said. “And this bill brings some reform to this unsustainable system.”

Heather Stancil of Earlham told legislators that public employees get a far better deal than she does working in the private sector.

“Can someone please tell me exactly how using my taxpayer dollars to give free health care and a golden retiremenet plan to public employees — plans that are far better than the ones I have — helps me or the middle class?” she asked during the public hearing.

The legislation would no longer allow health care benefits to be discussed during contract negotiations for any government worker in the state — teachers, cops, fire fighters and state workers. The bill also would let public workers peel off from the pack and negotiate their own salary and benefits package. Wayne Sawtelle, a fire fighter from Marshalltown, told legislators that’s just asking for trouble.

“Qualification, experience and training may no longer be the judge of who is promoted, receives a raise or has a set amount of vacation or other benefits,” Sawtelle said. “Whoever gets along best with the boss becomes the main qualification.”

The measure will be debated in the Republican-led Iowa House this week, perhaps as soon as today. [More photos]