DES MOINES — A Polk County judge has upheld the constitutionality of Iowa’s revamped collective bargaining law, rejecting in a ruling Monday a union’s contention its members do not receive equal treatment under changes adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed into law last February by former Gov. Terry Branstad.
In his 23-page ruling, District Judge Arthur Gamble dismissed a challenge brought by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, ruling that the Legislature had a “credible basis” for crafting House File 291 in a way that treated some classes of public safety employees differently.
“There is a rational basis for this legislative classification,” Gamble ruled. “The presumption of constitutionality prevails.”
The union, which represents about 40,000 public workers, sued the state over the new law, which significantly reduced the benefits for which many public employees can collectively bargain. The union asserted the law creates separate classes of public employees by removing collective bargaining elements for some, like university police and correctional officers, but not for others, like state troopers and first responders.
Notably, the new law provides that bargaining units with at least 30 percent of their members classified as public safety employees are able to negotiate wages and benefits, such as health insurance, while other public sector bargaining units are limited only to negotiate base wages.
AFSCME argued the provision is a violation of equal protection, but Gamble said “the court does not find this classification to be palpably arbitrary or irrational.”
“The relationship of the legislative classification to its public purpose is a matter of legislative line-drawing,” the judge wrote. While the 30 percent threshold for public safety employees “creates some degree of over-inclusion and under-inclusion,” Gamble noted, “the
Legislature is entitled to act within a reasonable range of rational alternatives. The court cannot find ‘extreme degrees’ of over-inclusion and under-inclusion in relation to the goal of this legislation.”
Attorneys representing the state argued the Iowa law, modeled after Wisconsin’s 2011 collective bargaining changes that withstood similar legal challenges, preserved Iowa’s existing strike prohibitions while providing a “rational concern about the availability” of public safety officers to deal with a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other large scale emergency.
The union has 30 days to appeal the district judge’s decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.
“While we are disappointed that this initial ruling in our fight for collective bargaining justice was not in our favor, we knew from the day we filed this lawsuit, right after HF 291 was signed, that this case would likely end up in the Iowa Supreme Court,” AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said in a statement. “We are exploring the next step in the legal process, including an appeal.”
Earlier this month, a different Polk County District judge ruled against the Iowa State Education Association in its challenge to the law.
The ISEA and the Davenport Education Association had argued the law treated public employees differently and established unfair “obstacles,” including a requirement that public employees vote at each contract whether they still want to be represented by a union.
This month, in the largest vote of public employees held so far, 28,448 of the 33,252 employees affected voted to keep their union affiliations.
“As proven by last week’s recertification victories, we’re not going anywhere,” Homan said. “We’re in this for the long haul and look forward to the day that this unconstitutional law is overturned for Iowa’s public employees.”