Iowa Supreme Court: Cuts in public-sector collective bargaining rights meet constitutional muster

by Rox Laird | May 21, 2019

Amendments to Iowa Code Chapter 20 that substantially reduced the collective bargaining rights of most state and local government employees did not violate union members’ equal protection or free association rights under the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 19.

Public employee unions had urged the Court to strike down as unconstitutional collective bargaining amendments passed in 2017 by the Iowa Legislature, which they saw as gutting their rights to collectively bargain on a wide range of issues, including wages, benefits and working conditions.

In four separate rulings, the Court rejected the unions’ constitutional argument, saying the changes were properly within the policymaking powers of the Iowa General Assembly.

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” the Court said. “We conclude the 2017 amendments withstand the constitutional challenges.” The justices added that the plaintiffs concede that there is no constitutional right to public-sector collective bargaining.

The Court was split 4-3 in each of those four decisions, with Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield, Susan Christensen and Christopher McDonald in the majority. Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins filed separate opinions fully or partially dissenting from all four decisions.

Court majority laid out its rationale for upholding the 2017 collective bargaining amendments in AFSCME Council 61, et al. v. State of Iowa and Iowa Public Employment Relations Board. The Court held that the Legislature did not violate the Iowa Constitution by preserving broad collective bargaining rights of unions with 30 percent or more of their membership composed of “public safety employees” while limiting all other public employee groups to bargaining over “base wages,” unless an employer chooses to include other subjects.

AFSCME had argued that preserving broad bargaining rights of one group of public employees while sharply curtailing them for all others violated the Iowa Constitution, Article I, Section 6, which says: “All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

The four justices in the majority, however, said the Legislature’s class distinction was justified when applying a rational-basis test. In an opinion written by Justice Waterman, the Court said the Legislature had sufficient basis for treating police officers and firefighters differently than all other state employees, including the increased health and safety risks those workers face on the job, and avoiding labor unrest among public safety employees.

The Court noted that the main rationale advanced during the legislative debates on the collective bargaining amendments centered on the health and safety risks that public safety employees face on the job.

“It is inarguable that the Legislature could rationally conclude public safety employees face significantly greater risks to their health and safety than other public employees,” Waterman wrote, citing recent incidents where police officers were killed in the line of duty.

Also, the Court held that the Legislature could reasonably conclude that giving public safety employees expanded bargaining rights would discourage them from going on strike.

In their dissents, Chief Justice Cady and Justices Appel and Wiggins said the collective bargaining amendments violated the equal protection provision of the Iowa Constitution.

Cady wrote that while he agrees there is a rational basis for treating public safety employees differently, he said the public-sector unions with more bargaining rights contain both public safety employees and non-public safety employees.

“As a result,” Cady wrote, “the Iowa statute ends up treating many similarly situated public employees in Iowa differently based solely on the bargaining unit they belong to and not for the reason the constitution would justify different treatment of public employees.”

For that reason, he wrote, “In this case, the legislation offends our Constitution.”

In addition to the AFSCME decision, the Court handed down four other decisions related to the unions’ constitutional arguments:

In Iowa State Education Association and Davenport Education Association v. State of Iowa and the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, the Court upheld the legislation’s ban on payroll deductions for union dues.

In Service Employees International Union v. State of Iowa and Iowa Board of Regents, it dismissed plaintiffs’ argument that the Iowa Board of Regents had legally accepted the union’s contract offer before the legislative amendments were enacted.

In United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America v. Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, State of Iowa and Board of Regents, the Court agreed with the state’s definition of what could be negotiated under the term “base wages.”

In the fifth related decision handed down May 19, UE Local 893/IUP v. State of Iowa, the justices unanimously agreed with the union that the State did not withdraw its contract offer before the Chapter 20 amendments went into effect in February 2017.


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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.


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  • Iowa Court of Appeals Oral Arguments
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On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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