Iowa Code section 20.32 does not extend broader bargaining rights to nontransit employees, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Ami Penquite | July 14, 2023

In an opinion filed February 24, 2023, the Iowa Supreme Court in City of Ames v. Iowa Public Employment Relations Board ruled Iowa Code section 20.32 does not extend broader bargaining rights to nontransit employees in a bargaining unit made up of 30 percent or more transit employees. Justice Waterman delivered the opinion, in which all of the Justices joined.

The City of Ames receives federal funding for their public transportation system. For the city to receive federal funding it must comply with the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which requires public entities to maintain existing collective-bargaining rights of unionized transit workers. Public employers must certify with the federal government certain minimum rights are maintained by transit employees to receive the funding.

In 2017, the Iowa Legislature took this federal rule into account when it enacted the Iowa Public Relations Act (PERA) (Iowa Code chapter 20). PERA restricted the collective bargaining rights of most public employees, with exceptions. First, under Iowa code section 20.9 bargaining units made up of over 30 percent public safety employees maintained broader collective bargaining rights. The Legislature also “provided at that time that Iowa law would be considered inoperative to the extent it jeopardizes the receipt of federal funds.” The City of Ames uses that provision, Iowa Code section 20.27, to maintain the bargaining rights of its transit employees and subsequently receive federal funding.

The city and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) disagreed, however, as to whether Iowa Code section 20.32 required broader bargaining rights for nontransit employees in the same bargaining unit as transit employees. Iowa Code section 20.32 states: “All provisions of this chapter applicable to employees described in section 20.3, subsection 11 [public safety employees], shall be applicable on the same terms and to the same degree to any transit employee if it is determined by the director of the department of transportation, upon written confirmation from the United States department of labor, that a public employer would lose federal funding under 49 U.S.C. §5333(b) if the transit employee is not covered under certain collective bargaining rights.”

The City of Ames petitioned the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board to clarify the code section. The Board determined “section 20.32 required the City to provide nontransit workers with the same bargaining rights as public safety employees when the bargaining unit consists of at least thirty percent transit employees.” The district court affirmed the decision of the Board, and the city appealed.

Justice Waterman determined the Board and district court’s interpretation of section 20.32 was incorrect based on a plain reading of the statute. First, the Court noted the section was unambiguous in that it only protected transit employees, not nontransit employees. Therefore, no further tools of statutory construction were necessary. Additionally, the section explicitly references federal law guaranteeing only the rights of transit employees—indicating the limited scope of the law.

The Board and district court relied on section 20.9, which concerns bargaining units with over 30 percent public safety employees, to find that nontransit employees in similar bargaining units should possess the broader bargaining rights. The Court wrote, “[the Board and IUOE] noted the statute extends the rights of public safety workers (as defined in section 20.3(11)) to transit employees as necessary to avoid the loss of federal transit funding. Next, they jumped to section 20.9, which provides broader bargaining rights to all employees in a bargaining unit comprised of at least thirty percent public safety employees.” However, Justice Waterman noted that section 20.32 does not cross-reference or incorporate the provisions of section 20.9.

Justice Waterman wrote, “extending broader bargaining rights to nontransit employees has nothing to do with the purpose of section 20.32: protection of federal funding.” In fact, Justice Waterman held it would be contrary to the Iowa Legislature’s goal in passing the 2017 amendments to the Iowa Code.





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