No quid pro quo

BY ART CULLEN

An old friend who was an outstanding appellate attorney and judge tells us that Republican attempts to gut Iowa’s collective bargaining law will be “catastrophic” and are not likely to pass Constitutional muster. We ran his legal theory by a couple trial lawyers who agree that legislators are about to discard a quid pro quo: Public employees shall not stop work, and in return the state will allow them to bargain on side issues such as health insurance, vacation, seniority and sick leave. It says so in the introductory paragraph of Iowa Code Chapter 20.1: “The general assembly declares that is the public policy of the state to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees …”

That was 40 years ago.

Eliminate the bargaining over such issues and you strike the quid pro quo. Thus you are taking a right (to bargain) without due process. This idea conflicts with both federal and state constitutional law, the lawyers tell us.

We related the theory to a friend in organized labor, who apparently on Monday convinced Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, to formally request an opinion from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat.

Miller was a passionate young lawyer who developed a civil rights and an ag division in the office. The longer he served the closer he became to a personal counsel defending Gov. Terry Branstad’s intrangisence and lack of transparency in government operations. Somewhere inside a man nearing the end of his career is a young idealist from Dubuque who stands with hard-working men and women who teach in our schools, keep our streets clean and safe, maintain our prisons and mete out justice without fear or favor.

Miller is the only figure in the state who can begin to take the gust out of a Republican zephyr to remake state government and put public employees in a hostile and adversarial position to the people of Iowa. He is the only member of the loyal opposition who has legal authority to declare the GOP intentions to be illegal, if they are.

Only Miller can stop them from their foolishness. So far, even Republicans can’t talk sense to the Republican caucus.

The Woodbury County Sheriff, a Republican, warned legislators that they are warming up a powder keg. First, Sheriff Dave Drew told legislators that collective bargaining works just fine for the county and the sheriff’s office. Second, he says it will sow division among law enforcement working on a snow-blocked road who are not written out of collective bargaining, while the snow plow drivers who can get them to the scene are written out of the protections offered by the law. Of course, it is patently unfair.

“Half of law enforcement folks I work with are Republicans. And we voted for Republicans because of conservative values. But we didn’t vote for Republicans to get stabbed in the back while we’re trying to dodge cars and bullets,” said Mitchellville Police Officer John Thomas, as quoted by the political blog Iowa Starting Line.

Drew and Thomas had better hope Miller can save Republicans from their worst instincts.

It started with Gov. Branstad suggesting that health insurance should be exempted as a bargaining item so the state could get to a single health care plan that would save money. With nobody limiting them, Republicans ran with the ball and turned the bill into a razing of the collective bargaining law signed by Republican Gov. Bob Ray.

Branstad can’t stop it. No legislative leader will. Miller, if he were inclined, could warn legislators that his office could not defend the law if it were taken to court.

If they weren’t drunk on power, they might heed his warning.

Or, they might believe that what the legislature wrote it likewise can erase and recast. Except that if you take away the carrot, can the stick still stick? Our friends in the law tell us that the way things are going public employees could be empowered for the first time in nearly a half-century to call a strike or work slowdown. Currently, if the legislature issues 1.1% growth in state aid to schools, teachers and school boards have to swallow it. Under the changes, believe it or not, those teachers could tell the school board to go fish and then walk out of the classroom. The board could hire a bunch of recent grads from Buena Vista and Northern Iowa to fill the ranks. But the scabs won’t be teachers with 25 years of experience and a master’s degree in math.

The clerks of court and judges have not received a pay raise in eight years without a union. If the judges can’t get a raise, how are janitors supposed to without collective bargaining? A judge can go back to suing people as a lawyer. A janitor goes on unemployment.

Miller needs to stand up for working men and women against a system that is determined to do them in. The collective bargaining “reform” is short-sighted, will cause great discord and division at all levels of government, will result in poorer customer service to taxpayers and worse public employee morale. Plus, it may well deny public employees their due process rights. If ever we needed a courageous and righteous attorney general, it is now. We know Tom Miller has it in him. He needs to steer the legislature back to a reasonable course with a solid opinion that does not trash 40 years of progress on civil rights — including the right to assemble in a union and to petition government for a redress of grievances. It may be the biggest accomplishment of his career.