With the fate of Iowa’s public-sector unions on the line in hundreds of recertification votes in school districts and campuses across the state, Iowa educators are making it clear: their vote is a resounding UNION YES!
A new state law, passed by a union-busting Republican legislature earlier this year, requires every public-sector union in the state to vote on whether to continue or dissolve their unions. The aim likely was to diminish the power of unions. But, by voting yes to recertification, Iowa educators are confirming that they want their Iowa State Education Association (ISEA)-affiliated unions to remain their voice at the bargaining table, as their official “bargaining agent.”
“Maybe the people who wrote this law thought our unions were just a few leaders, or that we were forcing people to be part of the union, but [the vote] sends a clear message,” said Shane Peterson, president of the West Lyon Education Association. "This is everybody in the union saying yes."
Last month, 13 ISEA locals voted—and every one of them voted overwhelmingly to retain their union certification. In four ISEA locals, 100 percent of members—that means every single employee—voted yes.
Out of 1,291 votes cast, only 27 educators voted against recertification. (About 160 did not vote, or their ballots were lost, and by law their votes were counted as nos.) This is just the beginning of the battle: over the next few weeks, more than 23,000 educators will vote in 220 locals. Ultimately, all of Iowa’s public-worker bargaining units—from city snowplow drivers to sheriff’s deputies—will have to vote for recertification before they can re-negotiate their contracts.
The stakes are high for educators who want a voice in working and learning conditions, noted ISEA President Tammy Wawro in a recent video. “Vote yes to have a seat at the bargaining table. Vote yes for positive working conditions and good student learning environments. Vote yes to send a message to district officials and legislators that educators stand together on important issues,” Wawro urged.
In West Lyon, it wasn’t a very difficult sell, says Peterson. When members realized that a no vote would mean their contract is gone for two years—the state law pauses all bargaining for two years after a no vote—“it was a no-brainer for teachers to say, ‘of course I want my contract,’” says Peterson. His members count on their contract for many things, but especially to provide healthcare.
Still, organizing for success has been no small task, says Lisa Ossian, a professor of history at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and former NEA Board member. The way it worked with the September recertification votes was that the state labor relations board mailed plain, white-envelope ballots—“they looked like junk mail,” says Peterson—to every eligible employee to be marked, sealed and returned within two weeks. Ballots not received counted as nos. To achieve recertification, locals needed yes votes from 50 percent plus one.
In future votes, employees will have the opportunity to vote online or by phone.
“With 361 full-time faculty, our magic number was 181, but our goal was 100 percent,” said Ossian. Faculty urged each other to empty their junk drawers, clean off their dining tables, and make sure they found their ballot and marked it appropriately. Rather than risk late delivery, a faculty leader at one of DMACC’s many campuses collected and personally drove her colleagues’ ballots to the state labor board’s offices.
In the end, only six voted no and 43 were unreturned, giving DMACC a solid 86 percent yes vote.
“Efforts to break unions usually do just the opposite,” notes DMACC English professor Lynn LaGrone. “Energy and time devoted to tearing us down might be better spent finding ways to solidify our common goal: offering the best education we can to the students who rely on us.”