More than 500 union members rallied outside the Iowa State Capitol yesterday. They gathered to show unity for their counterparts in Wisconsin who took to the streets and the statehouse in opposition to legislation that would make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state. If the law is passed, workers in Wisconsin could opt out of paying union dues even if their place if work is unionized.
Twenty-two states already have a right-to-work law on the books. Iowa is one of those states, and it has been that way for more than 63 years. It’s hard to believe that hundreds of people came to capitol because they oppose a law that says you cannot force someone to join a labor union as a condition of their employment.
One would think that freedom-loving Iowans would be taking to the streets for the opposite reason. The idea that someone can be forced to join or financially support a union, as a condition of their employment is about as un-American as you can get. However, I’ll freely admit that it’s difficult for me to understand the current agenda of the big labor unions.
After standing in the middle of the rally for over an hour yesterday, I couldn’t help but sense that these people believe that their government totally disrespects them and is unappreciative of the service that they provide. While there is no doubt that the labor unions use this kind of rhetoric to motivate their members, public sector employees are far from being disrespected or unappreciated by state and local government.
A study done by the Public Interest Institute in 2009 shows that the average wage paid to state government employees was $51,688, while the average pay for private sector employees was $35,256. The disparity between the two is even greater when benefits are added into the equation.
The Public Interest Institute has also done a study that takes into account wages plus benefits. Those results showed that state government employees were compensated on average at the rate of $39.60 per every hour worked, while private sector employees were compensated $29.37 on average for every hour worked.
Do those numbers indicate that state employees are being disrespected? Is asking these workers to make a contribution for their healthcare benefits out of line? Of course not. The proposals floating around the state capitol are reasonable. If contributing a small amount for their healthcare benefits is going to thrust these employees into financial hardship maybe they should reconsider paying their union dues and use that money to pay for their healthcare costs.
It was also interesting to observe the dynamic between some of the union members and members of the tea party movement. As one of the tea party activists was speaking at the tea party rally, a union member, who was making his way to the union rally, thought it was appropriate to hurl some insults towards the gathering. This individual was so focused on what he was shouting he missed a step and fell on the stairs, much to the delight of many tea partiers. Embarrassed, the man got up and flipped the tea party gathering the bird.
While incidents like that are bound to happen, what surprised me was how obsessed the union members were over the rather small contingent of tea party activists who were gathered a half-block away. At one point in the rally, I overheard one union member say to another that he would like to “shoot them.” The “them” he was referring to was the tea party members. Realizing that he said this in earshot of the media, he laughed and said that he didn’t really mean what he had just said.
While the tea party rally was dwarfed in comparison to the union rally, it was a success for the mere fact that it provided balance to the reporting of the union rally. It also provided a chance for Republican lawmakers to discuss the labor issues that are currently in front of the legislature.
Representative Tom Shaw and Representative Dwayne Alons briefly addressed the tea party gathering. Other lawmakers like Rep. Kim Pearson and Rep. Jason Schultz also made their way outside to show their appreciation of the tea party event.
The union turnout at the capitol was impressive, but it was aided by the fact that a number of union members were transported to the rally by tour busses and offered a free lunch. To say that the union rally was organic would be a huge stretch.
While the debate captured the attention of the media for a day, the debate about the collective bargaining agreement that Governor Culver accepted as he was in the final days of his term is at the crux on this debate.
It is almost impossible for the state of Iowa to get its fiscal house in order if state employees refuse to make any concessions. Asking them to pay as little as $50 a month for their healthcare benefits should not be seen as an insult or an assault on the middle class, but a necessary and appropriate adjustment with which private sector employees have had to deal for years.
Photo by Dave Davidson