Iowa House File 291, signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad on Feb. 17, impacts an estimated 184,000 Iowans who work in the public sector — and their families. Supporters praise the rewrite of the 43-year-old collective bargaining law as a fair bill that reins in expenses while providing uniform templates for salary and health insurance benefits statewide. Opponents decry the legislation, saying it dismantles a law that ensured fair and just wages and benefits for public employees. Furthermore, opponents believe, the new law gives preferential treatment to law enforcement personnel and firefighters. As with many divisive issues, there are merits to each side’s viewpoints.
One week before Gov. Branstad put his signature to the bill, the Iowa Catholic Conference released a statement from Iowa’s bishops expressing concerns about provisions which limit items that can be considered during collective bargaining as well as what an arbitrator can award for a pay raise. The bishops emphasized that the then-proposed bill should ensure that the common good is served. In addition, they re-released their 2011 statement on “Labor and the Common Good,” which responded to efforts in several Midwestern states — including Iowa — to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions.
In that 2011 statement, the bishops affirmed their belief that all people have a basic right to the spiritual and material things that make for a decent life, and described these things as the common good. Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the bishops said: “The common good can be understood as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’”
But the bishops acknowledged then and now that addressing the common good requires give and take by both the workers and the government. “Members of unions have responsibilities — to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and to treat employers and co-workers with respect. We also fully acknowledge the challenges the state government finds in balancing its budget while fulfilling its own responsibilities to the common good, which includes paying employees fairly and protecting the life and dignity of those who are poor and vulnerable,” the bishops said the 2011 statement.
They also posed three important questions, which are pertinent even in the aftermath of House File 291 becoming law. All of us as taxpaying citizens, as members of governing boards and bodies, as public employees, need to address these questions as the law is implemented:
• How do my individual interests correspond to or conflict with the common good?
• How does a just society with limited resources act together for the common good?
• How can we evaluate the consequences our decisions will have for the common good?
In considering each of these questions, we need to begin by taking into account variances in the cost of living from county to county. The new law, in a section on arbitration, acknowledges the existence of “factors peculiar to a given area and the classification involved.” But how will that be applied in determining what a person who fills potholes in Des Moines earns compared to his counterpart in Muscatine or Mount Pleasant?
Mitigating factors must be considered when addressing housing costs, access to health care providers and food and transportation costs. Some folks must travel a whole lot farther to get to the doctor’s office. Telemed won’t cut it when someone needs to have a broken arm set. Justice, as taught in the Catholic Church, requires that a worker earn a living wage that provides for the basic necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, education and health care. A change in law doesn’t change that teaching. It does require a change of thinking for all of us as individuals and as a community that we call Iowa.
— Barb Arland-Fye, Editor