The Battle for Progressive Change in Iowa: Fair Share
by Nate Willems, Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 05:54:33 AM EST
This is Nate Willems. I was a regional director for Howard Dean's Iowa campaign and am finishing law school at the University of Iowa.
While the Caucuses are the subject of most of coverage devoted to politics in Iowa this year, a battle is presently underway in the Iowa Legislature which could have a far-ranging impact on the strength of organized labor and the progressive movement nationwide. In the November elections, Democrats won control of both chambers of the Legislature and retained the Governor's office. For the first time since the 1964 elections, all of the levers of political power in Iowa government are now held by the Democratic Party. With this historic opportunity, organized labor and its allies in the Legislature are attempting to win passage of Fair Share legislation.
Iowa is one of 22 so-called "Right-to-Work" states. In 1947, the Republican Congress overrode a veto from President Truman to pass Taft-Hartley. This law allows states to become Open Shop states - also called Right-to-Work - in which no person represented by a labor union must actually join their labor union. For almost 60 years, Iowa has been an Open Shop state. Over that time, only one state, Indiana, has successfully repealed its Right-to-Work law and re-emerged as a Union Shop state. The 22 Open Shop states consist of the Old Confederacy, Plains and Mountain West states. These states typically have the lowest rates of union membership in the country. All 22 voted for George W. Bush in 2004, only Iowa voted for Al Gore in 2000.
The Fair Share proposal before the Iowa Legislature does not repeal Iowa's Right-to-Work law, but it does give organized labor the opportunity to eliminate the problem of free riders. The proposal allows any labor union to attempt to negotiate into its contract a Fair Share provision. A Fair Share provision does not make union membership compulsory, but it does require non-union employees to pay their fair share of the costs associated with negotiating and administering the contract. Presently, the union must spend its time and resources negotiating on behalf of non-members - free riders - and must even represent these individuals in grievance and arbitration proceedings.
I do not mean to castigate all workers who choose to not join their union with pejorative terms - although "free rider" is unquestionably accurate and "scab" is also arguably appropriate. There is a natural human desire to get the best deal possible and use the system to one's own financial advantage. Thus, when given the option of either paying union dues or not paying union dues, and getting all of the same benefits, it is understandable that a certain number of people are willing to sponge off their co-workers. Also, since organized labor traditionally supports Democrats in political campaigns, some people may sincerely, if inaccurately, believe that their Fair Share dues would go to political candidates and causes they oppose (which is against the law, but it is not always easy to get people to understand or believe this.)
Whatever misgivings one may have about organized labor, the fact remains that it is fundamentally unfair to force union members to subsidize their non-union co-workers. The problem of free riders means that labor unions do not have the full resources they deserve to better serve their members. The denial of dues money to unions results in little or no money for organizing new workplaces. Labor is left in a situation of trying to hold on to the members it has instead of winning contracts for unorganized workers because the resources are not there to fund organizing campaigns.
So, you may be asking, "Why should I care?" Why should the problems facing organized labor in Iowa matter to me? As I alluded to earlier, there is a direct correlation between the strength of organized labor and the strength of the Democratic Party. There is a direct correlation between the strength of organized labor and the rise of progressive politics. In a Washington Post column on September 9, 2004, David Broder reflected upon the importance of a strong union movement:
"But there is a larger story about workers and organized labor that has gone largely unnoticed this year. I was reminded of it by a conversation on the train coming back from New York. My seatmate, a fellow reporter, was asking questions about the changes I had seen in Congress since I started covering Capitol Hill almost 50 years ago. And when we got around to discussing lobbyists, he seemed genuinely surprised when I said that back then -- and for decades afterward -- the most influential lobbyists did not represent business or trade associations but labor unions.
`Labor unions!' he said, reflecting the understandable surprise of a savvy reporter who knows only the congressional power alignments of the past decade.
It made me realize how rarely observers like me make the link between the decline of progressive politics and with it the near-demise of liberal legislation, and the steady weakening of organized labor.
The loss of labor's political leverage is, if anything, even more striking. As I told my seatmate, when labor lobbied powerfully on Capitol Hill, it did not confine itself to bread-and-butter issues for its own members. It was at the forefront of battles for aid to education, civil rights, housing programs and a host of other social causes important to the whole community. And because it was muscular, it was heard and heeded."
The battle for Fair Share in Iowa is the front line of not just the fight for better paying jobs, or for a stronger Democratic Party, it is the fight to rekindle a progressive brand of politics that has gone missing in this country for far too long. While the focus for most of 2007 in Iowa will be on the presidential candidates, I would argue that during the next couple of months the more important story is Iowa's historic opportunity to become only the second state to take a step back from the race to the bottom politics that Right-to-Work engenders.
The question remains: Will the Democrats in the Iowa Legislature get the 51 votes in the Iowa House and 26 votes in the Iowa Senate to pass Fair Share?