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Nearly 1,000 labor union members and their supporters rallied in the state Capitol Monday, voicing their opposition to proposed legislation that would weaken collective bargaining rights for Iowa’s public employees.

The group then filled the Iowa House chambers for a public hearing on the bill, with opponents vastly outnumbering the handful of supporters who spoke up for the legislation.

“This is about the right for workers to be able to bargain in the workplace,” said Mark Cooper, president of South Central Iowa Federation of Labor. “That’s what this is about. It’s not about economics.”

Democrats have said the legislation — House File 525 — is effectively an end to collective bargaining rights for Iowa’s public employees. Among the provisions includes allowing the legislature or governor to veto decisions made by an independent arbitrator and a prohibition on public employee unions negotiating health care or retirement plans. It would also allow employees to become “free agents,” who can negotiate their terms of employment directly with employers even if they are in a union shop.

Supporters of the legislation say the motivation is the economy. Mike Ralston, who spoke on behalf of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, says that in a time when private sector employees are seeing their health care premiums go up every year, public sector employees are getting benefits for free.

“Iowa’s public bargaining system has generally served Iowa well over the years, but it is very different than private sector bargaining,” he said. “In public sector bargaining, the one who pays the bills, the taxpayer, has a limited role in the process. Their role is simply to pay the wages and benefits that others either agree to or decide for them. And this process operates on the presumption that the employer has unlimited resources. We all know that’s not true.”

But union leaders point out that those benefits are not a gift. They were negotiated in exchange for lower wages. Several speakers pointed out that the state has a $900 million budget surplus, leaving no reason for collective bargaining to be under attack.

“At best this effort is misguided,” said Dave O’Connor, a social studies teacher at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines. “At worst it is a cynical attempt to cripple unions that have historically not seen eye-to-eye with the governor.”

Similar debate over public employee collective bargaining has begun in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, and in each state, labor legislation has been greeted with massive protests. Democrats say the bills represent a politically motivated attack on unions, who are historically among the Democratic Party’s biggest supporters.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said during her testimony that the issue of collective bargaining for public employees should not be partisan, pointing out that the law was written and passed by legislators of both parties, and signed into law by Republican Governor Bob Ray in 1974.

“Unfortunately, HF 525 abandons the bipartisan roots of collective bargaining and seeks to dismantle the foundation of workers’ rights in Iowa,” she said. “HF 525 joins a long list of legislation this session that has targeted middle class families, including draconian cuts to education, decreased access to healthcare for children, and cuts to successful state programs.”

The Iowa bill is now eligible for debate in the House. The legislation has already had 47 amendments attached to it, a tactic Democrats employed when the bill was in committee. Lawmakers managed to extend debate on the bill for 15 hours, starting at noon Thursday and ending at 6 a.m. Friday morning, with Republicans forced to vote down 48 amendments offered by Democrats.

Even if the bill does pass the House, it is effectively dead in the Democratically-controlled state Senate.

“We are not going to let House Republicans take away what our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought for,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) said.