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DES MOINES – Republicans seeking to amend Iowa's Constitution with right-to-work protection weathered a storm subcommittee meeting Wednesday by steering through strong union opposition hoping to run the issue aground.
House Joint Resolution 1, which advanced on a 2-1 subcommittee vote, would ask Iowa voters to inscribe current right-to-work language in the Iowa Code into the state constitution. The 1947 provision spells out that Iowans cannot be denied a job because they choose not to join a union and forbids union membership as a condition of employment, as well as barring fees or other charges to non-union members.
"Why do we need to put it into the Constitution? I don't see the need of it," said Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, a subcommittee member.
Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, chairman of the House Labor Committee, said the stronger constitutional protection is needed because there have been efforts in past sessions when Democrats controlled the Legislature that attempted to weaken the state law or even repeal it. Even though control of the current General Assembly is split between the political parties that may not always be the case in the future.
"The law is good as long as nobody negates it," said Forristall. "In order to ensure that Iowans preserve their liberties in the future, I think it's important that it be in the Constitution."
Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, agreed, saying constitutional language "makes it a certainty."
Union members and opponents lambasted the resolution sponsored by all 53 House Republicans, calling it politically motivated and a waste of session time when there are pressing needs to create jobs, boost wages and improve workplace safety.
Teamsters union member Matt Ballard questioned by lawmakers would want to "open up this Pandora's box in Iowa."
"It's status quo. It does nothing," he told the subcommittee members. "What you propose doesn't do anything to improve the lives of Iowans?"
Charles Wishman of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said HJR1 "doesn't have a chance in the Senate" in questioning why GOP legislators would want to fight a partisan battle that has "torn apart other states."
Watts asked opponents "why do you feel so frightened by this?" but Marcia Nichols of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said it is Republicans who are scared by turning to myriad of constitutional protections.
"I think what is behind this is much the same thing as voter suppression," said retired union member Karl Schilling. "It's to make sure that when the tide turns, we'll have to overcome an even greater obstacle. I think what this is is an attempt to thwart democracy. I think it's building a dike against democracy and I think it's shameful."
Nicole Crain, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business & Industry, spoke in support of the resolution, saying the 24 states generally have better job growth numbers than non-right to work states and Iowa experienced a period where business prospects looked to other locations when legislators pushed "fair-share" and other pro-labor measures from 2007 through 2010.
"This is economic development, this is a jobs bill," she said.
The meeting got combative at times with Forristall and opponents of the bill trading barbs and eventually the subcommittee leader ended the discussion after moving the proposal to the full House Labor Committee.