The ascendance of Donald Trump is often mistaken for a sudden turn in the history of the United States. It isn’t. Trump’s election was only the capstone of an era when reactionaries have seized every level of power in the country. Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has taken eleven Senate seats, 62 House seats, twelve governorships, and nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures. At present, the GOP controls every branch of government in 24 states; in eight more, they merely control both houses of the legislature. It is in these states, far from the depravity of Washington or the fires in Berkeley, that the full extent of conservative ambitions is finally being realized. In Iowa, where we live and work, the successful Republican capture of the state Senate has completed the GOP trifecta, and the consequences, unseen by the larger, distracted nation, have unfolded with astonishing speed.
In 1974, a few years after a public teachers’ strike in which schoolteachers spent 19 hours in jail cells, then–Republican Governor Robert Ray signed the Iowa Public Employment Relations Act into the Iowa Code. The legislation was hyped as a thoughtful balance between employers’ and public unions’ interests. Chapter 20, as the deal came to be called, presented Iowa’s public workers with a trade-off: They lost the right to strike, but won the legal recognition of their unions and their right to collective bargaining. The law outlined mandatory bargaining issues, topics on which employers were required to negotiate, including wages, insurance, overtime, vacation, health and safety. While not entirely satisfying to either party, Chapter 20 has essentially worked: No public sector workers have struck since 1974, and each year, 98 percent of public contracts move forward without binding arbitration.
But now, with the GOP fully in control of the state, a cadre of Republicans have moved to gut Chapter 20, beginning with a bill introduced Tuesday morning that moves both health insurance and supplemental pay from the mandatory to prohibited column. If passed, the bill would bar Iowa public unions from raising these topics in negotiation, thereby allowing public employers to unilaterally impose whatever terms they like. What will become of health insurance? In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad (now preparing to leave for China as Trump’s ambassador) proposed a plan to slash the carefully negotiated health options tailored to individual populations and replace them with a single, once-size-fits-all option, causing a spike in premium costs that would have reduced public employees’ annual take-home pay by as much as 20 percent. That plan was crushed six years ago, but under the proposed Chapter 20 modification, it is likely to return. That these changes fall short of the outright abolishment of public unions is not a comfort; if anything, it is strategy. Rather than provide a single inflection point, as we saw in 2011 in Wisconsin, Iowa Republicans will simply give public employers permission to exploit their workers and leave every union to fight its particular battle in isolation.
Even this is an optimistic scenario. With no opposition capable of checking the state Republican Party, public employees around the state have been warned that everything, from wages to safety guarantees, are on the table. Forty years of carefully negotiated agreements beneficial to both worker and employer are about to be erased, threatening the livelihoods of teachers, firefighters, public janitors, and graduate students. These changes will hit female workers hardest, who comprise 61 percent of Iowa’s public workforce. Iowa’s towns, already dwindling in the twilight of neoliberalism, will wreck the jobs they still have left, in public schools, courthouses, correctional facilities, fire departments, sanitation departments, and universities. The state, perhaps, will profit. Its citizens will not.
While unions and their allies have mobilized to resist these changes, 70 years as a right-to-work state have weakened their ability to organize and undercut their capacity to keep political allies in power. Removing the sole remaining power of Iowa public unions—their capacity to negotiate over vital quality of life issues—is liable to destroy them entirely. That is exactly what Iowa’s government is after.
The strategy of the powerful is simple: Locate any rival and destroy it. For the past century, the labor movement has been the greatest threat to the power of wealth in this country. It is no surprise, then, that for the past century the American aristocracy and their political servants have dedicated enormous energy to impeding, corralling, and destroying it. Now, with the full power of the federal government turned over to the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party, the effort to crush American labor for good will not remain confined to states like Iowa.
Last week, Republican congressmen Steve King, of Iowa, and Joe Wilson, of South Carolina, introduced a national version of the so-called “right-to-work” laws that paved the way for the assault we are now experiencing in the Midwest. This law, which would allow workers in every state to opt out of union dues while still receiving the contractual benefits negotiated by those unions, has been in effect in Iowa since 1947, and there is a straight line from that first assault on labor power to the fight we find ourselves in today. The goal of these laws is not to shore up the strength of any vulnerable “right.” The goal, as always, is to cripple the financial and political power of unions, weakening their efforts to secure better lives for their members and undermining their capacity to wage future political battles. The goal is to destroy the most viable and proven rival to the power of wealth.
Millions of Americans have come out into the streets to protest the depravity of the Trump administration. The variety and severity of his assaults on the public good, even in these first few weeks, already border on the overwhelming. But it is essential, even amid menacing tweets and burning cars, to recall the threat of ordinary politicians acting in the service of financial power. They are not obscene. They do not telegraph their intentions or buck the decorum of civil life. They work quietly and professionally, in Washington and in Iowa, away from the flashpoints of our collective anger and fear. But it is these mundane legislators, as much as Trump and DeVos and Spicer and Bannon, who are working to destroy the sliver of power it has taken American workers a century to seize. It is they, as much as any vulgar president, whom we must organize to resist.