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Iowa bishops push for middle ground

Feb 15, 2017

By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau


DES MOINES - There was no divine intervention Tuesday at the Iowa Statehouse, but it came close as four Catholic bishops pressed the GOP-led Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad to consider “the common good” in making collective bargaining changes that limit some rights public workers currently have.

Iowa’s diocesan bishops - Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City; Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines - walked a fine political line by declaring neutrality on House File 291 and Senate File 213 but making clear that Catholic social teaching supports the rights of workers and their ability to bargain collectively.

“We’re kind of in the middle because we can see good on both sides,” said Nickless.

The bishops made their annual sojourn to the Statehouse on the day the Iowa House and Iowa Senate began debate on like bills to revamp Iowa’s 1974 collective bargaining law and used the occasion to push for moderation by both political parties to act in the best interests of Iowa families and communities.

“What we are really looking for is the common good that benefits everybody,” said Pates, noting that requires balancing the limitations on public finances with the rights of workers to form unions and negotiate recognizing “compensation is not only determined by what is in your pay envelope but other things like health care, vacations, retirement.”

Last week the Iowa Catholic Conference issued an official statement that was sent to Gov. Terry Branstad, who is a Catholic, and every legislator expressing concern about provisions of the 68-page legislation which would limit the items that can be bargained as well as what an arbitrator can award for a pay raise.

The bishops also affirmed the role of labor unions in helping workers receive fair pay and benefits and improved working conditions that can help set standards for workers in other situations.

Pates, who offered the morning prayer at the start of House proceedings by referencing the teachings of St. Thomas of Aquinas that “in the middle stands virtue,” said he did not get a lot of feedback from majority Republicans other than “they’re listening. They haven’t been too specific in their reactions.”

Jackels conceded there is “a lot of power” when both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office are held by one political party, but he noted there are “two other powers above that: God and the power of the people.”

The bishops said they have a good relationship with the governor on a personal level but they do not compromise their positions in talking with him and he understands that.

“We’re not Republican and we’re not Democrat and we’re very forthright with him about that,” Pates noted.

Jackels said he understands the political “drama in this building” and the external influences, but he added “I would hope the governor would be swayed by reason and by the common good and, if he were, I can’t think how reason and the common good could lead you to support this bill.”

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