Court: Prison Workers Can’t Wear Pins Opposing Iowa Governor

DES MOINES, IA – An appeals court Wednesday upheld a state policy that bars prison employees from wearing union pins opposing Republican Gov. Terry Branstad while on duty.

A three-judge panel sided with a lower court and the Public Employment Relations Board, agreeing that “special circumstances” justified the ban imposed by the Department of Corrections in 2011.

The pins at issue had been distributed by the largest state employees’ union, AFSCME Iowa Council 61, a longtime Branstad foe. They depict an unflattering photograph of the governor’s face bisected by a red diagonal slash — the universal “no” symbol. The words “1991 or 2011” are at the top and “NOTHING HAS CHANGED” at the bottom.

They were issued to protest Branstad’s 2011 line-item veto that closed 36 unemployment offices and to remind workers about his 1991 veto of wage increases for state employees during his earlier tenure as governor. Both vetoes were later ruled unconstitutional by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Some employees at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a prison in Coralville, wore the pins while on the job. At least two other staff members complained to the warden that the pins were offensive, and the Department of Corrections responded by banning them.

Workers have a general right to wear union insignia under state law.

But the department argued the pins were an attack on the leader of its chain of command and could disrupt prison discipline and jeopardize safety. It said the pins didn’t comply with workers’ responsibility to model “prosocial behavior to offenders” and to avoid actions that might undermine respect for the department and the criminal justice system.

After AFSCME challenged the ban, an administrative law judge agreed in 2014 that it violated state law. But the Public Employment Relations Board overturned that decision and found that “special circumstances” outlined by the department warranted the ban in this instance.

The appeals panel on Wednesday said the union failed to meet its “heavy burden” to show that the board’s decision abused its wide discretion to interpret state law.

AFSCME attorney Mark Hedberg said he doesn’t know whether he’ll ask the Iowa Supreme Court for further review. But he emphasized the limited nature of the decision and noted that some other workers are able to wear union pins.

“It’s a very narrow ruling affecting a small group of folks with a specific type of pin,” he said.

From The Associated Press via The Albany Times Union

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