The Iowa Board of Regents thought the public comment period at its April 18 meeting was finished. They were wrong.
As Board President Michael Richards announced comments were closed, several people wearing the bright orange T-shirts of Faculty Forward Iowa (FFI) approached the microphone set up for public comments in the University of Iowa Leavitt Center.
“This public comments section is not over,” said FFI member Liz Weiss, a lecturer in UI’s Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing.
FFI was organized early last year by members of UI’s non-tenure track faculty, in an effort to improve their working conditions and gain a voice in how the university is governed. Non-tenure track faculty teach more than half the classes UI undergraduates take and typically have heavy workloads, with much lower salaries than tenured factory, few benefits, little job security and few opportunities for career advancement.
Faculty Forward is a national labor group for non-tenured track faculty that is part of the Service Employees International Union. FFI started as a somewhat informal association, and it didn’t begin to organize itself as a union until January.
Members had come to the Board of Regents meeting to advocate for a change in UI policy that would give non-tenure faculty access to catastrophic sick leave, which non-tenure track members of the University of Northern Iowa’s faculty have.
For two months, FFI had been trying without success to get the regents or UI administration to discuss making changes to the university’s sick leave policy. Members tried again — again, unsuccessfully — during the public comments period that Richards was trying to close.
Holding a bullhorn, Weiss said, “We’re here to speak to you, we’re here to be heard by you and here to seek some action.”
The regents weren’t interested.
As FFI members began describing the difficulties of working while coping with chronic medical conditions, or related stories of colleagues who faced choices between working and taking enough time off for needed medical treatments, the regents left the room.
The members of FFI and a few supporters — about 20 people altogether — declared they’d continue the “extended comments period” until the regents agreed to discuss catastrophic sick leave policy.
The scene that afternoon in the Leavitt Center conference room reflected the current state of organized labor in Iowa: A small number of protesters with government jobs were appealing to a group of well-connected, well-fed people (there was a buffet of dessert items behind the waist-high barrier separating the regents from the public), who walked away instead of talking.
Only 7.7 percent of Iowa workers were union members in 2018. Additionally, the percentage of public sector workers in unions in Iowa is roughly four times greater than the percentage of unionized private sector workers.
Historically, Iowa hasn’t been friendly territory for labor unions. In 1947, it became one of the first states outside the Deep South to adopt a right-to-work law, which made it illegal to require employees to join or pay dues to a union, even if that employee receives all the benefits the union secures for its members. Seventy years after that, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law gutting collective bargaining rights for almost all public sector employees.
The collective bargaining system dismantled in 2017 had been created in 1974 by Gov. Robert Ray, also a Republican, with bipartisan support in the legislature. The Public Employment Relations Act was a compromise, creating a framework to resolve labor disputes between unions and state and municipal governments through legally binding mediation and arbitration. As part of the compromise, public sector employees gave up the right to strike.
The 2017 changes, which passed on party-line votes in the Republican-led legislature, reduced mandatory collective bargaining to just one issue: wages. Every other issue — including health care, retirement benefits and workplace safety — can only be negotiated if the employer agrees to include it in negotiations. And whatever mediation or arbitration takes place is no longer neutral, but is now weighted in favor of the employer.
(The legislature did allow unions representing state troopers, police officers, firefighters and park rangers to continue negotiating contracts under the 1974 rules. It’s probably no coincidence that those are the unions most likely to have wide popular support, and their members are more likely to vote Republican than other public sector workers.)
Some government bodies, such as the Iowa City Community School District, continued to include benefits and other workplace issues in contract negotiations with its unions. The Board of Regents did not.
Speaking to Little Village in December, Laura Szech of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), the union that has represented UI graduate student workers since 1996, described what happened to contract talks after the 2017 changes.
“[The regents’ representatives] brought us a one-page wage document and wouldn’t negotiate at all,” she said.
The UI administration has kept the benefits that were in the last pre-2017 COGS contract, writing them into university policy. But because those benefits are no longer guaranteed in a contract, the union will have no legal recourse if the administration decides to change or eliminate benefits. COGS couldn’t even protest by going on strike. The part of the 1974 law making public sector strikes illegal is still in effect.
Statistics on union membership show the impact of the 2017 changes. In 2016, 29.3 percent of Iowa’s public sector workers belonged to a union. That number dropped to 21.4 percent in 2018. During the same period, the percentage of union members in the state’s private sector saw a very slight increase, from 5.1 percent to 5.2 percent.
That was how things stood when members of the non-tenure track faculty came together last year to form FFI.
“We’re spread too thin to give our students the attention they deserve, and the attention we want to give them,” Liz Weiss told Little Village in April 2018. “I think anyone invested in the long-term health of this university in particular, or higher education in general, has to address the issues that we’re raising. The way things are is not sustainable.”
Those issues were laid out in a letter that 60 FFI members delivered to UI President Bruce Harreld’s office on April 18, 2018: “better job security, transparency, improved support, compensation and benefits, and inclusion in academic communities.”
Harreld wasn’t in his office when the letter was delivered, FFI members were told. Even if he had been, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Harreld would not meet with FFI representatives, because he said it was a union.
“I will not meet with them…” Harreld told the Daily Iowan in May 2018, “because I don’t want to get accused of tampering [with union organizing] in one way or the other.” (The university has consistently declined to comment on its relations with FFI, when contacted by Little Village.)
At the time, FFI wasn’t attempting to organize as a union, and considered itself no different than other groups of concerned faculty members Harreld and his fellow UI administrators regularly sat down with.
Harreld’s refusal to meet didn’t stop FFI.
Two weeks after delivering the letter, members marched to Harreld’s official residence to deliver another copy. No one answered when they rang the doorbell, so they held a brief rally and taped the letter to the front door.
Five days later, a dozen FFI members staged a sit-in at Harreld’s office. It wasn’t a raucous, ’60s-style sit-in. The protesters sat quietly, grading papers and doing other work, waiting for Harreld to speak with them.
When the FFI members arrived at 10 a.m,, they were told Harreld wasn’t there and probably wouldn’t come in that day. They stayed anyway. At 5 p.m., they were told the office was closing and they had to leave. They didn’t. Someone called the UI Police. FFI didn’t budge.
Around 6 p.m., Peter Matthes, senior adviser to Harreld and vice president for external relations, and Laura McLeran, another senior adviser to Harreld and the assistant vice president of external relations, met with the protesters. A deal was struck for a series of meetings between UI officials, including Harreld, and FFI.
As a result of those meetings, UI agreed to make non-tenure track faculty eligible for health insurance, dental insurance, dependent coverage, sick leave accruement and retirement benefits. That was Aug. 7. The meetings were supposed to continue.
But on Aug. 15, Dean Joseph Kearney sent an email to FFI. It informed them that UI administrators consider a “Dear Colleagues” message FFI posted on its Facebook page to raise awareness of the group, and which ended “We invite you to join us,” to be union organizing.
“In order to avoid any claims that these meetings are in violation of [Iowa’s labor laws], we have decided to discontinue future meetings,” Kearney wrote.
FFI replied that it wasn’t organizing as a union — it didn’t collect dues, it wasn’t structured as a union local — but it was UI’s turn not to budge.
“Since they kept calling us a ‘union,’ we decided to embrace it,” Annie Sand, a lecturer in the rhetoric department and a founding FFI member, told Little Village.
In January, FFI announced on Facebook it would “proudly” start calling itself a union, because “we already are a union in the oldest, where-it-all-started sense of the word: we are workers who are joining forces to fight for the working conditions we deserve, and for the democratic right to participate in workplace decisions that deeply affect our lives and those of our loved ones.”
But being a union doesn’t give FFI any legal standing to bargain on behalf of its members with UI. Sand said she and her colleagues realize that Iowa law makes it very difficult for a public sector union to become recognized as an official bargaining unit, and FFI may never qualify.
But that doesn’t matter, Sand said. FFI started recruiting dues-paying members in January, and 110 of the approximately 430 members of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences non-tenure track faculty had joined by the beginning of March. FFI created a formal structure and is preparing to elect officers. It also has its first goal as a union: changing UI’s policy on catastrophic sick leave.
“We started gathering ideas for this back in December, when a couple of our colleagues were faced with the really unfortunate circumstance of having, in one case, a cancer diagnosis and not being able to work, but not having enough sick days built up to get him to the point that he could apply for disability,” Sand said.
Tenured members of the faculty can assist their colleagues who have exhausted their sick leave by contributing accrued vacation days to their colleagues, who can then use them as extra sick days. But since non-tenure track faculty don’t accrue vacation days, they can’t participate in this system.
The University of Northern Iowa lets any faculty member contribute part of their sick leave to any colleague in need of extra sick days. FFI wants UI to adopt that system.
FFI circulated petitions in support of making the change and collected almost 400 signatures, according to Sand. They presented the petition to UI’s administration, who told them to take the idea to the regents. FFI sent a representative to propose the change during the public comments section of the Feb. 28 regents meeting in Ames.
The regents did not respond. (Typically, the regents sit silently during comments. Often they don’t even look at the speakers.)
FFI had several speakers advocate for the sick leave change during the public comments section of April 18 meeting.
The regents did not respond. That’s when Liz Weiss stepped forward with a bullhorn.
An hour into the “extended comments period,” it was announced that, in another room, representatives of the regents were talking to FFI representatives. After 30 more minutes of personal stories and slogan-chanting — “What do we want? Fair medical leave! When do we want it? Now!” — it was announced the two sides had agreed to schedule a meeting to discuss the sick leave changes.
Asked what FFI had learned from its dealings with UI administrators and the regents, Sand said, “You can leave the table and refuse to talk to us, but because of our collective power, we can bring you back again.”
“There’s a lot of power in the old-school sense of the union,” she said. “That power doesn’t come from having the university, or even the state, recognize our validity as a union. We have the power just by being the collective that we are.”
Paul Brennan regrets not reaching over the barrier and grabbing a brownie from the Board of Regents’ buffet at the April 18 meeting. They looked tasty. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 263.