Top five 2018: Workers in Iowa continue to fight the good fight

Little Village contributor Mike Kuhlenbeck takes a look back at the state of labor relations in Iowa in 2018.

The last few years have been challenging for Iowa workers, and 2018 is no exception.

Iowa governors Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds and state Republican legislators have defined their political legacies by attacking unions, weakening legal protections for public sector employees and slashing public funds. Making matters worse, President Donald Trump and his congressional allies continue to prove they are on the side of corporations and not the working class.

In the face of these challenges, Iowans are fighting back to reclaim their rights and their state. There are numerous labor battles in Iowa in the national war on workers. It is telling that many of these battles are being fought on college campuses such as University of Iowa and Grinnell College. As times change, the situation for workers changes with them. Sectors that were once thought to be exempt from union representation are defying conventional standards, as are the workers struggling to better their lives by doing so.

Using both time-honored tactics and innovation reflective of the times, these ongoing battles in the Hawkeye state are part of a nationwide fight to secure a better future for all Americans.


UGSDW at Grinnell College

Iowa’s Grinnell College was a significant battleground for workers’ rights in 2018. — public domain photo

The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers made history in the spring of 2016 by forming the “first independent union run by student workers” at a private school like Grinnell College. Initially representing dining service workers, in 2018 UGSDW fought to expand its membership to all departments.

UGSDW has achieved an hourly wage increase, equal pay for high school students working in the dining hall, a formal grievance procedure, paid rest breaks and tiered bonuses for students who work at least 110 hours each semester. Their example has inspired similar movements to organize on college campuses across the country.

UGSDW Executive Board member and third year Grinnell student Sam Xu said, “I think it’s encouraging that we have student workers organizing together in unions because unions are not usually associated with young people and academic workers.”

On Nov. 27, student workers from all departments voted 274-54 in favor of joining UGSDW. Amidst celebrations after a year-long campaign to expand the union, the victory was soured by the Grinnell administration. Despite the tradition of “civil discourse” often associated with the reputation of this private liberal arts college, administrators are showing steadfast opposition.

Grinnell president Raynard Kington and the Executive Committee of Board Trustees refuse to meet with UGSDW at the bargaining table. Allowing the union to expand would “undermine [Grinnell’s] core educational mission and culture, impede learning and diminish educational opportunities for students,” according to a statement issued by Debra Lukehart, Grinnell’s vice president of communications.

UGSDW asserts that the administration has spread “outrageous claims” and intimidated students from organizing. They have threatened to cut employment opportunities and financial aid to students who organize, as well as discipline those who protest.

Administrators challenged the vote with help from five lawyers (two from Des Moines and three from New York), appealing the results to the National Board of Labor Relations (NBLR). A successful appeal had the potential to set a national precedent jeopardizing future efforts for students to organize at academic institutions.

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UGSDW Press Secretary Andy Pavey said in an email to Little Village, “The labor rights community is watching us, and rightfully so.”

“Overall, I’m optimistic,” Xu said, “Because fights are never won in courts. They’re won on the ground and by organizing a grassroots movement.”

However, on Dec. 13, UGSDW withdrew its petition to expand. Although this ends their own efforts, it also protects the rights of students nationwide: Student newspaper The Scarlet and Black reports that college has reversed its earlier position and will not oppose the petition withdrawal, effectively ending its appeal to the NBLR.

In the wake of the reversal, UGSDW confirmed that the NBLR had allowed its petition withdrawal and said it will announce its “next steps” to make 2019 a better year for Grinnell students and all workers. Stay tuned.


Faculty Forward Iowa at the University of Iowa

Annie Sand address the Faculty Forward Iowa rally on the UI Pentacrest, April 18, 2018. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Earlier this year, non-tenure track (NTT) faculty at the University of Iowa made their voices heard by organizing the Faculty Forward Iowa (FFI) campaign to improve working conditions.

Faculty Forward is a national labor organizing effort by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which boasts a membership of 57,000 faculty and graduate student workers on 60 campuses.

There are around 218 FFI members, according to recent information provided to Little Village. Since February, FFI has sought to work with the UI administration to discuss how to “stand up for what we are worth, demand inclusion in the academic community and claim a voice for quality education.”

FFI’s efforts have received wide-ranging support on campus and from the community. They have hosted rallies, delivered petitions, staged a “Grade-in” and, more recently, a “Teach-in.” In August, there was a breakthrough. After several meetings with the administration, they agreed to expand benefits for visiting faculty with at least 50 percent appointment and a contract for one academic year.

FFI member and UI lecturer Anne Sand told Little Village in an email, “The victory we won this summer was huge. Before, many NTT instructors were teaching year to year without benefits like health insurance, sick leave and retirement. Many of them had been teaching at the university for years.”

However, earlier this semester, UI backtracked from negotiating improved pay and better working conditions for NTT instructors by claiming that since FFI is a union they could not legally negotiate with them. Sand said this is not true, because FFI is not a recognized union thanks to the changes in Iowa law regarding collective bargaining.

“There is no legal reason for the university to stop working with us,” Sand wrote. “The fact that they backed out of the working groups makes me concerned that their real goal is to continue exploiting NTT instructors.”

The UI administration has given lip-service about addressing the group’s concerns but has contradicted themselves on their willingness to work with them.

As reported in The Daily Iowan, UI president Bruce Harreld said: “I would remind all of my colleagues on campus that I passionately believe in shared governance. Shared governance does not mean shared decision-making.” This contradictory comment, among others, has concerned FF-Iowa members about what is in store for the future.

While the stance of the administration is still uncertain, as well as what will happen in the next year, FFI members and their supporters are hoping for the best.

“My biggest hope is that the university comes back to the table,” Sand said. “We made such good progress this summer and we just want to continue making progress and improving the working conditions for NTT faculty here at Iowa.”


UI’s Attempt to Close the Labor Center

The University of Iowa faced criticism in 2018 for its decision to close its Labor Center. — CC0

In July, the University of Iowa made a startling announcement that it would defund the Labor Center with the goal of closing the facility next year.

Founded in 1951, the Labor Center has provided “statewide research on workers’ rights and labor issues.” While there had been discussions about cutting the center’s budget in the past, the decision to shut the center down came “out of the blue,” according to Labor Center Executive Director Jennifer Sherer.

When asked if UI’s decision was part of the ongoing attacks on education and labor being committed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislators, Sherer said, “I hope the attempt to defund the Labor Center is not part of these political attacks. But whether it is or not, that is how people are going to view it.”

UI President Bruce Harreld maintains that eliminating all the funding for the Labor Center and six other centers that provided services to Iowa residents — from instruction on Chinese culture and language at the Confucius Center to assistance for senior citizens through the Center on Aging — would help the university cope with budget cuts. According to Harreld, since the centers weren’t exclusively focused on serving UI students, the university shouldn’t fund them.

During its November meeting, the Iowa Board of Regents approved the plan to defund the Labor Center and the other six centers.

“If they can come up with a plan to fund it through outside sources, we are not opposed to the Labor Center being open,” Board of Regents President Mike Richards told The Gazette, after the vote.

Supporters of the Labor Center filled the meeting room for the vote, as they had for all the board’s meetings since Harreld announced his decision to defund the center.

Thousands of Iowans have stepped forward to voice their support to keep the center open and forming the Save Our Labor Center campaign. On Dec. 3, a Statewide Labor Center Summit was hosted at the Old Capitol Senate Chambers on campus. The summit was attended by leaders of labor, civil rights, academia and other allies calling on UI to restore funding.

Leading up to the summit, Iowa Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Charles Wishman said in a statement, “In a $4 billion annual university budget, we can’t let the administration cut Iowa workers’ education to zero. This is too important to Iowa.”

The summit was heralded as a “great success,” according to a press release from the Save Our Labor Center coalition. (Dec. 7, 2018)

Sherer said that members of the center are looking forward to opening up the conversation with the administration and work toward a solution which benefits everyone. Harreld has said that he will reject any plan that involves using university funds.

Current funding for the Labor Center runs through June.


The Center for Worker Justice Continues to Grow

The Center for Worker Justice of Easter Iowa/Centro de Justicia Laboral moved to new digs in 2018. — via CWJ Facebook page

The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) was established in Iowa City as a non-profit organization in October 2012. Organizing under the principle that “low-wage workers themselves must provide the leadership behind any effort to address the root causes of their poverty,” they continue to fight for economic and social justice.

For six years, CWJ has been fighting for fair pay, safe working conditions, improving housing options for low-income residents, providing assistance to those affected by immigration policies and fighting against discrimination. Last year, CWJ co-founder Mazahir Salih was elected to the city council of Iowa City and was named Iowa City Press-Citizen’s Person of the Year. (This year, Salih tied with Cedar Rapids’ Stacey Walker for Best Elected Official of the CRANDIC, as voted for by Little Village readers.)

CWJ victories include securing over $55,000 in cases of wage-theft for hundreds of workers, helping over 150 local businesses pledge to pay the wage increase of $10.10 and launching multiple campaigns raising awareness for numerous issues affecting the community. As with previous years, 2018 proved to be an eventful one.

In May, CWJ joined the statewide response opposing the now-infamous raid conducted by ICE agents at Precast Concrete in Mt. Pleasant. Since July, CWJ has been a leading force in the campaign to save the Labor Center from closure.

According to a CWJ email newsletter, the group said this about the proposed closing: “Stealing the money that has been committed to research and education on issues that matter to Iowa workers for generations is an unforgivable breach of public trust.”

In November, CWJ moved its operations to a new location at 1556 South 1st Ave. Unit C. The new locations offers more space for offices and classroom offering community courses on organizing, tenants’ rights, workers’ rights and many others. As CWJ Executive Director Rafael Morataya told The Daily Iowan, “The benefit is not for the center. It’s for the community.”

During CWJ’s anniversary gala in October, members and community allies convened to celebrate past achievements and set new goals. Among their future plans, they seek to organize tenants in low-income apartment complexes and mobile homes in Eastern Iowa to help defend safe and just living conditions for those who live in them (such as their ongoing campaign with the Forest View Tenants’ Association).

They will also continue to “strengthen local and statewide coalitions” defending immigrants and refugees against the rising tide of racism and hate crimes emboldened by the Trump presidency; wage a worker justice campaign “against misclassification;” and fight for a $15 hourly minimum wage.


Public Sector Workers Vote for Union Re-Certification

The State Capitol shown on Friday, July 21, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Despite efforts of Republican leaders to break the ranks of workers, Iowa workers in public sector unions voted “overwhelmingly” for re-certification on Oct. 29.

Under Gov. Branstad and his fellow Republicans in the legislature, the laws for public sector workers changed under Chapter 20 in February, 2017. As reported in The Des Moines Register, “One of the new requirements is that all public employees’ unions must be re-certified 10 months prior to the expiration of a contract with a government employer.”

The election requirement includes so-called “true majority” provision. Anyone who doesn’t vote in the elections, for whatever reason, is automatically counted as voting “No.”

After the ballots were counted, it was announced by the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board that 21 public sector unions in Iowa won their re-certification elections. 94 percent of all bargaining units voted for re-certification, with 99 percent of the votes cast being “Yes” votes.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the largest union representing state workers in Iowa, representing more than 40,000 of 184,000 public employees.

While the new laws are still in effect, the re-certification results are being read by many as a vote of confidence in the power of public sectors unions.

AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan said, “The takeaway here is clear: Iowa’s public employees are not going to sit idly by while their rights are dismantled. They will vote to re-certify their union and they will vote to elect politicians who actually support their hard work and service to our state.”

Attorneys for AFSCME and the Iowa State Education Association are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to rule against the changes to the collective bargaining laws.

According to an interview with The Gazette, AFSCME attorney Mark Hedberg said the changes to the law “grant greater bargaining rights to some public sector employees but not identically-situated workers” and “infringes on members’ rights to associate with an be represented by their union” during contract negotiations.

The court’s ruling is still pending.


What Lies Ahead for 2019

For workers, the actions of state leaders and the results of the midterm election have been disappointing. But these setbacks have not sapped their motivation to continue forward. It will be a long road ahead in the path for a better future, but they seem up for the challenge.