A basement room in a police station isn’t typically the setting for negotiations between equals, but that’s the location University of Iowa officials chose for their Wednesday morning meeting with members of Faculty Forward Iowa (FFI). FFI, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, represents members of UI’s non-tenure track faculty seeking better working conditions.
FFI isn’t recognized by the university as an official bargaining unit, and earlier this month UI President Bruce Harreld said he wouldn’t meet with any member of FFI as long they were still trying to organize non-tenure track faculty at the university. But after FFI staged a sit-in at Harreld’s office last week, UI officials agreed to schedule a meeting between FFI representatives and UI administrators who can address concerns of the non-tenure track faculty, included Harreld.
When the nine non-tenure track faculty members representing FFI arrived for the 8 a.m. meeting at the UI Police Department headquarters in the basement of the Old Capitol Mall, they were escorted to the meeting room by police officers, according to Elizabeth Weiss, a lecturer in UI’s Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing and an FFI member who attended the meeting.
“It was an odd note to start on,” Weiss said. “But we did work productively after that unfortunate beginning for an hour and a half.”
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.
“It was meaningful to be able to actually communicate the reality of our lives to some of these administrators,” Weiss said. “I think this was surprising information to some of them — how the consequences of university policies affect us and how they play out in our real lives.”
FFI has been trying to communicate how university policies affect non-tenure track faculty since its first public action last month, when members marched to Harreld’s office to present a letter and petition containing their demands: “better job security, transparency, improved support, compensation and benefits, and inclusion in academic communities,” according to the letter. Earlier this month, the group marched again, delivering another copy of the letter to Harreld’s official UI residence.
Neither action produced results FFI members considered satisfactory. Speaking to Little Village at the sit-in on May 9, Weiss described the talks that FFI had had with UI administrators up to that point as little more than “tactics of delay and passing the buck.”
Weiss said on Wednesday that the police station meeting was better.
“This was a meeting where decision-makers were present and we were able to outline a process that could be genuinely productive,” Weiss explained.
The administrators and FFI agreed to create two working groups to address the concerns of the non-tenure track faculty, and to meet again in a month to discuss the options generated by those groups.
The university administration issued a press release after the meeting stating administrators “have and will continue to address issues that hinder competitiveness with our peer universities,” but repeated its previous stated position that it will not comment on talks between the administration and particular groups.
“We didn’t get a firm commitment from them about specific steps they are going to take beyond this series of meetings, but we’re committed to continuing to have a productive working relationship with them,” Weiss said. “As long as it stays productive.”
“And we’re committed to continue to organize until we win decent working conditions for all of our non-tenure track colleagues,” she added.