University of Iowa Labor Center, slated for closure in 2019, celebrates 70 years

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The University of Iowa Labor Center will celebrate 70 years of empowering workers in the Hawkeye State this Saturday, May 7. Surviving the threat of closure and a pandemic, the Labor Center continues to play a vital role in tackling the challenges facing workers statewide.

“The Labor Center is our state university’s commitment to the working people of Iowa, to ensure that research and education is accessible and relevant to the lives of working class Iowans, that it’s a place of continuing education,” Robin Clark-Bennett, director of the Labor Center, told Little Village.

Clark-Bennett has worked on labor related issues for over 30 years. She studied labor history as an academic pursuit, initially joining the Labor Center as part of a U.S. Department of Labor grant secured by then Senator Tom Harkin, in which the Labor Center collaborated with the Iowa Center for Human Rights and College of Public Health to study the issue of global child labor. She came back to the Labor Center full time in 2008 and became its director in 2021.

“I was raised in Eastern Iowa in a working-class family,” Clark-Bennett said. “My father attended the Labor Center when I was a kid. I saw what it meant in his life and how it inspired his lifelong learning as a postal worker. So this center has a lot of meaning for me. It’s an institution I care about.”

The UI Labor Center has for decades offered open-enrollment classes taught by Labor Center staff, UI faculty and guest instructors. According to their website, courses cover “a wide variety of issues ranging from communication and leadership skills to legal tools, labor history, and key public policy issues.” — photo courtesy of John W. McKerley/UI Labor Center

The Labor Center was founded in 1951, the funding for which was originally designated in 1950 as part of what was then known as the Bureau of Labor and Management (renamed the Center of Labor and Management in 1965) in the State University of Iowa’s College of Commerce. The Bureau’s mission was to “increase knowledge and understanding in the area of labor and industrial relations.” In 1980, the Labor Center became part of the External Programs division of the College of Business. It then became part of the Division of Continuing Education, and has been part of the College of Law since 2016.

Clark-Bennett said the Center acts as a bridge between the UI and Iowa workers and their families.

“It brings the education, research and expertise from the University to Iowa workers across the state on issues that matter to them and their communities,” she said. “It also allows students, faculty and researchers to learn from frontline experiences of Iowa workers, the ways in which issues are playing out in their communities, the ways they can apply the laws of the land and how policies are working or not working in their lives.”

Lynn Feekin is a nationally renowned labor educator who grew up in Iowa. She served as a graduate assistant at the Labor Center in 1975, ’76 and ’77.

“In 1973, I helped to organize a factory in Cedar Falls/Waterloo, where I was working,” Feekin told Little Village in an email. “Our local union, Machinists Local 1728, sent me to the Labor Center (at the time the Center for Labor and Management) for some union skills training. I was thrilled to learn these building blocks of advocacy, communication skills, and dispute resolution.”

When the Iowa Legislature created an additional staff position for the Labor Center in 1977, Feekin was hired and served as a labor educator at the Labor Center for three years. She then served as director of the Labor Center from 1980 until 1984 before leading labor education programs in Indiana and Oregon.

“Working at the Labor Center was a phenomenal opportunity for me,” Feekin said. “I was able to be part of training initiatives with thousands of workers in Iowa and the Midwest, across all industries. We helped to build individual skills as well as organizational development that led to more effective engagement in workplace issues, and a more informed citizenry and greater participation in the public sphere.”

The Labor Center was awarded the 2018 Bill Reagan Community Award for “outstanding contributions by a business or organization to human rights” by the Iowa City Human Rights Commission. Despite widespread recognition of the Labor Center’s accomplishments, just a few years ago this institution was in danger of closing its doors permanently.

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One of the darkest times in the Labor Center’s history came in November 2018, when the Board of Regents voted to shut down the Center. With the backing of then-UI President Bruce Harreld, the Labor Center was scheduled to close its doors in June 2019. Iowa Senator Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City described the vote as “the latest gut punch to Iowa workers and their families.”

The public outcry and outrage at the Board’s decision mobilized the Save Our Labor Center coalition. Over the course of several months, Labor Center staff and allies rallied to keep the institution alive, putting pressure on the Board of Regents in a statewide campaign. Their hard work paid off when the Regents reversed their decision on Feb. 28, 2019.

The UI administration and Labor Center staff developed a four-year plan to make the Center “financially self-sustainable.” There was a cut in funding, such as the general education fund that had historically been the foundation of the Center’s existence. But the Center has been able to stay open by securing grants, fees for classes and temporary allocations from university departments to maintain its services.

Mya Kyi, a graduate of the Labor Center’s Quality Pre-Apprenticeship Program. — photo courtesy of John W. McKerley/UI Labor Center

“This year, we’ve taught more classes than at any other time in the last eight years, and we are running more programs,” Clark-Bennett said.

The turbulent events that would ensue in following years would pose further challenges to the Labor Center and the workers who benefit from its existence.

Over the past couple years, thousands of Iowans have lost their jobs either on a temporary or permanent basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lives of their families and neighbors were thrown into disarray. The Labor Center helped guide working Iowans through these chaotic times, adapting and evolving along the way. They shifted to online workshops and webinars, produced videos in multiple languages, and engaged in other means of communication. There was “incredible demand” for fact-sheets on new laws about unemployment programs that were being implemented, as well as safety protocols which changed from day to day.

A COGS worker draws a chalk outline around a woman at a protest organized by the union against the University of Iowa’s lax COVID-19 mitigation in September 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“We held scores of workshops, bringing national leaders together with Iowa workers from a variety of industries to talk about preserving workplace safety and understand the policies being implemented,” Clark-Bennett said. “We fulfilled the same mission we’ve fulfilled for 70 years.”

On April 9, the Center sponsored the first Labor and Climate Summit on the UI campus, bringing together 70 labor and environmental leaders from across the state to discuss ways the climate crisis and the labor crisis intersect, as well as how to promote a more sustainable future.

As the Labor Center and its staff deal with the pressing issues of the present and continue looking toward the future, they understand that it’s equally important to learn from the past.

The Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP) was started by the Iowa Federation of Labor in the early 1970s to document the remembrances of working class Iowans and the times in which they lived. The first interviews were conducted in 1977 and since then the project has amassed over 1,500 interviews, making sure those voices are preserved for new generations.

“Since workers weren’t writing their memoirs, they needed to take action to make sure that history was recorded and preserved,” said John McKerley, oral historian at the Labor Center.

McKerley joined the Labor Center in 2013 to restart ILHOP, which had become dormant in the late 1990s due to shifting priorities and finances. He continues to conduct interviews with workers statewide, sharing their unique perspectives about everyday life and the ways their struggles have shaped Iowa. Bethany Davis of the UI Libraries, Janet Weaver of the Iowa Women’s Archives and Mary Bennett of the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City spearheaded the digitization of the ILHOP collection, which McKerley has worked to make more accessible.

“It’s only through the existence of the Labor Center that this project has been able to exist for nearly half a century and to become one of the longest-running labor-focused oral history projects in the United States, perhaps the world,” McKerley said.

The celebration will feature Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the national AFL-CIO, as the keynote speaker. The roster of speakers will also include workers who have attended Labor Center classes and community leaders who have collaborated with the Center on public conferences.

Feekin, who will be traveling to Iowa City to celebrate the anniversary, said the event represents the long legacy of linking Iowa’s working people to state’s public university system.

“The Labor Center continues to be a resource for workers across the state, as they grapple with the critical issues of the day,” Feekin said. “The Labor Center is unique in its ability to bring together workers, faculty, and national experts to discuss crucial issues — like changing technology, health and safety, remote work, the gig economy, climate change — that are affecting their work life, their social networks, and their communities.”

This milestone is being heralded by labor leaders across the state.

Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, said in a statement to Little Village, “We’re very pleased to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the University of Iowa Labor Center. Their work addressing our skilled workforce challenges in a way that promotes equity through their innovative pre-apprenticeship program, providing up-to-the minute health and policy information as workers navigate a global pandemic, and educating workers about their rights is critical to moving our state forward. Just as they have for 70 years, the Labor Center is helping Iowa workers adapt and meet the challenges of an ever changing economy.”

Signs decorate the lobby at the Center for Worker Justice on March 10, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Mazahir Salih, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, a grassroots organization uniting low-wage workers across race and immigration status to defend their rights on the job and in their communities, said the Labor Center is vital to the continuing worker justice movement in Iowa.

“The Labor Center has been a very important resource for the Center for Worker Justice ever since we were founded in 2012. It has always been there to help our low-income members learn their rights, like safety in the workplace and wage payment laws, and be empowered to defend them,” she said.

“If the Labor Center did not exist, there is no other organization that would fill this function.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 6, 2022 to include the three individuals who spearheaded the digitization of the ILHOP collection.