University of Iowa Faculty Are Showing How Labor Can Organize Under Right-to-Work

Daniel Moattar April 27, 2018

"What’s happening here is what’s happening everywhere in corporate education.” (Faculty Forward Iowa / Facebook)

On April 18, non-tenure-track teach­ing staff at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa marched with sup­port­ers through cold and sleet to deliv­er demands and a signed let­ter of sup­port to Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dent Bruce Harreld’s office. The action was part of Iowa con­tin­gent faculty’s cam­paign for union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in response to what work­ers char­ac­ter­ize as poli­cies of over­work and underpayment. 

If their effort suc­ceeds, Iowa’s con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty would become the lat­est local to be orga­nized by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union’s (SEIU) Fac­ul­ty For­ward move­ment, part of a grow­ing wave of union votes and orga­niz­ing action by grad­u­ate stu­dents, adjuncts, and oth­er untenured instruc­tors at pub­lic and pri­vate insti­tu­tions across the country.

Such labor action in Iowa — a long­time right-to-work” state where pub­lic employ­ees have been orga­niz­ing in the face of bud­get cuts, a GOP-dom­i­nat­ed gov­ern­ment and increas­ing­ly restric­tive labor laws — might be the best pic­ture of what union orga­niz­ing might look like if the Supreme Court rules against col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing fees in Janus v. AFSCME, the cru­cial labor case the Court will decide this year.

Many observers expect a con­ser­v­a­tive rul­ing in Janus, bar­ring unions from charg­ing non-mem­bers fair share fees” to cov­er the costs of con­tract nego­ti­a­tion. A rul­ing against AFSCME would hit many unions in the pock­et­book and could open the door to fur­ther state- and fed­er­al-lev­el attacks.

Hav­ing had this much expe­ri­ence liv­ing in that régime, it is some­thing that peo­ple can look at,” says Paul Iversen, an attor­ney and edu­ca­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Labor Cen­ter who is not involved with the SEIU campaign.

In a right-to-work state like Iowa, Iversen says, there’s a con­stant need to be talk­ing to peo­ple and recruit­ing peo­ple to be involved, because you can’t rely on their finan­cial sup­port. That’s some­where the pub­lic sec­tor labor move­ment will have to be nation­wide if quote-unquote right-to-work becomes nationwide.”

Iowa was a right-to-work state before the cat­e­go­ry offi­cial­ly exist­ed: antic­i­pat­ing the pas­sage of the 1947 Taft-Hart­ley Act, which allowed states to ban union shops, its part-time leg­is­la­tors rushed out a right-to-work bill before recess­ing for the year.

Despite 70 years of right-to-work, Iversen calls Iowa’s labor move­ment vibrant and active.” Its rate of pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor union­iza­tion is not dra­mat­i­cal­ly low­er than the nation­wide aver­age, and some pri­vate work­places remain over 90 per­cent unionized.

But recent changes to Chap­ter 20, the state’s pub­lic employ­ment rela­tions law, took direct aim at pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers. Among oth­er changes, the list of required bar­gain­ing top­ics has been sliced to just one: base wages, the rates paid to new­ly hired work­ers in a par­tic­u­lar job.

The list of pro­hib­it­ed top­ics under Chap­ter 20 has soared from one — pen­sions, which are cov­ered by sep­a­rate state statutes — to a much broad­er sev­en, cov­er­ing insur­ance, sup­ple­men­tal pay, trans­fer pro­ce­dures, eval­u­a­tion pro­ce­dures, pro­ce­dures for staff reduc­tion, sub­con­tract­ing pub­lic ser­vices, and pay­roll deduc­tion for union dues or polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees.” All are now out of bounds for pub­lic unions to negotiate.

When employ­ers and pub­lic work­ers reach a bar­gain­ing impasse, the mat­ter goes to arbi­tra­tion, where wage increas­es are capped by the new law at 3 per­cent or a cost-of-liv­ing increase — whichev­er is less. And Iowa law now requires major­i­ty sup­port with­in the bar­gain­ing unit, rather than from a major­i­ty of vot­ers, mean­ing all non-vot­ers are treat­ed as if they oppose the union by default.

But Iowa’s pub­lic unions remain pop­u­lar. In 2017, Iversen says, 98 per­cent of vot­ers (about 85 per­cent of all eli­gi­ble employ­ees) vot­ed to sup­port their union in the first round of recer­ti­fi­ca­tion elec­tions under the new, more restric­tive laws. Although non-vot­ing employ­ees were tal­lied as no” votes, the union won recer­ti­fi­ca­tion by a landslide.

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty believe they have a strong major­i­ty” under the new rules. Of about 380 eli­gi­ble fac­ul­ty in Iowa’s Col­lege of Lib­er­al Arts and Sci­ences, 197 have already signed a let­ter in sup­port of the union.

To be hon­est, I didn’t need much con­vinc­ing,” says Anne Sand, a lec­tur­er in rhetoric. Teach­ing loads are incred­i­bly heavy, and pay has been stag­nant.” Sand, says the uni­ver­si­ty has been cut­ting costs at the mar­gins” with low non-tenure-track wages and the clo­sure of tenure lines.

What’s hap­pen­ing here is what’s hap­pen­ing every­where in cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion,” says Megan Knight, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of instruc­tion in rhetoric. It’s the pri­va­ti­za­tion of a for­mer­ly pub­lic good. Twen­ty years ago, I was the only con­tin­gent mem­ber of the fac­ul­ty in my depart­ment. We’ve utter­ly flipped that around.”

Sand, who spoke at Wednesday’s march, says she saw wide sup­port from the uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing grad­u­ate and under­grad­u­ate stu­dents and tenured and tenure-track fac­ul­ty. Iowa’s bud­get cri­sis has sig­nif­i­cant­ly raised polit­i­cal aware­ness” among her stu­dents, she says, as have recent changes in state law like those to Chap­ter 20.

I was imme­di­ate­ly impressed by how many peo­ple were there, and the ener­gy of this cam­paign,” says Eliz­a­beth Weiss, a lec­tur­er in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary stud­ies who also ral­lied on Wednes­day. Weiss believes Iowa’s grow­ing reliance on low­er-wage, untenured fac­ul­ty hurts under­grad­u­ates. She says over­worked con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty rarely have the time or resources to give their stu­dents the detailed feed­back and care­ful assis­tance they need.

Sand and Weiss point to increas­ing work­loads for non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty, whose salaries do not rise with addi­tion­al teach­ing. Fac­ul­ty who for­mer­ly taught two to three class­es per term are now teach­ing as many as six — an arrange­ment that cuts costs, reduces hir­ing and keeps the pro­por­tion of tenure-track to non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty high­er on paper.

It’s a great deal of work for very lit­tle pay, it’s hard to keep my head above water, and it’s just not sus­tain­able,” Weiss says.

The marchers’ demands, which Sand and Weiss helped deliv­er to Harreld’s office, include health insur­ance, paid fam­i­ly leave, retire­ment ben­e­fits and stan­dard­ized year­ly rais­es — many of the hall­marks of con­ven­tion­al employment.

In an email to In These Times, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa spokesper­son point­ed out that the uni­ver­si­ty had recent­ly approved a new pol­i­cy meant to expand lec­tur­ers’ rights. That pol­i­cy, draft­ed by Iowa’s Fac­ul­ty Sen­ate, saw wide sup­port, but didn’t address salaries directly.

The con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa make a frac­tion of what tenured and tenure-track fac­ul­ty make, and an even tinier frac­tion of what admin­is­tra­tors make,” Knight says. Knight, who has taught at Iowa since 1998, lacks tenure. Her Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Instruc­tion” title was estab­lished as part of the university’s non-tenured instruc­tion­al track.”

Shrink­ing bud­gets at the uni­ver­si­ty haven’t kept admin­is­tra­tive salaries from grow­ing. Pres­i­dent Har­reld, a for­mer Kraft Foods exec­u­tive, draws a $590,000 base salary, plus a $1 mil­lion, five-year deferred com­pen­sa­tion pack­age, bring­ing the total val­ue of his con­tract close to $800,000 per year. Iowa’s Board of Regents pushed through his con­tro­ver­sial 2015 appoint­ment — Har­reld lacks a back­ground in aca­d­e­m­ic admin­is­tra­tion — despite crit­i­cal state­ments and oppos­ing votes from Iowa faculty.

Har­reld com­mit­ted in 2017 to rais­ing salaries by ear­mark­ing an addi­tion­al $4.9 mil­lion for fac­ul­ty salaries, which the uni­ver­si­ty acknowl­edges are below medi­an for its peer group. The union­iz­ing instruc­tors note that those increas­es don’t apply to them. The funds explic­it­ly exclude non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty, whose rais­es will be based on per­for­mance and com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place con­di­tions and avail­able funding.”

It’s frus­trat­ing to be lec­tured on the bud­get by peo­ple who make every month what I get paid in a year,” Weiss says, and it’s frus­trat­ing to feel as though those of us who have the least sta­ble and least secure teach­ing jobs on cam­pus are expect­ed to make the sacrifice.”

Some fac­ul­ty report the clos­ing of tenure lines by the uni­ver­si­ty, where the pro­por­tion of non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty has been on the rise for at least a decade.

We’ve heard about fac­ul­ty pay, desire to retain fac­ul­ty, but it’s all about tenure-track fac­ul­ty,” says Weiss. My feel­ing is that the uni­ver­si­ty is bal­anc­ing its bud­get on the backs of non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty and students.”

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa faces a Repub­li­can leg­is­la­ture and gov­er­nor — the uni­ver­si­ty spokesper­son not­ed declin­ing state sup­port” in its email to In These Times, a famil­iar nar­ra­tive across many states where pub­lic fund­ing for high­er edu­ca­tion has dropped along­side union mem­ber­ship rates.

Iversen, of the Labor Cen­ter, recalled that Iowa’s orig­i­nal Pub­lic Employ­ee Rela­tions Act of 1974 was vot­ed in by a Repub­li­can leg­is­la­ture and signed by a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor. When labor enjoyed wide pub­lic sup­port, he said, there was a dif­fer­ent view toward employ­er-employ­ee rela­tions” — and that sup­port can put a damper on red-state hostility.

But the efforts of bil­lion­aires Charles and David Koch, through groups like Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty and the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil, have trans­formed Iowa’s pol­i­tics. Recent Repub­li­can gov­ern­ments have been far more aggres­sive toward labor: Iversen describes Iowa’s new GOP as being in lock­step” with the Kochs, with lit­tle regard for con­stituents at town halls and pub­lic hearings.

To me,” Iversen says, the most impor­tant thing is: The labor move­ment isn’t defined by the laws. The labor move­ment exist­ed years before there were any laws that said it could. The labor move­ment has sur­vived in Iowa through over sev­en­ty years of right-to-work, and the pub­lic sec­tor labor move­ment has sur­vived despite clear attempts to kill it.”

What does that mean for a post-Janus régime? What­ev­er hap­pens with the law, the move­ment doesn’t change,” Iversen says. It’s just how much you have to empha­size direct action. You have to do more direct action, and you have to be involv­ing peo­ple on a more reg­u­lar basis. But that’s what the move­ment does — at its best, it’s get­ting every­body involved and giv­ing every­body a voice.”

Although Janus places union fund­ing under threat, thriv­ing orga­niz­ing in high­er edu­ca­tion, along with a new move­ment of red-state teacher strikes, have giv­en union sup­port­ers in edu­ca­tion cause for opti­mism. Iowa, where SEIU mem­ber Cathy Glas­son is mount­ing an insur­gent cam­paign for gov­er­nor, is dis­play­ing some of that same energy.

There’s cer­tain­ly not any­thing good about right-to-work,” says Iversen, but if they try to throw up laws that try to stop work­ing peo­ple from being able to affect their terms and con­di­tions of employ­ment, then work­ing peo­ple say, bull­shit, we’re going to get togeth­er and have that effect.”

Whether there’s a law that par­tic­u­lar­ly allows it or not,” he says, we’re still going to get togeth­er, assert our human­i­ty, and say, look, you have to treat us as well as the machines that we’re operating.”

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