While public employees’ unions await a potentially decimating decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case being considered by the Supreme Court, a post-Janus world is already the reality in Iowa.
Though the state has been right-to-work for decades, last year the Republican-controlled state government also passed a law that further curtailed collective bargaining rights: The legislation prohibits unions from negotiating issues other than their salary; unions are now required to hold new elections every year to maintain their existence; and workers who abstain from those elections are considered to have voted to dissolve the union.
So last week, when non-tenure-track professors at the University of Iowa presented a list of demands for better pay and working conditions to the university administration, they launched a unionization campaign specifically tailored to the environment Janus could make the national norm.
The University of Iowa’s unionization effort is one of many that has been assisted over the past year by the Faculty Forward initiative of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In its efforts to organize adjunct and non-tenure-track professors as well as graduate students, SEIU has helped faculty at the University of South Florida and Loyola University of Chicago hold union elections and secure new contracts, taking the typical route toward a formal collective bargaining agreement with university bosses.
But the campaign at Iowa is different: Iowa’s labor laws are so draconian that the school’s faculty have little to gain by going through the legal steps of forming a union. Instead, they’re hoping to gain concessions from the university through an escalating campaign of direct action. Unlike graduate students at private universities who have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for collective bargaining rights, Iowa’s campus unionization effort has more in common with the recent teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona: that is, bring the bosses to the table through public pressure. Barring that—also like the public-school teachers—the non-tenure-track faculty will have few avenues forward other than a strike or other labor action.
The initial rally last week resulted in a meeting with university administrators, where organizers insisted that fair compensation, contracts, and benefits are “morally black and white issues.” In a press conference on April 25, organizers vowed to continue holding Iowa’s feet to the fire, but stayed quiet about next steps to escalate their campaign if the university doesn’t concede, including whether they’re considering a strike.