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.
There have been only a few such strikes at public universities in the United States in recent years—notably, in 2016 thousands of faculty from 14 universities across Pennsylvania went on strike for, among other things, affordable health insurance—though non-tenured faculty in the United Kingdom went on strike earlier this year.
Instead of starting the formal process toward a union election, protesters at the University of Iowa presented a list of more than 200 faculty signatures and asked the university to grant their demands outside of the bargaining process. These demands included the standardization of pay raises and salary negotiation, as well as parental leave, and healthcare for adjunct faculty—notably, things the organizers wouldn’t be able to bargain over as an official union. In conjunction with the rally, SEIU released a report outlining the disastrous effects of disinvestment from public education in Iowa over the last decade.
One faculty member, Megan Knight, is a native Iowan who has taught in the rhetoric department for more than twenty years, serving in a series of non-tenure-track positions. She said that, when adjusted for inflation, her salary now as an “associate professor of instruction” is almost exactly the same as it was when she arrived two decades ago.
Twenty years ago, Knight said, she was the only non-tenure-track faculty member in her department, which is now more than four-fifths contingent faculty. Knight said she “wished and hoped” for years that she and colleagues could help pressure the university for collective bargaining rights, but things never came together until late last year, when a few faculty members joined up with SEIU and started planning what became the present campaign. “We do all the things regular faculty members do,” she said, “we mentor students, we conduct research, we perform services, we do all the things—and yet the way our positions are described, and the way we’re compensated, has been really static and, increasingly, just inaccurate.”
Another faculty member, Elizabeth Weiss, taught five different writing courses last semester, in addition to mentoring individual students doing independent studies. Weiss says the position was pitched to her as technically a half-time job that would leave her time to write on the side, but she’s worked herself to exhaustion in the past year trying to keep up. She earns only $27,500 a year for that work. She said many of her colleagues are dealing with the same course load and similar pay. She and other faculty members in her departure tried to bring concerns to their superiors before, but to little avail.
Even though Cathy Glasson, a nurse and SEIU-local president, has mounted a progressive campaign for the governorship of Iowa this year, the state’s government is still firmly in Republican hands, which means its most recent anti-union laws aren’t going anywhere any time soon. If successful, the university’s non-tenure-track faculty could show other workers how to make inroads even when the deck is stacked against them. Campaigns like this one, which duck the formal union process and seek to secure gains for workers through public pressure, may join the recent public-school teachers’ strikes as an example of labor’s resilience amidst the most anti-union climate in decades.
“We’re really entering a new moment for labor across the country, where we’re really seeing the power of workers coming together and organizing, with or without a formal union,” Weiss said. “It’s a tough scenario, but there’s nothing preventing the University of Iowa from giving us a seat at the table.”