Education

Worker rights prompt protests at regents meeting

Planned closure of UI Labor Center central among complaints

Tracy Leone with Teamster Local 238 in Cedar Rapids talks to a group supporting the University of Iowa Labor Center after they attended a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tracy Leone with Teamster Local 238 in Cedar Rapids talks to a group supporting the University of Iowa Labor Center after they attended a Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Thursday, Sep. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Sometimes in the form of chants and demands bellowed through bullhorns, pleas from worker-rights advocates to undo some University of Iowa decisions dominated portions of Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting.

Members and allies of the newly formed “Save Our Labor Center” coalition spoke during a public comment period about UI President Bruce Harreld’s announcement last summer to close the 67-year-old UI-based Labor Center.

That center — which provides education, conducts research and promotes resources for workplace issues across the state — is among seven Harreld said he plans to close in response to state funding cuts.

But closing the Labor Center in particular has been met with sharp outcry — including from Director Jennifer Sherer.

“The sometimes strong responses of so many in recent weeks to hearing about the Labor Center’s potential jeopardy have been reminders to me of what all of us at the center know but perhaps too rarely have said, which is that people value their access to the university and to this kind of research and education because it has truly equipped them to transform their lives, their workplaces and their communities,” Sherer said.

The Labor Center advocacy group in recent weeks has held public meetings that organizers said drew more than 600 Iowans, along with state and local lawmakers.

The group delivered more than 5,000 petitions Thursday asking the board to recommit funding to the Labor Center.

Speakers criticized Harreld for earning a higher annual salary than the center gets in state appropriations, and for not turning to face them as they spoke.

Harreld later renewed his call to the board to stop funding state-focused enterprises with general education dollars. Regents President Mike Richards told reporters afterward he agrees with the UI stance that state cuts have made it unreasonable to keep paying to run centers with a statewide focus.

UI Provost Sue Curry noted officials are interested in discussing alternative funding. Center Director Sherer, while pushing for continued UI funding, corroborated the ongoing discussions.

Regents also heard from protesting non-tenure-track faculty at the UI, who over the summer won expanded access to benefits for eligible visiting faculty members.

In August, though, the UI canceled its discussions with the group, citing concerns it was moving to organize and enter collective bargaining with the regents.

The UI said it saw evidence in a Facebook post.

“The University administration has had to re-evaluate whether to continue meetings with your group to discuss other issues,” Joseph Kearney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote in an Aug. 23 email. “In order to avoid any claims that these meetings are in violation of Iowa code chapter 20, we have decided to discontinue future meetings.”

Dozens of non-tenure-track faculty took issue with that and interrupted the meeting with a bullhorn. Because the group did so outside the public comment period, board President Richards called for a recess and regents left. Harreld, however, stayed.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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