Like so many Iowans, I know about tight budgets. Twenty-one years ago, I was a single mother raising two children. Determined to provide a future for my children, I took a job at a steel foundry. I was one of only a few women, in a dangerous job working with molten hot metal. I earned a living, but to make it on one income, I had to make sure every penny I spent reflected my values.
My Iowa values taught me that no matter how little you have, you take care of your family and community, and prioritize access to education.
I thought about these values as I read University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld’s recent response to the thousands of us who have been calling on UI to keep funding the UI Labor Center, an institution that has educated thousands of working Iowans across the 99 counties each year since 1951. He says not only is he not going to listen, but tells us our speaking up “has got to stop.” In his view, after 67 years of being a publicly funded Iowa institution, the Labor Center is somehow supposed to find corporate donors in order to continue; if not, the UI will close its doors to Iowa workers.
It took more than hard work for me to provide a stable future for my family. I enrolled in classes at the Labor Center. I learned about workplace health and safety standards, and how to implement them to be sure my co-workers and I would come home safely at the end of our shifts. I learned how to advocate for myself and confront workplace discrimination. I learned tools for improving the quality of my job and went back into my plant and shared that information with all my co-workers. This stable, union job made it possible for me and other co-workers to pay tuition to send my kids to college. In fact, one of my children attended UI and is considering UI for law school. The Labor Center at our public university is directly connected to the success of families like mine, our students and communities.
This is our public university. I’ve paid the taxes and the tuition that makes the university run. I paid registration fees each time I attended Labor Center classes (and have been part of the center’s Advisory Committee, where I’ve supported increasing these fees to help boost the center’s budget). I know President Harreld hasn’t been in Iowa long; I don’t know how long he plans to stay. I don’t expect him to know what it’s like to be a single parent or a foundry worker. But the decisions he makes will have lasting impacts for Iowans like me. He has an obligation to listen to us — now more than ever, when budgets are tight and tough decisions need to be made. Our message is clear. Thousands of Iowans have spoken out to say that funding the Labor Center is a priority. 20 student organizations and the UI Student Senate have passed resolutions calling for continued funding for the Labor Center. Last week, hundreds of alumni, faith leaders, civil rights leaders, parents, and elected officials came to campus to join the call to fund the Labor Center. Nobody has come forward to speak in favor of closing the Labor Center.
Corporate donors have a role to play in funding building renovations and luxury golf clubhouses — but worker education isn’t a luxury. It’s a proven, effective, and efficient program that is vitally important to Iowa. Don’t take away the only tiny commitment to worker education in our Regents system. Recommit funding to the Labor Center.
• Stacey Andersen of Cedar Rapids is a staff representative for the United Steelworkers.