Although University of Iowa administrators unilaterally decided to close the Labor Center, Iowans are determined to make their voices heard. And, before the Iowa Board of Regents meets Sept. 13 in Iowa City, they hope others join them.
Hundreds already have gathered at “public hearings” in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Quad Cities to call on the university to restore funding for the UI Labor Center. Faith, academic and labor groups that merged to form the Save Our Labor Center Coalition have slated four more meetings in Sioux City, Burlington, Cedar Falls and Iowa City.
Organizers say they must do what university officials didn’t: Allow people from all walks of life to sound off on how the Labor Center has helped them and why the work done by the small staff should be considered vital and well worth a $500,000 investment by the UI.
“We’re here because back in July, the University announced plans to eliminate all of its funding for the 67-year-old Labor Center,” Rick Moyle, executive director of the Hawkeye Labor Council AFL-CIO, told about 80 people who gathered Aug. 16 in Cedar Rapids. “UI leaders announced their decision without any input or consultation with anyone at the Labor Center, or any university students, faculty members, workers or community leaders, who have all benefited from the Labor Center.”
Participants offer their thoughts to a panel of lawmakers, city officials, social justice advocates and faith leaders. Summaries of the meetings will be part of a report delivered to the regents and the public in early September.
Pastor Rudy Juarez of Saint Patrick Catholic Church said he has relied on the center’s expertise for more than a decade.
“For the people of the Labor Center, it is not a matter of a hand out, but rather a hand up by providing expert advice and sound knowledge to improve the skills of working Iowans in a rapidly changing economic environment,” Juarez said.
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Joe Zahorik, a fourth-generation Iowa ironworker, said he uses skills developed through center training sessions on a daily basis, and that the state has an interest in protecting the history gathered and maintained by the organization.
“If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t know where we are going,” he said.
Other speakers, like Cedar Rapids educator Kelly McMann, said the closing was politically motivated.
“This is just another attack on working people,” said McMann, who taught in Wisconsin public schools during that state’s collective bargaining upheaval only to return to her home state for the dismantling of public sector collective bargaining by the Iowa Legislature.
McMann wasn’t alone. The vast majority of the Cedar Rapids attendees believed state leaders and, in turn, UI administrators have little interest in continuing a program that educates on the history of the labor movement or teaches workers about their workplace rights. The possible political boost of leveling the Labor Center, they say, is more important to those in power than the center’s long-standing benefits of skilled workers, safer workplaces and conflict mediation.
Details surrounding the announced closure support their assertion.
For instance, UI administrators said state budget cuts forced their hand, ultimately placing the Labor Center and six other UI programs on the chopping block. An additional five programs will have funding reduced if the plan is approved by the regents.
These closures and funding reductions are expected to free about $3.6 million, which is far less than the $16 million lawmakers have sliced from the UI budget since 2016.
And yet when confronted with state budget cuts, UI administrators launched no organized protest or made public calls for support.
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Just four months ago, as UI President Bruce Harreld informed regents of a plan to review more than 150 programs for possible reduction or closure, he pledged to give preference to initiatives focused on student learning, research or economic development. Yet the Labor Center is slated for closure despite its accomplishments in all three areas.
And, in case you’re thinking the center is a huge drain on UI resources, keep in mind that its piece of the school’s general education fund is less than one-thousandth of 1 percent.
The center’s $550,000 yearly allocation is less than Harreld’s $790,000 total annual pay called for in his five-year contract. And, in the case of the center, federal grants, sponsorships and program fees supplement its services and are funneled back into the university.
There was a time when the state valued these types of public-private partnerships.
“This is not about the money. We know that. It was never about the money,” Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd told those gathered in Cedar Rapids. His sentiments were echoed by other local and state leaders on the panel.
Sadly, the panelists are correct. It isn’t about the money, or the return on investment the center provides to the university and broader community.
It comes down to politics, with UI administrators never intending to let the public vote.
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