Labor Center: Inviting public discussion

These Labor Center public hearings are an example of what the University of Iowa should have done, on its own — before the decisions were made.

One of the most unsavory parts of the threats to the University of Iowa Labor Center — though not the only one — was the lack of public input into the decision by university officials.

The decision was “announced” under the public radar. Only after the word started spreading about the decision already made, the university decided to go public.

Increasingly, this is how decisions are being made in Iowa by government institutions — the Legislature has been a great example of it in the last two years with attacks on protections for working families and on equity in the tax code. The UI handling of the Labor Center decision is right in line.

These approaches defy Iowa values of transparency and public spirit once treasured in a state once proud of its openness. As we shall see in the coming days, there is an alternative: A reintroduction to the concept of a public hearing.

The “Save Our Labor Center” coalition will hold four such hearings in the coming days in various locations around the state. Each is an hourlong event starting at 6 p.m. Here are the dates and locations:

  • Tuesday, Aug. 14, Des Moines — UAW Local 450 Hall, 4589 NW 6th Drive.
  • Thursday, Aug. 16, Cedar Rapids — IBEW Local 405 Hall, 1211 Wiley Blvd SW.
  • Wednesday, Aug. 22, Bettendorf — USW Local 105 Hall, 880 Devils Glen Road.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 28, Sioux City — UFCW Local 222 Hall, 3038 S. Lakeport St.

As the group notes in flyers it has produced for these hearings:

“University leaders took NO INPUT from any of the workers, students, faculty, or community members who rely on the Labor Center’s education and research prior to announcing their decision. Iowa’s public universities must hear from the public before making major decisions with significant, permanent impact on students, working Iowans, and communities across the state.”

For more information, you can contact saveourlaborcenter@gmail.com.

The Iowa Policy Project works with the University of Iowa Labor Center at times to enhance an understanding of public policy issues, and our staff has found the center to be a tremendous resource for Iowans.

A public university has a fundamental responsibility to the public and to public decision making that is being lost. These hearings are an example of what the University of Iowa should have done, on its own, well in advance of a backroom decision being dumped in the laps of Labor Center staff and the many Iowans who benefit from its work.

It might be interesting to see if anyone from the University of Iowa administration or the Board of Regents shows up at any of these hearings. It would be to their credit to do so, and to listen.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

A University ‘for’ Iowa, or just ‘in’ Iowa

If the University of Iowa is serious about its strategic plan, it would recognize that jewels like the Labor Center demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution.

There are lots of good reasons not to shutter the University of Iowa’s Labor Center.

For starters, any such move would be rash, shortsighted, and wasteful. The Labor Center’s core continuing education mission teaches labor leaders about workers’ rights, about civil rights in the workplace, and about occupational health and safety. Those who have benefited from these courses over the years credit the Labor Center with helping them — and their local unions — sustain workplaces which are safer and more equitable.

For the pittance in state funds (about $500,000) devoted to the Center, the returns the state — in fewer harassment claims, fewer workers’ compensation settlements, fewer cases of wage theft — are incalculable.  Closing the Labor Center, in this respect, is like taking down the stoplights at an intersection: you could claim savings in signage and electricity as a result, but at what cost?

In turn, the threat to the future of the Labor Center — the only academic center in the Regents system devoted to work and workers in Iowa — sends a terrible message to the state’s working families. In an era of spiraling inequality, when the combination of stagnant incomes and rising tuition are putting a college education increasingly out of reach, do we really want to harden the perception that the state’s universities only serve the interests of the upper classes? There are about 1.6 million wage earners in Iowa, a quarter of whom do not earn a wage sufficient to climb above the poverty line.  These Iowans — as citizens, voters, taxpayers, and parents — should know that the state’s public institutions are for them too.

And finally, the University’s claim that the Labor Center is peripheral to its academic mission is simply not true. The University’s current strategic plan sits on three pillars: student success, research, and engagement. The Labor Center contributes on all of these fronts, and especially on engagement and outreach to the rest of the state. On this score, the strategic plan argues that the University should “enhance UI’s statewide visibility and increase access to UI expertise,” “support the translation of intellectual work into applications to enhance economic development,” and “create lifelong learning opportunities that broaden UI’s reach across Iowa.”

The Labor Center does all of this and more. It is one of the few arms of the University with a sustained and serious “extension” mission to the rest of the state. If the University is serious about its strategic plan, and about proving its value to those outside Johnson County, its best option is to nurture such forms of engagement with off-campus Iowa constituencies rather than abandon them. It is jewels like the Labor Center that demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution; which demonstrate that UI can and should be The University FOR Iowa and not just a University IN Iowa. 

Colin Gordon is the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa and a senior research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project. He is the recipient of the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (2016) and the UI’s Distinguished Achievement in Publicly-Engaged Research Award (2015).

Time to address wage theft in Iowa

Annually, wage theft deprives low-wage Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, deprives state and local government of revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Every year, far too many Iowans experience “wage theft” when they are cheated out of wages they have earned. Some are not paid for all of the hours they actually worked; some are paid “off the books” at less than the legally mandated minimum wage; some earn tips they do not get to keep; some are not paid at the legally mandated rate for overtime; some leave a job or contract arrangement and never receive their final paycheck.

What is Wage Theft?

Wage theft occurs whenever a worker is robbed of legally owed wages because an employer breaks the law or a contract. Common forms of wage theft include:

•   Nonpayment of wages: An employer fails to pay workers for some or all hours of work performed, or fails to pay workers in a timely fashion.

•   Underpayment of wages: An employer pays workers less than they were promised or less than they are legally owed under state or federal minimum wage or overtime statutes.

•   Tipped job violations: An employer pays tipped employees less than the legally mandated minimum wage for tipped jobs, forces tips to be “shared” with managers or steals workers’ tips.

•   Deduction violations: An employer diminishes workers’ pay by making unauthorized or illegal deductions from paychecks

•   Misclassification of employees: An employer falsely labels an employee as an “independent contractor” in order to avoid obligations to pay minimum wage and overtime (along with a host of other employment laws, and unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and income tax payments). The “independent contractor” exemption is not meant to apply to those providing services under the direction and control of others; one example of misclassification would be to call a cashier a “salaried manager” to avoid the overtime provisions of federal law.

Annually, wage theft deprives low-wage Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, deprives state and local government of revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage. A new report for the Iowa Policy Project estimates the impact of wage theft in Iowa, assesses the current state of public policy and enforcement systems intended to prevent wage theft, and surveys effective models for addressing the problem so that communities, state agencies, and policymakers in Iowa can begin to address it.

Posted by Jennifer Sherer
Director, University of Iowa Labor Center
President, Iowa Policy Project board of directors