bill to eliminate tenure was recently introduced into the Iowa State Senate. After a good deal of pushback it appears to have stalled. But that doesn't mean that the state's Republicans are done trying to attack the rights of Iowa's public workers. In their latest salvo, they are proposing to severely restrict the range of public employee collective bargaining (with the exception of police and firefighters) and also to make it more difficult to establish and maintain union representation. Although this is a widespread attack on all public employees, the proposed legislation will strike hard at the state's graduate student employees.
At the core of the proposed legislation are two important issues. The first is to make it illegal to negotiate things like benefits or supplemental income or retirement. In effect, the aim is to make it possible only to negotiate on wages and leave workers to the whims of their employers (or the Governor) as to issues such as health care. Although University of Iowa officials have indicated that they would continue to maintain graduate student employees' health care, one never knows what would happen in the face of a gubernatorial decision to reduce benefits or in the case of funding cuts to the University.
The second and equally serious threat is posed in a change to the system for certifying unions. The legislation would make it necessary for a union to get the vote of a majority of workers within a collective bargaining unit for the right to represent, as opposed to getting a majority of those casting a ballot. This is a high hurdle for any union or any candidate: under these rules, the current Iowa Governor would not have been elected since he only received 59% of an electorate that was approximately 50% of the state's eligible voters. It is especially burdensome to graduate student workers whose eligible unit members are so often in flux. Moreover, the bill would force re-certification elections every two years.
In taking these steps, Iowa Republicans are seeking to undo a long-standing system of collective bargaining for public employees. Since 1974 Iowa public employees have operated within a system that forbade strikes (and there haven't been any) in exchange for a system that recognized their right to bargain collectively over a wide set of issues. Iowa's Republicans are now seeking to destroy that system and hamstring public employee unions. Given the material constraints that graduate student workers (and graduate students more generally) live within, the most likely result is a reduction in Iowa graduate students' total compensation and quality of life.
But this is more than just an Iowa issue. Iowa has long been a right-to-work state and its hostility to unions is clear. But just as with Wisconsin, Iowa Republicans are part of a larger drive to attack unions and worker's collective rights across the country. One Iowa Representative (along with one from South Carolina) has recently introduced a national right to work bill in the House of Representatives. These initiatives are not simply of local interest. They threaten to roll back the recent gains that graduate students have obtained through the NLRB and the ability of academic workers everywhere to unionize and defend their interests through collective bargaining. The result will be to worsen the working conditions and autonomy of academic professionals in general and further subject education itself to the dictates of politicians and managers.
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