Victory for Free Speech in Iowa as Assault on Unions Intensifies


Iowa State University has lost an appeal in a federal free speech lawsuit that affirms student rights regardless of political viewpoint, the Des Moines Register reports.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled February 13 that school administrators, including President Steven Leath, violated the First Amendment rights of two students who were officers of the ISU chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).  The students planned to print T-shirts depicting the school mascot and a marijuana leaf, but Leath and others claimed it violated the school’s trademark policy.

The three-judge panel unanimously upheld a federal judge’s ruling last year that declared the school’s policy violated the students’ free speech rights and barred the university from prohibiting printing the T-shirt.  Both rulings state that the university’s rejection of NORML ISU’s T-shirt designs discriminated against the student group on the basis of the group’s political viewpoint.

“NORML ISU’s use of the cannabis leaf does not violate ISU’s trademark policies because the organization advocates for reform to marijuana laws, not the illegal use of marijuana,” the ruling stated.

Students Erin Furleigh and Paul Gerlich, both former presidents of the NORML chapter at ISU, sued the university in July 2014 after officials rejected the student group’s already approved T-shirt design — which included a marijuana leaf over the words “Freedom is NormL at ISU.”

While the appellate decision was good news for defenders of free expression, public university faculty members along with other public employees in the state were facing a more precarious situation.  As I write this post, the Iowa Legislature has begun debating (and may as early as today pass) legislation — House File 291 and Senate File 213 — that would impose broad restrictions on the way most of Iowa’s public-sector union workers negotiate for employment benefits and workplace protections.  Modeled after legislation passed in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker, the proposals under debate would create separate bargaining processes for public safety and non-public safety workers, largely preserving existing bargaining rights for law enforcement officers, firefighters and other public safety workers while stripping them away for everyone else.

For non-public safety employees, the legislation would limit contract negotiations only to wages, a significant change from current law, which requires benefits such as health insurance, vacation time and seniority perks, as well as work conditions such as hours, overtime pay and evaluation procedures, to be negotiated collectively. Additionally, many of those items that currently must be bargained for would be explicitly banned from future negotiations, including insurance and seniority benefits and evaluation procedures.

Under the proposals public workers would be required to re-certify their unions with each new contract — that is, once every two to three years. To re-certify, a majority of workers in a bargaining unit — not a majority of those voting — would have to vote in favor of the union. If the union failed to win that election, it would be decertified and the workers would be left without representation. Additionally, the union would be on the hook for costs associated with the re-certification process.  Unions would also be barred from automatically deducting union dues and political contributions from members’ payroll checks.

Iowa faculty members and their unions, including the AAUP unit representing faculty at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), have been fighting back against these changes, with large demonstrations at the state capitol. UNI faculty member and AAUP member Chris Martin wrote an open letter to the legislators, in which he said:

Please let me disabuse you of the notion that I worked just a couple hours today and spent the rest of the time sipping chardonnay. I’m like most Iowans. I work a lot (faculty members at my university average 52-54 hours a week), I have a family I love, I pay taxes, I vote, and I volunteer for my community. . . . .

Because I’m a journalism professor, I can’t help but provide some needed fact-checking on several issues concerning Iowa’s collective bargaining law and the bills that seek to undermine it. I’ll speak to the collective bargaining tradition at the University of Northern Iowa, where the faculty have bargained peacefully and fairly with the Board of Regents for 40 years.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, told the Des Moines Register, “You know, we have heard loud and clear from Iowans that they believe that government can do much better in the service that we are providing, and are looking for a better deal,” he said.

So, Iowa Republican legislators want a better deal?

Let’s compare. UNI has 10 peer institutions (College of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Ferris State University, James Madison University, Marshall University, Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, Truman State University, University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, University of Minnesota — Duluth, Western Washington University)

Comparing salary levels at the assistant, associate and full professor levels, at each interval, only three of the peer institutions have lower salaries, whereas seven are higher, according to the UNI Fact Book, 2014-2015.

Yet, UNI is far more productive than most of its peer institutions. In 2015 retention and graduation rates, UNI scored 85%. Only two of the peer institutions were higher, and eight were lower.

Moreover, according to the AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16, UNI is below the national average for salary and compensation (which includes health insurance) for same-sized Category IIA (Master’s) level public universities.

By all measures, the citizens of Iowa are already getting a great deal with UNI’s faculty in terms of cost-effectiveness. . . .

Advocates of the bill to gut collective bargaining argue that public employees should be paid closer to what workers in the private sector get paid. Great idea! I bet most of my colleagues would love this, since the starting assistant professor salary for private sector schools Drake University and Grinnell College are 14.5 percent and 15 percent higher, respectively. My guess is that’s not the outcome that Iowa Republicans intend. In fact, the proposal to leave wages as the only topic for bargaining, then limit annual increases to the lesser of two amounts — three percent or the consumer price index – would leave faculty (and all Iowa public employees) in a terrible situation, particularly if the state hikes rates for health insurance, a real likelihood. . . .

Again, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, in his comments to the Des Moines Register: “The bill before us really focuses on how we can bring these decisions closer to the people and more local control. How we can keep our best teachers in the classroom, our best employees on the line, serving Iowans, and creating an environment where new innovation and creativity can take place.”

First, there are about 1,200 different contracts covering about 119,000 public employees. If you want local control, it’s hard to imagine a better way to “bring these decisions closer to the people and more local control.” UNI faculty like the local control of collectively bargaining for their health care, for example, and not have it imposed on them by the state. If that’s not what you have in mind, then “local control” is not an accurate description of what you are proposing.

Second, if you want to “keep our best teachers in the classroom, our best employees on the line, serving Iowans, and creating an environment where new innovation and creativity can take place,” then taking away more than 40 years of fair collective bargaining and silencing worker involvement in their jobs is a surefire way to spoil the environment. In fact, a survey earlier this week of UNI faculty showed the loss of the current standards of collective bargaining would severely erode faculty morale and cause a large proportion of faculty members to leave. 

  • 97.1% of UNI’s faculty responded that collective bargaining is important to their morale as a faculty member (84.1% highly important, 13% important)
  • 81.9% of UNI’s faculty responded that they would consider leaving UNI, either by seeking employment elsewhere or retiring early if UNI’s faculty lose the right to bargain collectively with the Board of Regents.

Our bargaining unit at UNI covers about 550 faculty members. They teach 12,000 students, and the institution is a major economic force in a city of 40,000, and a Cedar Valley of about 394,000 people. And that is the impact of just one of the state’s 1,200 bargaining units. Eliminating real collective bargaining for Iowa’s public employees risks serious and extensive damage to the social and economic fabric of Iowa.

The proposed legislation bears all the signs of a Koch-sponsored ALEC proposal.  As one commentator noted,

It’s not too difficult to connect the dots between ALEC and Republican legislation and Republican law makers. The corporate financed ALEC and ACCE anti-labor agenda has recruited Republican political boosters and sponsors from Iowa to Washington. The current two Iowa state chairs for ALEC are Senator Charles Schneider (R-West Des Moines) and Representative Rob Taylor (R-West Des Moines). Iowa House Republican Speaker Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake) is the National Chair of the ALEC Center to Restore the Balance of Government. Senate Majority Leaders Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) is a former leader of ALEC and Governor Branstad is a founding member of ALEC.

But Iowans who call attention to that connection had better be careful.  Here’s what happened to one public school teacher when she called her legislator and left a message urging him to vote against these proposals:

he called me back and I began to share how these changes can hurt my entire family, that I am a teacher, I have a son who is a firefighter, a son who is a police officer, a daughter-in-law who is a teacher and a daughter who is going to the University of Iowa to be a teacher. I asked him to please vote no and that we all know this is being pushed by the Koch brothers and he said, “Excuse me?” I commented, “Oh, we all know this is being pushed by the Koch brothers. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.” He said, “Ma’am, I need to stop you right there. I am letting you know that I will be turning you in to the Iowa State Police for threatening me.” I said, “For threatening you?” He said, “When you left the voice message you threatened me.” I said, “Because I said I wouldn’t vote for you?” He commented, “You know you wouldn’t vote for me.” I said, “Yes, and I want to tell everyone why.” He told me to “Expect a visit or a phone call from the State Police.”

What a perfect illustration of the contempt in which these so-called legislators hold their working constituents.  Like Wisconsin, Iowa once had an exemplary public university system.  But after the Bruce Harreld debacle, the Stephen Leath airplane scandal, the proposed assault on tenure, and now this disgusting, hastily-concocted effort to effectively deny the right to collective representation guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the state’s public employees it is questionable whether that system will even survive as more than a shadow of is once-great former self.  As the so-called “president” might put it (were he not facilitating it), SAD!

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