Guest Opinion: UI student deeply upset by UI’s closing of the Labor Center

After another decrease in state appropriations were made to the UI’s budget, funding cuts were bound to happen. The UI’s decision to axe the labor center was the wrong choice.


Lily Smith

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.

Austin Wu, UI Student

On July 10, the University of Iowa announced yet another round of budget cuts as state appropriations by the Iowa Legislature decreased midstream once again. Included in the cuts was closing the Labor Center, the only academic center among Iowa’s public universities dedicated to education and research regarding labor issues and workers’ rights.

The UI contends that it made the cuts to minimize the effect on student education. However, officials made the decision without input by students and faculty. The move also saves little to no money ($500,000 at most in a $745 million general-education fund) and ultimately presents a false narrative that pits students against workers.

The roots of the Labor Center can be traced back to 1949, when then-Gov. William Beardsley called for an organization to train workers and study labor issues in light of a series of work stoppages that had taken place since the end of the Second World War. Funding was secured in 1950, and in 1951, the Bureau of Labor and Management was born. Since then, the UI Labor Center has remained committed to providing education, research, and training regarding issues facing Iowa workers. Classes both on and off campus have focused on combating sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and wage theft, preventing workplace injuries, and recording the struggles of Iowa’s workers, such as miners and teachers through the Iowa Labor Oral History Project.

One of the largest implications of the university’s justification to close the Labor Center is that students and workers are mutually exclusive. This is simply not true.

Thousands of UI students are workers themselves, in food service, retail, as TAs, and more, often in precarious, low-wage positions in which they are vulnerable to exploitation.

Moreover, the title of “student” should not just be limited to those seeking degrees or those ages 18 to 25. It is true that the Labor Center’s 2018-19 course schedule often covers material not necessarily related to traditional coursework, such as rail safety, labor law, and union-leadership training. While these courses might not place people on the track to finishing a degree audit, it gives Iowa workers the tools to help combat unsafe working conditions, bargain for better wages, and, in some cases, save people’s lives.

To essentially call people who are seeking nontraditional classes nonstudents is demeaning and patronizing, and it ultimately highlights the growing divide between a more prosperous professional class and a struggling working class.

In the words of Rodney Blackwell, a member of CWA Local 7110 of Davenport, “Knowledge is power. Once you educate a person, you cannot hold them back. The question is: Who is entitled to an education? Who will the state allow an education to go to? Will we go back to the days when only the wealthy went to school? … Many Iowans work full-time. They don’t have time to find out about all the laws. That’s why the Labor Center is important — to educate a few, to educate the masses.”

It is undeniable that the root cause of the UI decision is continually declining state appropriations and that officials will have to make tough decisions on the UI’s budget in the years to come. But it is my opinion, and that of thousands of other Iowans, that axing workers’ rights is the wrong decision to make.

Today, there will be a student meeting regarding closing the Labor Center in 345 IMU at 6 p.m. (free pizza as well).

There will also be a public hearing about the Labor Center on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. at Old Brick. It is the final public hearing in a series of meetings that have taken place across the state.

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