In recertification elections held in October, UE Locals 893/IUP and 896/COGS won support from over seventy percent of their bargaining units. Local 893 represents over 2,000 social workers, income maintenance workers and scientists who work for the state, as well as county road crews, school support staff and community college workers. Local 896 represents over 1,800 graduate employees at the University of Iowa.
“This sends a strong message to Governor Reynolds and the Republican-led legislature that we won’t stand down while they attempt to take away our hard won rights and benefits,” said Local 893 President Becky Dawes. “We did it together and with grassroots organizing.”
“Because of the pandemic, we weren't able to visit workers in person, which made GOTV [getting out the vote] harder,” said Local 896 Publicity and Education Chair Elizabeth Handschy. “But we're so lucky to have so many members passionate about COGS who put in countless hours phone banking. With our collective effort, we were able to ensure graduate workers at UIowa have collective representation for two more years!”
The elections are a product of Iowa’s 2017 anti-union law, which stripped public-sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights and requires unions to hold “recertification” elections, at their own expense, prior to each round of contract negotiations. The unions must obtain “yes” votes from an absolute majority of the entire bargaining unit (making not voting equivalent to voting “no”), a feat that few politicians could manage from their electorates.
The 2017 law also eliminates dues checkoff, prohibits bargaining over many issues including health care, and only requires employers to bargain over a single issue: wages, with arbitrators’ awards limited to the rate of inflation or three percent, whichever is lower.
Dawes noted the importance of political action in order to reverse this situation and restore rights to workers. “Don’t let your activism end here,” she emphasized in an email to Local 893 members announcing the victory. “Please get out and VOTE on or before November 3rd. Help us to elect people who will stand up against the attacks on Iowa’s dedicated and hard working Public employees and urge others to do the same.” (Unfortunately, despite the efforts made by UE and other unions, Republicans maintained control of the state legislature in Iowa, meaning both locals will need to go through at least one more round of limited bargaining.)
Because most members of both locals were working from home due to the pandemic, neither local could hold large meetings in the workplace or visit workers in their offices. “It was difficult because of the COVID,” Dawes told the Western Region council meeting, “but we found different ways to reach out to people.”
Local 893 formed “recertification organizing committees” (ROCs) to help organize their outreach efforts. ROCs, sublocal leaders and other union activists contacted their fellow bargaining unit members via calling, handwritten letters, texting, face to face contact and emails. The local’s office manager, Shelly Young was “awesome,” said Dawes, sending out daily emails containing the voting link to the bargaining unit and, together with International Representative Greg Cross and their families, completing two mailings to the local’s multiple bargaining units as well as postcards to new hires.
Local 896 activated the local’s network of stewards to keep track of who in their departments was voting, and who was planning on voting. They also held group Zoom phone banks: union members would get on a Zoom meeting together, go through a training, and then stay on the Zoom meeting (muted) while making their calls. The Zoom meeting provided an opportunity for activists to connect with each other while making calls, sharing successes and challenges in the chat.
Micki Burdick, who serves as the Unity Chair for Local 896 and headed up the local’s recertification drive, credited their local organizer David Goodner with helping union members connect with those they were calling. “David helped us learn ‘deep canvass’ training, to really build relationships with the people we were calling,” she said. As a result, the local successfully signed up many new dues-paying members during the recertification campaign, more than they had during the recertification two years ago.
International students make up approximately a third of the Local 896 bargaining unit, so reaching them through social networks was crucial to the union’s victory. Burdick specifically highlighted the work of a fellow graduate employee in her department, MengMeng Liu, who “reached out to every single Chinese international student.”
Burdick also noted that the local’s support of racial justice protests last summer helped demonstrate the union’s relevance, despite their limited ability to bargain. The local’s demand that the university administration remove police and immigration enforcement from campus “was a really good talking point for international students who we saw come out in amazing numbers to vote," she said.
The Iowa locals were assisted by International Representative Greg Cross, Field Organizers Jennifer Marsh and Lyndsey O’Day, and Michael Hansen, who worked on the campaign as project staff.