Guest Post: Iowa Grad Student Workers Deserve Real Raises

Photo courtesy of COGS

This month, UE Local 896, The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS)—the labor union representing nearly 2,000 graduate teaching assistants and research assistants at the University of Iowa (UI)—is beginning contract negotiations with the Iowa Board of Regents (BOR).

Following certification in 1996, COGS drastically improved working conditions for UI graduate assistants (GAs), securing a livable stipend, a comprehensive health care plan, and full tuition coverage. It’s no surprise to see the current surge of graduate workers unionizing across the country considering the numerous benefits of a strong union contract. 

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However, in 2017 the Republican state legislature gutted the law that governs collective bargaining, Iowa Code Chapter 20, in a brazen attempt to undermine the strength of public sector unions. The dire consequences of this anti-union legislation cannot be overstated: our membership was reduced to zero overnight (yes, really) and now we’re forced to undergo a ‘recertification election’ every two years, a serious drain on our time, energy, and money. Yet, as fellow COGS member Caleb Klipowicz recently noted in the Left Voice, these “insidious recertification requirements pale in comparison to the devastating changes to the contract bargaining process itself.”

Klipowicz, unfortunately, is right. As of 2017, the only topic that the BOR—and other public employers across the state—are legally obligated to bargain over is wages. That’s it. Parental leave? Sick pay? A grievance procedure? They’re now all ‘permissive’ subjects: a fancy way of saying ‘voluntary,’ or, as the BOR interprets it, ‘thanks-but-no-thanks.’ Think of it this way: our contract, which once stretched to 35 pages, is now reduced to a single-sided sheet.  

Since the law change, and the BOR’s subsequent refusal to negotiate a robust contract, stipends for UI graduate workers have sunk to the 11th worst in the Big Ten. Approximately 93% of our bargaining unit qualifies as “rent burdened” (meaning we spend more than 30 percent of income on housing), and some GAs depend on food banks to make ends meet. UI has an endowment of $3.137 billion—to sit back and watch while its own workers are clearly struggling is outrageous. 

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Let’s stop acting surprised about Iowa’s brain drain when one of the state’s leading employers actively refuses to offer competitive wages. Moreover, if graduate workers are discouraged from coming to UI, and instead choose to take their energy and talent elsewhere, the learning experience of undergraduates will be negatively impacted. Indeed, if UI wishes to uphold its mission statement, and “deliver a personal, affordable, and top-ranked education for students,” then fairly compensating graduate workers—who deliver the bulk of in-person teaching—is imperative. 

That’s why we’re asking the BOR to restore “permissive” topics to our contract this year and to guarantee graduate workers a real raise. Anything less than inflation is a pay cut. In this vein, our 2023-2025 contract proposal includes demands for paid parental leave—currently, we’re among the 29% of Big 10 universities that offer none—reduced fair parking, and an accessible and safe workplace. 

We know the law isn’t in our favor, which is why we’ve organized a multifaceted strategy to publicly pressure the BOR to come to the bargaining table in good faith. Our op-ed campaign was recently kick-started by a brilliant article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen by COGS members Thomas Mira y Lopez and Jenny Singer. We’ve also asked community organizations and elected officials to write open letters of support, with State Rep. Elinor A. Levin and Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green among those who have already penned powerful statements. 

Our December “Rally For A Real Raise” at the UI Pentacrest attracted over 100 graduate workers and community allies, and earlier this month we visited the office of UI President Barbra Wilson with a crystal clear demand: Real Raises Now. It’s time to get around the bargaining table and make it happen. 


Glenn Houlihan, COGS Chief Campus Steward

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