UE Local 896/COGS (Committee to Organize Graduate Students) won an important court victory this week. The Iowa District Court for Polk County upheld an earlier ruling by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) that reimbursement of graduate student fees to graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Iowa are a mandatory topic of bargaining. PERB is the state labor board for public employees in Iowa, and after it rule in the union’s favor, the university appealed to state court.
Local 896/COGS represents graduate students at the university who are also university employees as teaching assistants and research assistants. PERB initially ruled in COGS' favor during contract negotiations last winter. The Board of Regents, which governs the university, had sought to overturn the PERB ruling based on the argument that reimbursement of graduate student fees should not be a mandatory topic of bargaining because fees are linked to student status rather than employment status. Ruth Bryant, communications chair of Local 896, said, “The District Court's ruling validates and strengthens COGS' fight against mandatory fees.”
Many members of COGS receive a tuition scholarship to support the costs of graduate education. The union has fought for years to win this economic protection and in the most recent round of negotiations won full tuition coverage for graduate employees in the College of Education. (Years earlier the union won this benefit for its members in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.) But even as the local won tuition scholarships, the University of Iowa began to dramatically increase mandatory student fee, a form of back-door tuition increases. On top of student activities fees, student services fees, and student health fees, the university added building fees, a fee for renovations, cultural fees, professional enhancement fees, and a fee for a new recreation center with a climbing wall. By 2014, graduate employees were paying nearly $1,000 in fees each year, a 500 percent increase in less than 15 years.
In the seven-month struggle that resulted in the current collective bargaining agreement, ratified in February, Local 896 also won partial reimbursement of student fees. (Click here to see the UE News report on the local’s negotiations and new contract.) But fees remain a major economic burden on graduate employees and contribute to high levels of student debt. Nationally, although graduate students make up 16 percent of the student population, they carry 40 percent of the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt.
Graduate employees do most of the teaching of undergraduates, and provide front line research at the University of Iowa, and the union argues that they deserve to be compensated at a level that does not put them in debt. Jeannette Gabriel, president of Local 896 said, “A critical way the University of Iowa can show its commitment to supporting graduate students and maintaining quality graduate education programs is to reimburse all mandatory fees for graduate employees.”
“The majority of Iowa undergraduates are taught by people paying some amount of money to teach them,” says Lucy Morris, a University of Iowa alum and former graduate teaching assistant. She was quoted in Iowa City’s Little Village magazine. “Fees are significant in relation to our salaries.”
Joseph Cohen, UE general counsel, commented on the case. "From a legal perspective, it is hard to understand why the university has taken the extreme measure of going to court here. PERB and the District Court have agreed that the university was required to bargain over the Union's fee reimbursement proposal. Moreover, the parties actually came to an agreement over fee reimbursements months ago. To drag out the process by appealing what amounts to a purely theoretical issue at this point would seem to be a tremendous waste of public resources."
In response to the district court ruling, Josh Lehman, senior communications director for the Iowa Board of Regents, told Little Village, “The Board is evaluating the decision and considering our options,” but had no further comment on whether the board will carry the appeal further.