Negotiating their second contract under Iowa’s 2017 anti-union law, Local 896-COGS demonstrated that UE’s brand of rank-and-file trade unionism delivers for workers under even restrictive legal circumstances.
Passed by Republican legislators beholden to campaign contributions from the wealthy Koch Brothers, Iowa’s 2017 law drastically restricts collective bargaining for public-sector workers. It prohibits bargaining over health care or tuition waivers, key benefits won by Local 896 for the 2,000 University of Iowa graduate employees the local represents. It also reduces the “mandatory” subjects of bargaining (issues that can be taken to binding arbitration if the union and employer can’t agree) to one: base wage rates.
Many public employers in the state of Iowa, such as local school boards, have agreed to maintain the remaining “permissive” subjects in their union contracts with UE and other unions. However the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities and with whom Local 896 bargains, insisted on removing every single permissive topic from the contract they bargained with the local in 2017. Unlike local school boards, the Board of Regents is not directly accountable to the community they serve — members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor.
After winning the “recertification” elections required by the anti-union law with over 80% support from UI graduate employees, Local 896 presented its initial contract proposals to management on November 28: reincorporating all of the permissive subjects from their previous contract, plus a hefty wage increase to make up for the uncertainty of not having health care or tuition waivers guaranteed in the contract.
During the presentation of initial proposals, Local 896 members went through each of the permissive subjects and told a specific story about why that issue was important to UE members, and to the smooth functioning of the university. The lack of a union grievance procedure over the past two years, for example, has been confusing to administrators who haven’t known which of various university procedures to follow. As Local 896 members pointed out, restoring the grievance procedure — like many of the permissives — wouldn’t cost the university any money.
Local 896 members also demonstrated the value of their work by holding a “grade-in” in the hallway outside of the negotiating session. Members of the Board of Regents had to actually step over graduate assistants performing the labor that makes the university run.
Management responded two weeks later with their initial offer, rejecting the inclusion of permissives and proposing a mere one-percent increase to base wages — an increase many graduate employees would not receive, as departments often supplement base wages in order to attract students.
A month later, however, at the first proper negotiating session, management significantly increased its offer, to 2.1 percent each year. After some discussion, they also agreed to add two pay-related permissives to the contract. Returning graduate employees would get the same raise as the base wage increase, thus ensuring that everyone received a wage increase. They also agreed that workers whose appointments cover a full semester, the full academic year or the full fiscal year would receive their salaries in equal monthly installments, fixing problems with summer pay distribution under the previous contract that had led to grievances. The Local 896 negotiating committee caucused and decided to put the administration’s improved offer to a vote of the membership, who approved it overwhelmingly.
In another important step forward, the Board indicated that in the future they would like the dean of the university to discuss university policies directly with the union. This was a significant victory because in the absence of full collective bargaining rights, Local 896 has had to protect graduate employees’ rights through more informal means. Local leaders expect that being able to discuss policy directly with the UI dean, who is more accountable to the university community, will be more fruitful than having to deal with the Board of Regents.
Local 896 has had real successes in using informal pressure to maintain working conditions for graduate employees at UI, even without collective bargaining. In 2017, the local convinced the UI administration to preserve their benefits and adopt a “graduate assistant employment policy” which was a word-for-word copy of the provisions governing employment benefits in their previous contract. The administration set up a Graduate Student Employment Committee — effectively a company union — with which they would discuss benefits for graduate employees instead of the union. However, UE members have won a supermajority of seats on the committee, and have persuaded the university to maintain their health insurance and other benefits intact despite the administration’s expressed desire to get rid of UI GradCare, the insurance program established by Local 896’s first contract in 1997.
“I was really proud of how we worked in a very narrow union-busted law situation to get what was best for our members within the constraints of the law,” said Local 896 President Laura Szech. “We worked really hard to get as much as we could with how little we were allowed to get.”
The Local 896 negotiating committee consisted of President Laura Szech, Chief Campus Steward Jaclyn Crumbley-Carver, Blue Area Steward Kezia Walker-Cecil, Yellow Area Steward John Jepsen, Red Area Steward Erik Gustafson, Bargaining and Grievance At-Large member Michael Goldberg and Financial Officer Andrew McCubbin. They were assisted by Field Organizer Michael Hansen, and Western Region President Carl Rosen led a training and strategy session for the bargaining team.