UE Local 896-COGS, the democratic, rank-and-file union of graduate workers at the University of Iowa (UI), is continuing our fight for a safe and healthy workplace in response to institutional negligence regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Extraordinarily, UI administrators have refused to enact any COVID safety policies for the fall semester: no mask mandate, no vaccine mandate, no surveillance testing. At the start of the academic year, in a laughable attempt to stifle our speech, UI even attempted to ban classroom teachers from discussing COVID with students, a decision they quickly reversed after intense public scrutiny. The Board of Regents — who the state governor undemocratically appoints — have actively opposed local action to prevent the spread of COVID, including stating that a city-wide mask mandate enacted by the mayor of Iowa City does not apply to the university.
Despite pleas from faculty, staff, and graduate assistants, the UI administration has been content with allowing their employees to be exposed to COVID. At the same time, they continue to hold many of their meetings online, via Zoom. With no way for instructors to enforce mask-wearing in classrooms, research labs, or even in our own offices, exposure to the virus is high — making working conditions unsafe. Indeed, an average of only three students out of twenty-five choose to wear a mask in the classes the authors of this article teach. In addition, many rooms lack proper ventilation, and there is a woefully inadequate two-day limit for taking classes online. Taken together, these factors have made for an immensely distressing semester for graduate workers, especially those of us who are parents, caretakers, immunocompromised, or care for those who are. They fear they may catch COVID in the workplace and bring the potentially lethal virus home to their family.
UE Local 896-COGS has been resolute in our response to UI’s complete abdication of leadership and has mobilized our members to advocate for commonsense safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus. On Thursday, September 2, we organized a ‘die-in’ protest on the Pentacrest (the center of campus) to draw attention to the university’s failure to act. Our demonstration landed on the front page of Eastern Iowa’s daily regional newspaper. State media widely covered it, and, rather amusingly, the rally even drew the ire of Fox News’ late-night talking head Greg Gutfield.
Because the UI has not instituted surveillance testing and made self-reporting positive COVID tests a needlessly arduous process, it was nearly impossible to determine the precise impact and extent of COVID transmission. In the face of this lack of transparency, COGS mobilized stewards and leaders within departments to circulate questionnaires to all graduate workers about their present working conditions. Each week, members tabled in high-trafficked areas of campus, soliciting grad workers for information about their working conditions. We learned about the extent to which grad workers were teaching in classrooms where students were not masking up. They informed us that many of their students were missing class because of positive COVID diagnoses or potential exposure, which created additional work for teaching assistants who were burdened with extra lesson planning and grading to accommodate sick students. We gathered this information and up-to-date numbers on COVID hospitalizations at the university hospital (with the help of union nurses). We relayed this information back to our members, demonstrating that the union and our members would be the authority to report the working conditions at UI amid COVID.
With this information, we filed a level three emergency grievance, stating that the university’s stance violated their policies and federal labor law, and submitted a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The day after we filed our OSHA complaint, one of our members designed our own OSHA flyer, indicating that UE Local 896-COGS had filed an OSHA complaint about an unsafe workplace and for grad workers to contact the union with their concerns. That week, members came to the COGS office and picked up these flyers to display throughout university buildings.
The UI administrators dismissed the grievance — alleging those concerns weren’t grievable and that their health and safety protocols regarding COVID (which is to say, none) were in keeping with state laws. However, OSHA has followed up on our complaint, visiting UI in October, and is presently conducting interviews with concerned workers.
We know the spread of COVID has consequences that exceed the boundaries of the university: the wider Iowa City community is being put at significant risk by the negligence of UI. That’s why COGS has kept up the pressure at the start of November by asking members to write and ring the Board of Regents before their monthly meeting to demand they start taking action on COVID safety.
By refusing to require masks, vaccines, or regular testing, the Board of Regents is pretending the pandemic is over to appease the governor’s donors and protect the university’s wallet. COGS knows that the science says differently: at the time of writing, November 6, cases have increased by 43 percent in Johnson County in the last fourteen days.
Despite institutional indifference, COGS will continue to fight for safe working conditions: the health of our members, our students, the immunocompromised, and the entire community is at stake.