UE Local 896-COGS Members Fight for Real Raise, Despite Anti-Union Law

April 7, 2023

Nearly a foot of snow coming down in Iowa City did little to dissuade the dozens of union members and community supporters that showed up on February 16 to hear initial contract proposals between UE Local 896 and the Iowa Board of Regents. Local 896, also called the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students or COGS, represents a bargaining unit of around 2,000 graduate student teaching and research assistants at the University of Iowa. COGS members had just voted to recertify the union for the third time in six years this last October — an onerous requirement all public sector unions in Iowa face before starting contract negotiations with the state. Again, grad workers triumphed over this anti-union state requirement.

Going into bargaining, COGS members were already well aware that Iowa’s anti-worker public sector laws give the boss an advantage over the rank and file. A change to the Iowa code in 2017 significantly infringes upon public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights by limiting mandatory topics of bargaining only to wages. While some topics like healthcare were made illegal to bargain over, other “permissive” topics are left up to the boss to decide whether or not to discuss. Moreover, the law restricts the gains workers could win through arbitration, setting a cap for wage raises at either three percent or the Consumer Price Index for that year, whichever is lower. Finally, the law puts a deadline for all contract negotiations to be completed by March 15, otherwise workers could be left without a contract at all for two years. 

Even with the scales tipped so unfairly in the boss’ favor, COGS members were determined to win a real raise for members over and above the three percent threshold and decided to use every tool they could in the months leading up to negotiations. Strikes for public sector unions have been illegal in Iowa since the 1970s, significantly raising the stakes for any local to consider organizing towards a work stoppage. Instead, COGS members focused on building community support and putting public pressure on the Regents and the University. This began in December of 2022, with a Rally for a Real Raise that brought together graduate, undergraduate, faculty, and staff workers, alongside community members, to demand the Regents provide cost-of-living adjustments to all workers in the state. Rally-goers held up posters that showed the discrepancy between raises for University administrators versus graduate students in the past year. They also filled out hundreds of postcards demanding real raises and benefits in upcoming contract negotiations, which COGS members later delivered to the Regents and the University President. Over the holiday break, COGS members worked together to draft and publish letters to the editor all around state and national news outlets, making plain their struggles to make ends meet during the cost-of-living crisis. City and state political leaders even got on board, writing letters of support for COGS contract demands after members contacted them for support. Once returning to campus, COGS members began holding biweekly informational pickets around campus, including outside of the University President’s office. 

COGS members and our community supporters rode this direct action energy straight into our initial contract proposal negotiations. With dozens of union members in the audience, and local reporters covering the contract fight, the COGS bargaining team presented the member-approved initial contract to the Regent’s lawyers and the University Human Resources representatives in February. COGS’ members backed up their demand for a restored and expanded contract with PowerPoint slides, graphics, handouts, and copies of the published letters. Standing in front of a blown-up image of postcards demanding real raises, COGS president Hannah Zadeh addressed the crowd saying, “[The Regents] know that we are underpaid and they know we are overworked.” Zadeh made it clear that COGS members demand a 10 percent  raise to keep up with the cost-of-living crisis, adding, “Anything less than that is a pay cut!” The Regent’s lawyers’ counter-offer was predictable: the minimum raise COGS members could win through arbitration of three percent with no other benefits, the same deal they offered all other public sector unions that year. 

Shortly after the initial proposals in open session, and with the deadline to complete negotiations looming just weeks away, COGS members kept up the pressure on the Regents with a campaign of over a hundred people mass emailing and fax “zapping” support for COGS demands. COGS member Emma Croushore even spoke up during public comment of the Regent’s monthly meeting, saying “We have worked despite low pay and low support. Please don’t take credit for our achievements when you’re only making our job harder! The time to support graduate workers is now.”

On February 27th, the COGS bargaining team and the Regents’ lawyers met for the second, and most likely final, bargaining session. The Regent’s lawyers and University HR made it clear they will continue to exploit anti-labor law in Iowa to refuse to bargain over the terms of the contract in any substantive way. Their last, best and final offer was the same as their so-called “initial proposal,” raising pay by only three percent, the legal maximum COGS members could win through arbitration. Despite the sham of a negotiation process, COGS members on the bargaining committee questioned and challenged the Regents’ team for over three hours, taking them to task for their obvious bad faith arguments over pay and parental leave. But with the law on their side, the boss refused to budge. 

Faced with a ticking clock to finish bargaining, and with no real prospects of winning any further concessions through arbitration, COGS members ultimately voted to approve the three percent pay raise for each year in the contract. While a three percent raise is still an effective pay cut, and far from what members of COGS deserve, it is also the highest raise for UE Local 896 members since the 2017 law change went into effect.

Later that week in a meeting to discuss the bargaining session, COGS members reminded each other of the other big wins the local made outside of the contract itself. Rank-and-file members stepped up to lead many of the public pressure initiatives and picket lines. Community members showed their overwhelming support for COGS. And graduate workers across the University are increasingly ready to fight and win in Republican-dominated Iowa.

Currently, COGS members are regrouping and planning how to pressure the University directly to raise stipends above the Regents’ contract minimum. The contract might be signed, but the fight for a real raise is far from over!

The UE Local 896-COGS negotiating committee consisted of President Hannah Zadeh, Vice President John Tappen, Political Action Chair Flannery Currin, Chief Campus Steward Glenn Houlihan, Press and Publicity Chair Caleb Klipowicz, Area Steward Rob Silverman-Ascher, Natalie McClellan, Jacob Payne, and Nicole Yeager. They were assisted by International Representative Greg Cross.


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