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COGS, public workers reach out to community in benefits battle


Brittany Borghi is a graduate student in the University of Iowa's non-fiction writing program and a member of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) who is concerned about the proposed elimination of collective bargaining for public workers. -- photo by Christine Hawes
Brittany Borghi is a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program and a member of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) who is concerned about the proposed elimination of collective bargaining for public workers. — photo by Christine Hawes

The University of Iowa graduate student union is asking the public to speak out at Tuesday night’s Iowa City Council meeting, sending out the message that “our cause is everyone’s cause.”

“All workers are in it together, and all workers need to lift each other up,” said Landon Elkind, president of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS). “We hope other community members will show up and talk about why these benefits are important.”

A Save Iowa Workers! rally involving public workers across the state will also take place tomorrow at the state capitol starting at 10:30 a.m. outside of Gov. Terry Branstad’s office.

COGS and other public employees are on a mission to stand up against proposed changes supported by Branstad that could eliminate collective bargaining for Iowa’s public employees. In particular, COGS is concerned about losing its health care benefits and supplemental income, including tuition and fees. No bill has been filed in the legislature, so specifics aren’t available yet, but legislation is expected to be introduced any day now.

More University of Iowa graduate students are speaking publicly about their concerns, including Brittany Borghi, who is studying non-fiction writing.

“We work really hard to give back to the community,” Borghi said. “We don’t take the state benefits greedily; we’re taking them with a sense of openness and gratefulness.”

She cited events, master classes and ongoing public school outreach as some of the ways she and fellow writing graduate students contribute year-round. The graduate programs also bring new people into the community, she said.

“We attract people from all over the globe to come to Iowa, and many of those people end up spending their lives here,” Borghi said.

Most graduate students already are making financial sacrifices to continue their education, Borghi said, and some could be forced to end their graduate degree pursuits if the Republican-led proposals on collective bargaining and public worker benefits were changed. Currently, graduate students are guaranteed an annual stipend of about $18,000.

“It’s scary,” Borghi said. “I’m looking to the Legislature for some leadership.”

COGS has already started pressing university officials to guarantee current benefits will be retained regardless of changes in collective bargaining statewide.

Their efforts have, so far, resulted in a generally supportive statement from UI Graduate College Dean John Keller, but no assurances. Elkind and other labor leaders are urging members of the community and other public workers to join them in speaking out at their local city council meetings. Iowa City’s next meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“We encourage people to talk about how business depends a lot on graduate students, or how their child has been taught by grad students,” Elkind said. “Everybody has a stake in this fight.”

Public workers gathered last week at the State Capitol to stand up for collective bargaining, and will gather there again Tues., Feb. 7. Photo via Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS).
Public workers gathered last week at the State Capitol to stand up for collective bargaining, and will gather there again Tues., Feb. 7. — photo via Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS).

State workers are also speaking out more prominently. Becky Dawes, the Cedar Rapids-based president of the 3,000-member UE Local 893/Iowa United Professionals, wants to remind Iowa citizens that “public employees are taxpayers and consumers, too.”

“If you cut wages and benefits of public workers of any kind, you’re also reducing state revenue,” she said. Lower benefits also mean more stress for public workers, many of whom already face stressful jobs like Dawes’ position, which is a child abuse investigator.

“Nobody’s going to want to work in a stressful environment,” she said. “It’s a circular relationship. When you attack public workers, you attack everyone.”


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