District Court: COGS wins bargaining victory against Iowa Board of Regents in “Pay-to-Work” case

Community members rallied against student debt on the UI Pentacrest on Oct. 22, 2014. —photo by Adam Burke
Community members rallied against student debt on the UI Pentacrest on Oct. 22, 2014. —photo by Adam Burke

COGS (Campaign to Organize Graduate Students), the University of Iowa’s graduate employee union, has won a bargaining victory in the Iowa District Court for Polk County.

During contract negotiations last winter, the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) initially ruled in COGS’ favor, declaring the reimbursement of graduate student fees to graduate teaching and research assistants at the UI a mandatory bargaining topic. The Iowa District Court for Polk County upheld the PERB finding, which the Board of Regents had sought to overturn, arguing that student fees were linked to student, rather than employment status.

“Many members of COGS receive a tuition scholarship to support the costs of graduate education,” the union wrote in a news release issued today. However, that scholarship does not include obligatory fees paid by all students — graduate and undergraduate — which can amount to over $1,000 per academic year. In order to retain a graduate teaching or research assistant appointment at the University of Iowa, graduate students must maintain full-time student status. In order to maintain that status, graduated employees must pay student fees.

The resulting ecumenic burden is more than an inconvenience, argues COGS — it is a “pay-to-work” scenario.

“The majority of Iowa undergraduates are taught by people paying some amount of money to teach them,” says Lucy Morris, an alum of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and a former graduate teaching assistant. “I was fortunate to be provided with a generous funding package, but the fees are significant in relation to our salaries. I think it’s important that undergraduates and Iowa City residents understand how this system works, the education they’re paying for and often going into debt for.”

“The District Court’s ruling validates and strengthens COGS’ fight against mandatory fees,” said Ruth Bryant, Communications Chair of COGS Local 896, the University of Iowa’s union branch, which represents over 2300 graduate teaching and research assistants.

In addition to providing provide “front-line research” at the University of Iowa, graduate employees each the majority of undergraduate contact hours.

“From a legal perspective, it is hard to understand why the university has taken the extreme measure of going to court here,” said union attorney Joseph Cohen, commenting on the District Court case. “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’s ruling, Josh Lehman, Senior Communications Director for the Iowa Board of Regents said, “The Board is evaluating the decision and considering our options,” but had no further comment.

Public funding for higher education has decreased dramatically in recent decades, shifting the financial burden to individual students as a result. In their press release, COGS referenced statistics echoed by a recent article in U.S. News: Though they comprise only 16 percent of the total student population, 40 percent of the nation’s $1 trillion outstanding student loan debt belongs to graduate students.un

According to Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at New America, the average graduate students owes $57,600 in student loans.

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