Regents walk out as UI grad student workers protest for ‘a real raise’; Reynolds announces $1.8 billion state budget surplus

COGS protests the Board of Regents meeting at the Levitt Center on Tuesday, May 31, 2022, advocating for a cost of living adjusted raise in their next contract. The union repeated this action on Wednesday, saying the promised 3 percent raise is inadequate. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The Iowa Board of Regents meeting at the University of Iowa’s Levitt Center on Wednesday came to an early and abrupt end as members of UI’s graduate student union staged a protest to demand a living wage.

A leader of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) called out, “What do we want?” as union members marched into the meeting room during a presentation by UI Hospitals and Clinics representatives for the regents.

“A real raise,” the protesters shouted in response.

As the chanting continued, the regents adjourned the meeting and exited the room.

“They know we’re right, that’s why they don’t want to face us,” COGS president Hannah Zadeh said.

COGS and the regents agreed to a two-year contract last year that provides a 3 percent base wage increase for grad students in 2023 and 2024. But COGS organizers, who had originally requested a 10 percent increase, say that 3 percent is inadequate given the cost of living in Iowa City.

Defending the 3 percent increases, the regents say grad students at UI compare favorably to those at other Big 10 schools. But that does mean grad students are struggling to make ends meet, COGS maintains.

“According to the MIT living wage calculator, the average graduate student worker at University of Iowa makes 25 percent below the living wage for a single adult living in Johnson County, Iowa,” the union said in a written statement prior to the protest. “This gap between the living wage and the current wages of graduate workers means that many are rent burdened, food insecure, and going into debt as they contribute essential labor to the university through their teaching, research, and administrative roles.”

The Board of Regents, which sets policy and approves budgets for the state’s three public universities, is scheduled to continue its September meeting on Thursday and Friday. Graduate student salaries are not on the agenda.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the state ended the most recent fiscal year with a $1.83 billion surplus. Reynolds also said the state government has $902 million in reserve funds, as well as $2.74 billion in its Taxpayer Relief Fund.

The governor did not announce any plans to dedicate any of that windfall to addressing pressing problems in the state, such as the lack of childcare and affordable housing, or using it to increase funding for education. Instead, Reynolds said she intends to use the surplus funds to cover further tax cuts.

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“I look forward to cutting taxes again next legislative session and returning this surplus back to where it belongs — the people of Iowa,” the governor said.

A Sept. 27, 2023 tweet from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ campaign account calls the surplus an “over collection.”

In a written statement following Reynolds’ announcement, Sen. Janet Petersen, the Des Moines Democrat who is the ranking member of the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee, said the governor’s tax cut plan is just another example of Reynolds putting “rich corporations and special interests first.”

“While Gov. Reynolds is again slashing corporate taxes and promising more giveaways to come, middle-class families still aren’t getting ahead.”

This story originally appeared in LV Daily, Little Village’s Monday-Friday email newsletter. Sign up to have it delivered for free to your inbox.