The hallway outside Room 351 of the Iowa Memorial Union was crowded but quiet on Wednesday morning. Members of COGS, the union representing University of Iowa graduate students, were staging a grade-in — a protest that allowed them to do their work as teaching assistants, while demonstrating their resolve prior to the start of a meeting with representatives of the Board of Regents.
COGS, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, is in the process of negotiating a new contract that will cover grad students employed by UI. Last month, the union presented its contract proposal to the Regents. On Wednesday, it was the Regents’ turn to present its initial proposal.
Laura Szech, a doctoral student in the UI College of Education and president of the local chapter of COGS, told Little Village she was feeling cautiously optimistic ahead of the meeting.
The optimism was based on the results of an October recertification vote for COGS. In 2017, the Republican-led Iowa legislature scrapped the current collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees and put in place much more restrictive rules. One of those changes required unions to undergo a recertification election prior to negotiating a new contract for workers.
COGS needed a majority of all 1,954 UI’s grad students — not just COGS members — to vote for it to be recertified. Under the legislature’s rules, any student who didn’t submit a ballot would automatically be counted as “no” vote. COGS won recertification, with 80 percent of grad students voting for it.
“We feel that with the recertification election — in which over 1,550 graduate students said they wanted COGS as their representative — is clear demonstration of our support, and the board should respect the voice of those students,” Szech said.
“We felt really empowered by that vote,” Szech said. “And we feel that the board should respect the voice of those students — over 1,550 graduate students — who said they wanted COGS as their representative.”
But Szech’s optimism is tempered by COGS’s experience negotiating its last contract. The union made its first proposal in October 2016. But, as Szech explained, the Regents delayed engaging in substantive negotiation until after the changes on collective bargaining took effect in Feb. 2017.
State agencies are only required to engage in negotiations on base pay-rates with certified unions under the 2017 law. Other issues that had been covered by the collective bargaining law signed into law by Gov. Robert Ray in 1974, such as health care and working conditions, can be included in negotiations only if employers agree to include them.
“They brought us a one-page wage document, and wouldn’t negotiate at all,” Szech said, recalling the 2017 contract talks.
“A lot of these things, since we have the right to take them out, we are going to do it,” Mike Gallagher, the attorney for Board of Regents, said during a Feb. 2017 meeting with COGS. “You may not like it, I understand that.”
“These things” included all the benefits COGS, which has represented UI grad students since 1996, had won in previous negotiations, except for the base pay-rate.
Asked why the Regents were only going to do nothing more than the law required, Galloway said, “It’s because we are going to, as a university, revisit those issues and put them into a policy, is the direction we are headed at the moment.”
“It was surprising,” Szech recalled. “There was disbelief and anger. And frustration, because we felt our work was being so devalued by the Board of Regents.”
Many of the benefits that had been cut out of the contract were eventually incorporated into UI policy (“That was a huge fight,” Szech said), but the university can change its policies to eliminate those benefits if it chooses to. It has no legal obligation to maintain them, as it would if the benefits were included in a labor contract.
“When they put [the benefits] into policy, they took the words ‘COGS’ and ‘union’ out,” Szech said.
By doing that, UI eliminated the grievance procedure that had been in place, which means that a COGS member who is having a problem no longer has a right to be assisted by a union representative in meetings with university officials.
“We’re asking, or rather demanding, that all these things that don’t cost the university a penny, but really matter to us as grad students, are put back into a contract, not just left as policy,” Szech said.
As for their base pay-rate, COGS was asking for a cost-of-living increase plus three percent.
The Regents’ offer contained none of that.
The pay increase offered was lower, and it was the only thing in the proposal. Just like in 2017.
The attorney for the Regents was the same as 2017, too. Galloway didn’t definitely rule out negotiating over issues other than base pay-rate, as he did in 2017, instead declining to comment on whether the Regents would agree to consider any of the other issues.
“We’re frustrated the initial [base pay] proposal was so low, and surprised that none of the [other] topics were back in it,” Szech said after the meeting. “They could have chosen to include those topics, but chose not to. But we do feel hope that there may at least be a discussion, because two years ago it wasn’t even an option.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, two future, closed-door meetings to continue contract talks were scheduled for later this month. Even though the public won’t be admitted to those meetings, they will find out about the results.
“We are preparing to have some very public actions to show whether the board is supporting us or not,” Szech said.