The Next Generation of Academic Workers

University of Iowa Pentacrest
The challenges faced by graduate employee unions, like COGS, are the same ones experienced by unions across the country — photo by Alan Light

This past weekend, most likely unbeknownst to a majority of Iowa Citians, COGS, the University of Iowa graduate employee union (also known as the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students), hosted the 22nd annual Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions and 9th annual Canadian Coalition of Graduate Employees conference, C/CGEU. Union delegates traveled from distances as nearby as the University of Michigan and University of Chicago, to as far away as Simon Fraser in British Columbia, University of Rhode Island, and taking the travel-distance cake, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The conference began as a forum for graduate employees to not only strengthen pre-existing unions by sharing information, strategies and problems, but also to support the organization of new academic labor unions at institutions of higher education. C/CGEU stayed true to that mission over the weekend, with panels devoted to building coalitions across institutions and approaches to organizing in “right-to-work” states, such as Michigan and Iowa.

To be upfront, my own attendance at this conference is slightly weird. As a graduate employee at Iowa, I am a proud member of COGS, but feel continually guilty about my own limited involvement. COGS is an important organization run almost entirely by my fellow students volunteering their time for the good of all graduate employees (even if they are graduating and won’t see the benefits themselves!). Plus, their hard work also benefits The University of Iowa as an institution more broadly.

How is this the case? Well, when I first compiled a list of grad schools to apply to in the fall of 2009, I was actually warned by several professors and grad students at other colleges about UI’s less-than-desirable financial packages of the past (a small stipend and no tuition reimbursement) and was advised not to apply unless I wanted a sizable amount of debt upon finishing my degree. After researching Iowa further, I learned that a lot had changed, and most of those positive changes could be attributed to COGS’ gains at the bargaining table over the years.

From lowest paid in the Big 10, Iowa is now 2nd place behind the University of Michigan in terms of graduate employee compensation. Those numbers matter in terms of attracting talented and smart graduate students, which helps to both strengthen the prestige of UI overall and maintain the high quality education of undergraduate students. Those numbers also matter, fundamentally, in terms of graduate employees being able to afford to live.

While gains for graduate employees at UI are definitely something to celebrate, it goes without being said that graduate employees and contingent academic laborers, in general, are still inadequately compensated given the fact that they have a majority of the contact hours with undergraduate students. In fact, at Iowa, 67% of all the contact hours with undergraduate students is with teaching assistants. Yet, teaching assistant salaries comprise less than 2% of The University of Iowa’s total budget.

So, as I sat through sessions of C/CGEU and talked with graduate employees from other institutions, I came to several realizations. While we should be thankful for COGS and proud of what we’ve achieved so far, Iowa graduate employees still have a long way to go to in terms of achieving what many other schools already have, including more affordable health insurance for families, transgender care and reasonably priced residential options in an expensive housing market dominated by a few leasing companies. It becomes hard to attain those goals, however, when graduate employee unions in “right to work” states have to spend a majority of their volunteered time just going out to inform and recruit new members.

Additionally, C/CGEU reminded me that a lot of these examples aren’t just pressing concerns for graduate employees, but also for students, adjunct faculty, and really, workers of every kind. In fact, what started as a conference about graduate employees specifically, for me, turned into a conference about the status of employees and students throughout the educational system and beyond. The interconnectedness was apparent during a presentation by Chicago Teachers Union organizer, Martin Ritter, who discussed the closing of public schools in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, and during a screening of We Are Wisconsin, a documentary that details the elimination of collective bargaining not only for teachers in that state, but nurses and many other public employees under Governor Scott Walker.

The challenges faced by graduate employee unions, like COGS, are the same ones experienced by unions across the country, whether representing teachers, police officers, or steel workers, in a time characterized by anti-union rhetoric, austerity budgets and continued privatization of traditionally public goods and services.While C/CGEU made me feel hopeful simply by the fact that international conversations about academic labor are taking place, and there are tons of dedicated people working to make the status of graduate employees better, the conference also made me feel overwhelmed as I listened to story after story of school administrators and faculty supervisors seemingly undermining and overworking graduate employees, and graduate student employees being afraid of speaking out, or penalized for speaking out, against problematic working conditions and contract violations. The University of Iowa isn’t exempt from these types of stories, although COGS and administrators have a strong history of resolving disputes amicably that will hopefully continue.

Despite the uphill battle looming for most of the union delegates present, the conference concluded Saturday evening with a hopefulness for the year to come, as increased between-conference communications were planned and goals were set to expand the number of schools included at the 2014 C/CGEU conference to be held at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec.

If you would like to learn more about COGS, issues of concern to graduate student employees at The University of Iowa, or want to become more involved, visit