UI grad students are fighting to keep their union representation

COGS members stuff mailers into envelopes to inform UI graduate students about a recertification vote in the coming weeks. Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Buried among the other elections this fall, the COGS recertification election is unique, because it’s an election in which many of the eligible voters have no idea they can vote. That’s not a failure of the system, it’s how the Iowa legislature intended the system to work.

The Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) is the union that’s represented graduate students at the University of Iowa since 1996. It’s played a key role in making sure graduate school at UI remains affordable and grad students have affordable health care. For over two decades, it has negotiated a contract with the university every two years. Those contracts have provided protections and benefits for all UI graduate students with assistantships or other university jobs, regardless of whether they are members of the union.

That may be about to change.

In 2017, the Republican majority in the Iowa legislature pushed through new restrictions on unions representing public sector employees — a category that includes grad students working for universities. Among other restrictions, public sector unions must hold recertification elections before negotiating a new contract. But there’s a twist: the law has a so-called “true majority” provision, which means more than 50 percent of UI’s grad students have to vote in favor of COGS remaining their bargaining unit. Not more than 50 percent of the almost 400 active members of COGS. More than 50 percent of all UI’s 1,954 grad students have to vote in favor of COGS.

And to be clear: recertification requires not just a “yes” vote from more than 50 percent of those who vote in the election. Any grad student who doesn’t vote — for whatever reason — is automatically counted as a “no.”

“If 50 percent of eligible voters in America had to vote for president, we would never have a president,” said Laura Szech, a doctoral student in the UI College of Education and president of the local chapter of COGS.

This will be the first recertification election COGS has had since the law took effect.

“One of our biggest struggles has just been talking to people, to get them to understand that they are in our bargaining unit, whether they are aware of it or not,” Szech said. “And that they have to vote, because they are going to be counted in the recertification vote, regardless of whether they cast a ballot.”

The recertification election will take place from Oct. 15 to 29. COGS is working on speaking to every grad student before voting starts.

“It’s a challenge,” Szech said. Grad students are scattered around campus, and most have schedules that consume their days, leaving little time to follow events beyond their studies and jobs.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I share this office with four people, and I’ve never seen any of them,’” Szech said.

“What we’ve found when we do speak with people is that they’re very surprised when they find out that if they don’t vote in the election, it counts as an automatic ‘no’ vote,” she added.

Things like the “true majority” provision have become popular around the country with Republican legislators trying to eliminate unions. So has a second provision of the 2017 law that requires a union to pay for the recertification from union dues. (The COGS election will cost almost $2,000, a substantial sum for the group, according to Szech.) At the same time, unions are not allowed to collect dues through payroll deductions, even if the union member wants dues to be automatically deducted.

“We found that some people still thought they were dues-paying members, because they hadn’t realized the automatic deductions have stopped,” Szech said.

Others don’t realize the extent of the benefits COGS has helped secure for them.

Mark Lanning, a graduate student in the School of Art and Art History, learned about what COGS had done shortly after coming to UI, and immediately joined. During an envelope-stuffing session for COGS election mailers last week, he said he chose UI, in large part, because its full-tuition scholarships for working grad students meant he wouldn’t need to take on student-loan debt to finish grad school and because of the health insurance available.

“I didn’t realize COGS had been a major part of winning those benefits,” he said. “To cover our whole family — myself, my wife and our two kids — under insurance [available to grad students] was almost $1,100 cheaper than it was for my wife to cover just herself under the health care plan for her school district.”

“The [full-tuition scholarship] is the only reason I can afford to come here. Plain and simple,” Kenneth Elliott, a graduate student in Classics, said, while taking a break from stuffing envelopes. “Also, one of the things that really made me realize how much I’ve been helped by COGs is last year my knee really screwed up.”

Elliott’s doctor visit for his knee led to a series of tests, followed by a course of physical therapy.

“The total cost to me was $50, because of our excellent health care plan,” he said.

If COGS doesn’t get the needed 978 votes, grad students will no longer be guaranteed that kind of care. The current contract will expire, and COGS won’t be able to negotiate a new one.

“Because we wouldn’t have a contract, a person could wrongfully terminated, there would be little anyone could do about,” Szech said.

“We believe graduate students should have a voice in our employment, and COGS gives us that voice,” she said. “That’s what’s at stake in this election.”

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