UI grad students camp outside president’s office to protest collective bargaining changes

Grad students gathered outside UI President Bruce Harreld’s office Monday to press him for more support.

“I have snacks!” announced Ruth Bryant as she and about eight other University of Iowa graduate students made themselves comfortable on the floor outside of University President Bruce Harreld’s office Monday morning.

She and the group planned to stay there all day as part of “Wake up, Walk Out!,” the latest grass-roots effort to stand up against proposed legislation that would dismantle collective bargaining for public workers in Iowa, including graduate students. (Public safety workers have been partially exempted under the current proposals.)

Monday’s Facebook-driven gathering was built around three demands from the group of students: Stand up for our current benefits to the Board of Regents. Stand up on our behalf directly to Gov. Terry Branstad. And denounce the proposed changes to Iowa’s Chapter 20 governing collective bargaining for public workers.

“We’re asking him to do his job,” said Rachel Walerstein, who led Monday morning’s visit and camp-out.

“We’re asking for accountability,” added Spenser Santos, who also participated.

Grad students who showed up at UI President Bruce Harreld’s office Monday “camped out” outside of his office after finding he was not in.

Tension over the proposed changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law have been simmering for weeks, as word spread among public workers statewide, including graduate students, that Branstad’s call for new collective bargaining laws would be carried out through proposed, fast-tracked legislation.

Those bills were finally proposed last week (Senate Bill 213 and House Study Bill 84), triggering more outcry from grad students, their union, the Campaign to Organize Grad Students (COGS), and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, which passed a resolution last week opposing the legislation.

In addition to pressing for opposition to the legislation, the students and COGS are pressing university officials to, at minimum, guarantee that their current benefits, in the form of health care and supplemental income covering tuition and fees, is preserved regardless of whether the bills pass.

The students who gathered Monday said they have grown frustrated with a pattern from Harreld that they say discourages a sense of connection with the university’s graduate students.

“We’re constantly trying to have more contact with this man since he was installed,” Walerstein said. “Instead, he’s been fleeing from his office, and no one ever knows when he’ll be back.”

Santos said many students are frustrated with the lack of open gatherings Harreld has held since becoming the university’s top executive in 2015. Santos pointed out that Harreld initially promised to hold three forums a year, but hasn’t held once since February 2016.

Harreld has faced a rocky tenure since his appointment. The university’s faculty senate raised concerns over Harreld’s lack of experience in student or faculty support. In addition, lawsuits were filed questioning the process by which Harreld was chosen by the Board of Regents. The selection process also led a national group of professors to officially sanction the university.

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“It’s well-known that Harreld has a deep relationship with the Board of Regents and governor,” said Walerstein. “But we need him to advocate for us.”

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