Beyond Bread and Butter: Graduate Student Organizing

Michael D. Innis-Jimenez, February 2002

In January 1997, an appearance by Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch (part of a week of events at the University of Iowa celebrating King's accomplishments), was met by more than 40 members of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (United Electric Local 896-COGS) singing "This Little Light of Mine" and carrying posters that read "Respect the Memory: Support the No Discrimination Clause." From the front of the lecture hall, and in the presence of the university president, UE-COGS leader and graduate student Margaret Loose read a statement urging the university to discuss the inclusion of an antidiscrimination clause in the first bargaining agreement between graduate employees and the University of Iowa.1 It was a telling moment: In this "right-to-work" state, where the deck is already stacked against labor unions, UE-COGS had expanded its agenda from traditional bread-and-butter concerns of pay and benefits to include issues of human and civil rights.

The very nature of successful graduate student organizing requires that graduate students work closely with colleagues within and outside their departments, but history students have played an important role at Iowa and elsewhere because of two major reasons. First, graduate students in the core humanities disciplines (history, English, languages) do the vast majority of university-funded (rather than grant-funded) research and teaching. It is in these disciplines, in other words, that the graduate students faced the most conventional, and most clearly defined, employment relationship with the university as the employer, the college and department as middle management, and the faculty as supervisor. Second, history graduate students are more likely-as aspiring intellectuals-to understand and appreciate the past impact and future promise of collective bargaining.

Not allowed to strike under Iowa's Public Employee Relations Act (PERA), constrained by the state's right-to-work laws, and faced with intense opposition to unions among administrators and some graduate students, members of the COGS at the University of Iowa campaigned twice between 1993 and 1996 to elect an official bargaining agent for teaching and research assistants.2 In accordance with right-to-work laws applicable to both public and private employees in Iowa, workers have the option of not joining or paying any service fees to a union that represents them. In turn, the Taft-Hartley Act (which allowed states like Iowa to create right-to-work laws) shaped the history of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), the union with which the COGS affiliated. Forced out of the CIO in 1949 because of the leadership's refusal to sign "loyalty" oaths mandated by the Taft-Hartley Act, the UE consciously distanced itself from mainstream unions and further developed its identity as a rank-and-file, progressive, activist union. History graduate students, aware of UE's past accomplishments and the future promise of collective bargaining, formed an important part of the leadership group that led the campaign to elect a UE bargaining representative.

The COGS organizational drives at Iowa revolved around several issues: in the early 1990s, Iowa ranked ninth in the Big Ten in net compensation for teaching assistants, was one of only two universities in the conference that did not provide tuition waivers, did not have affordable health care, had an extreme shortage of childcare facilities, and needed an effective grievance system. The Campaign for Academic Freedom (CAF), a militant, interdepartmental organization of graduate students established to protest restrictions placed on instructors by the state legislature, was an additional factor in the 1993 organization of COGS. Through vocal protests, CAF brought graduate employees from different areas of the university together and politicized those who, according to David Lewis-Coleman, co-president of COGS immediately after recognition, "normally would not have been politicized over unions."3

UE-COGS members realized substantial gains with their first two-year agreement in 1997. The centerpieces of the agreement consisted of an affordable, comprehensive health insurance plan, and an across-the-board salary increase that established a minimum pay level. With the 1999–2001 agreement, members of the bargaining unit gained a 3 percent yearly raise, dental coverage, mental health coverage, and a compromise "letter of understanding" relating to human rights.

During both organizing campaigns, COGS members were met with significant resistance within the university, animated by many familiar anti-union arguments: graduate students were apprentices rather than employees, unions would mean fewer jobs, unionization would allow "outsiders" to invade the sanctity of the ivory tower, and collective bargaining ran contrary to the "humane and civil values" (as one Iowa administrator put it) cherished by the "collegial" academic environment.4 The dean of the University of Iowa Graduate College emphasized the adversarial relationship he believed a union would bring to the student/mentor relationship, defining collegiality as a model where "faculty, staff and students come together as professional colleagues in a shared governance system."5 In a presentation on graduate student organizing at an out-of-state campus, the dean underscored the need to "argue 'strategy' of collegiality vs. adversaries" while remaining "'neutral' on the question of unionization." In emphasizing the need for graduate deans to make "the relationship between GAs and the Institution as positive as possible" by remaining "assertive and aggressive advocate[s] for graduate students," he described graduate assistants as "young adults, aspiring professionals who should be supported even if/when they make poor or unpopular decisions-individually or collectively."6 Paternalistic overtones by some administrators and faculty accentuated graduate employee objections to the administration's "collegiality" argument.

Others argued that any loss of collegiality was avoidable. "If collective bargaining threatens 'collegiality' in the university," as UI History professor Shelton Stromquist argued in 1996,"it will be because the university administration chooses to make the relationship adversarial and resists the spirit of open and fair collective bargaining."7 UE-COGS members and supporters argued that the reality of the existing collegial decision-making environment was closer to that of a relationship between parent and child, not that of one colleague with another. The young adult/aspiring professional idea ignores the reality that an increasing number of older students and those with dependents are entering graduate school.

As illustrated by graduate employee activism during Martin Luther King Jr. Week activities, UE-COGS members have continually fought for the inclusion of the university's civil rights language into the bargaining agreement. After the anti-discrimination issue remained central throughout the negotiations for the second contract, UE-COGS and Board of Regents negotiators compromised on a human rights "Memorandum of Understanding." This memorandum, placed at the end of the publication containing the 1999–2001 and 2001–03 agreements, reaffirms the university's existing policy. However, it remains external to the agreement itself, and therefore has no legal value and does not allow for the use of the agreement's grievance procedure in order to seek remedy.8 In fervently pursuing the antidiscrimination clause, UE-COGS has created an atmosphere that has "raised the level of activism on campus and forced students and administrators to think about racial issues."9 The focus on topics not traditionally central to bargaining agreements was a deliberate action to broaden the scope of UE-COGS from a bargaining agent into a human and civil rights advocate.

—Michael D. Innis-Jiminez is a history graduate student at the University of Iowa and is a former officer of the UE Local 896-COGS. His dissertation will focus on the Mexican community in the Chicago area.

Notes

1. David Lewis-Coleman, interview by author in Iowa City, November 5, 2000.

2. When referring to "right-to-work," King Jr. observed, "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as 'right-to-work.' It provides no rights and no work. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining" (quoted in Council of Graduate Employee Unions, "Legal Issues: What are My Rights," http://www.cgeu.org/FAQ/legal.html).

3. Lewis-Coleman interview.

4. Courtney Leatherman, "As Teaching Assistants Push to Unionize, Debate Grows Over What They Would Gain," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 1997.

5. Leslie Sims, letter to all University of Iowa graduate students dated April 2, 1996

6. Leslie Sims, overhead transparencies for presentation to Wayne State University Graduate Committee Chairs, Detroit, Michigan, October 28, 1997.

7. Shelton Stromquist, "Comment: Collegiality and Collective Bargaining," COGnition (February 1996): 4.

8. Daily Iowan November 21, 1996: 1A; Agreement Between the Iowa State Board of Regents and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, Local 896-COGS (July 1, 1999-June 30, 2001): 24–25.

9. Lewis-Coleman interview.