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Prepare for changes in state legislature

BY GUEST OPINION | OCTOBER 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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During this week and next, the University of Iowa community will see organizers from the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), the union for employed graduate students, meeting with graduate assistants about the state of affairs in Iowa.

COGS is Local 896 of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, a national union run democratically by its rank and file members.

There's never been a more important time to be a COGS member. The substantial gains we've won in our most recent contract, outlined below, are under attack by the Iowa Legislature. Last spring, the Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill that would have decimated the abilities of public employee unions to bargain fair contracts (similar to the Wisconsin anti-union bills).

For example, it would have quadrupled the amount a single graduate assistant pays for health care by requiring all public employees to pay at least $100 per month in health-insurance premiums, without regard to the fact that COGS, like many other Iowa unions, has bargained for our health insurance in exchange for other contract language.

This legislation failed in the Iowa Senate because of a two-vote Democratic majority. However, that majority is now in question pending the results of a Nov. 8 special election in Marion to fill a Senate seat recently vacated by a Democrat. If the Democrats lose that seat, the Senate will be tied, putting in jeopardy a variety of progressive legislation in Iowa, from collective bargaining rights to marriage equality.

Whether you're a graduate employee who can join COGS, a nurse who can join the Service Employees International Union, an administrative assistant who can join AFSCME, or a public-school teacher that can join the Iowa State Education Association, the solidarity of Iowa's public employees to protect our rights has never been more necessary. If you believe that workers' rights are human rights, regardless of whether or not you have a union, join COGS and other community members on the Pedestrian Mall at 9 a.m. Friday as we rally to demand more quality jobs for Iowans.
In addition to engaging graduate employees in our political conversation, COGS organizers are excitedly discussing the fantastic contract we have with the university, which went into effect July 1 and will cover our bargaining unit for two years. In our negotiations last spring, we won 100 percent tuition scholarships at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences tuition rate (a 15-year battle), a 2 percent wage increase bringing the minimum half-time salary of graduate assistants to $16,908 this academic year, and preserved our excellent health-insurance package. This compensation and benefit package is wonderful for those of us on campus now, but it is also an important recruitment tool for attracting the most qualified future graduate students to the UI.

COGS has been able to bargain this great contract through the strong support of our members in departments across campus.

Iowa is a "Right to Work" state. This means the employees that are covered by our contract have to decide whether or not to be a member of our organization. Only those who are members have a say over our priorities at the bargaining table and over voting on contract ratification.

It is because graduate employees must decide whether or not to be a union member that we engage in public organizing campaigns. Every year, we lose dozens of members to graduation, and while we're proud they've been successful in their graduate studies, it is also important that we rebuild our membership so that we can ensure our continued success.

If you're a graduate employee, please give our organizers a moment of your time and consider joining your member-run union.

— Kari Thompson is president of COGS and a teaching assistant in the University of Iowa Department of Religious Studies.


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