Board of Regents discusses University of Iowa labor union proposal

Ashley Tibbs

The Board of Regents met virtually with the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (United Electrical Workers Local 896) on Tuesday to discuss their initial bargaining proposals in preparation for the upcoming negotiations over the 2021-2023 successor collective bargaining agreement.

UE Local 896 – COGS is a labor union located in Iowa City that aims to protect fair working conditions for graduate employees of the University of Iowa, according to the COGS Constitution

The meeting with introductions from the Board of Regents representatives and the COGS members presented. No members of the Board attended this initial meeting. 

After both groups finished introductions, members of COGS had the chance to speak about their initial proposal. John Jepsen, current president of COGS, opened by explaining why he believes their current proposal is fair. 

He said COGS proposed the same thing they had asked for two years ago, including a 5 percent wage increase. The only two additions to their proposal now are language about paying substitute instructors and policies for parental leave. 

Yellow Area Steward Ashley Dorn spoke next after Jepsen finished his opening statements. She focused on a lack of inclusion for graduate employees.

The Board of Regents and the University of Iowa, Dorn said, “have consistently neglected the voices and labor of graduate workers.” 

She noted that while COGS represents nearly 2000 graduate workers at the university, COGS was not a part of the crisis management team selected to respond to COVID-19 on campus.

Dorn argued that a transition to a COVID-safe campus and to online classes would not have been possible without graduate labor.

After Dorn finished her presentation, Green Area Steward Eden Maack spoke about the difficulties of teaching classes during the pandemic for graduate employees.

She said graduate employees are “scared, stressed out and uncertain.”

Maack emphasized the need for additional compensation for the labor graduate workers have completed during the pandemic, as well as robust safety protocols and protection. 

Blue Area Steward John Tappen continued this discussion by focusing on the responsibilities teaching assistants have taken on during the pandemic without additional support from the university.

He noted that many graduate workers did not have equitable access to office spaces and high-speed internet before turning to Bargaining and Grievance Member at Large Inga Popovaite. 

Popovaite, an international graduate worker, talked about the financial difficulties international students face, including additional costs and how international graduate students cannot take off-campus jobs to supplement their income.

One-third of all graduate workers at the University of Iowa are international students. 

Campus Chief Steward Kezia Walker-Cecil spoke next. She explained the two additions to this year’s proposal: substitute instructor pay and parental leave for graduate workers.

Walker-Cecil argued that returning all permissible language to the contract, previously denied by the Board of Regents two years ago, would provide reassurance and contract equity for graduate employees. 

The University of Iowa is one of only two Big Ten schools that do not offer paid parental leave for graduate employees — and they do not have any official parental leave policy at all.

Walker-Cecil also noted substitute instructors are not guaranteed pay equitably; instead, pay is determined on a case-by-case basis. These two additions must be set in the new contract, she argued.

After Walker-Cecil’s speaking time, Jepsen came back on screen and shared a view of the proposal itself with the rest of the call. He showed the changed language year after year and pointed out where COGS asked for a 5 percent wage increase for both 2021-2022 and the 2022-2023 sessions. 

He then opened up the floor to questions from the Board of Regents staff members. Mike Galloway, the Board’s labor attorney, declined to ask a question and instead summarized the Board’s position by stating there is no proposal from the Board to add back any language at this time — a key component of the COGS proposal — but that it would be a discussion for future sessions.

All future contract negotiations will be closed to the public, and there is currently no set date for the next meeting.

A recording of this proposal bargaining session is available on the Board’s YouTube page at