Grad union looks to Iowa for guidance

Since forming a union, University of Iowa graduate student employees have seen a 49 percent pay increase.

by Bryce Haugen

A group of University graduate students are learning how to build a union from their peers at the University of Iowa.

Organizers for Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 said lessons learned in Iowa will be useful in their bid to form a collective bargaining unit here.

Since forming a union eight years ago, University of Iowa graduate student employees have seen a 49 percent pay increase.

“Without the union, either I wouldn’t have made it or my debt would have been unreal,” said Ned Bertz, a history department doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa.

This week, that university’s graduate union, United Electrical Local 896, kicked off its fifth round of contract negotiations. In each round, it has gained incremental improvements, said Ryan Downing, union field organizer.

To become official, GradTRAC must convince a majority of the University of Minnesota’s approximately 4,300 graduate employees to sign union membership cards. This would force an election. If members affirm GradTRAC in a vote, the union will be allowed to negotiate its first contract with the University.

From bottom to top

Before forming a union in 1996, the University of Iowa was ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in wages, health care and working conditions, said Rob Russell, former president of United Electrical Local 896. Now, he said, it’s near the top.

“I’ve also been a (teaching assistant) at a nonunion university,” he said. “The differences between here and there are like night and day.”

He said the biggest bargaining victories have occurred in health care. During the last eight years, the University of Iowa has added a dental plan, full preventive care and full prescription drug coverage to its health-care package.

It has also created processes to deal with overwork complaints.

“I credit all of the gains to the union,” Russell said.

However, working with the union is sometimes difficult, said Kevin Ward, University of Iowa director of employee and labor relations.

“But we both have our own perspective on issues, and I think we both recognize our common interests and work from those interests to have a constructive relationship,” he said.

During the organizing drive, the University of Iowa put up fierce opposition, said Mike Evces, a founding union member.

Agenda of inclusion

Ryan Murphy, a GradTRAC organizer, said the union has been listening to its members’ concerns since before its launch. Listening promotes a sense of ownership, which is vital to winning an election, he said.

“We’re looking broadly and creatively at solutions to what workers identified as problems,” he said. “That’s our way to win people over. We’re not conducting a sales campaign.”

Earlier this year, the union surveyed graduate student employees to identify their concerns. The results became the union’s platform.

If it wins the election, GradTRAC will conduct another survey, Murphy said. He said those results would become the union’s negotiating goals.

The University of Iowa’s union tried the same approach, said Bertz, a member for eight years.

The two universities’ graduate unions are a part of United Electrical, a national labor union.

In addition to United Electrical’s record of success in Iowa, GradTRAC was attracted to the union’s techniques, Murphy said. He said the union chose United Electrical because of its “democratic and inclusive” structure.

“We thought that United Electrical was really good at turning diversity into strength,” he said.

In 1996, University of Iowa union members chose United Electric over American Federation of Teachers in a landslide vote, Bertz said.

“The members run this union,” he said. “This union isn’t being run by a national union; it’s being run by ourselves 100 percent.”

Apples and oranges

Trying to apply the University of Iowa union’s success to GradTRAC’s attempts should be done carefully, Downing said.

“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” he said.

For instance, because Iowa is a “right-to-work” state, state law prohibits public employees from striking. Instead, their final option is binding arbitration, in which a third party resolves conflicts.

That has yet to happen, but the union came close during its first contract negotiations, Evces said.

Ward said both parties try to avoid binding arbitration, just as they try to avoid strikes.

“There’s still a strong incentive for parties to reach an agreement,” he said.

Minnesota law allows striking, but Murphy said that would be “a last resort.”

He said he acknowledges the differences among the five Big Ten universities that have graduate student employee unions.

“We’re going to build on what we have, rather than copying what’s been done elsewhere,” he said. “What do we have now and where can we be creative to make things better?”