Unionization has been a good thing for Iowa

Quality of life for graduate students, research and teaching have all improved.

Beginning Monday, you – our friends and colleagues in Minnesota – have the opportunity to make major improvements in the quality of your university jobs. Nine years ago, University of Iowa research and teaching assistants faced a similar decision and overwhelmingly voted to join a union. We have never regretted that decision. Since 1996, our salaries have increased 49 percent. Our union won Iowa’s first research and teaching assistants comprehensive health-care plan, including dental and prescription drug plans, and we have also added increased job security.

Last month, our RA and TA membership voted to approve a new two-year contract, and in addition to the nearly 15 percent raise it will bring all employees, the contract continues to improve Iowa graduate employee life in several significant ways. At Iowa, we have found that the union improves the relationship between students and professors, perhaps the most important relationship in a graduate student’s career.

With a union, financial issues such as pay rates, health care and job security are handled by the union, freeing students and professors to focus on intellectual issues. Both benefit from having bottom line, financial security issues removed from the professional collegial relationship. The union does not interfere in the intellectual side of student life, leaving the graduate student free to pursue research and spend a corresponding number of hours to bring projects to fruition.

Job security is a critical issue for graduate employees. Since we joined the union, 200 additional RA and TA positions have been created. Our union, and the new contract it negotiated, uses several strategies to enhance job security for all RAs and TAs. First, the administration is legally mandated by our contract to honor all appointment offers. Without a union contract, employment offers may be changed at any time. Second, the union mandates budget transparency, as it is entitled to examine the way departmental and universitywide budget priorities affect job creation.

This transparency not only allows the union to create more jobs, but protects grad employees from being blindsided by department closures, mergers or downsizings. Finally, our union contract mandates a standardized process for assigning RA and TA appointments. Departments must post all positions so graduate students have an equal opportunity to apply. Graduate students are also required to receive formal notice of RA and TA appointments in the spring semester.

Our new contract reflects trends for pay increases for unionized graduate employees across the country. TAs and RAs will receive the equivalent of a 7 percent raise the first year, and a 6 percent raise the second year. These raises are added to every employee’s current pay rate. No RA or TA took a pay reduction in order to give a different employee a raise. Graduate employee compensation rates vary dramatically from one department to the next. Across the board, salary increases are the most effective way to improve compensation.

As we experienced before our election, you are now receiving a barrage of administration-sponsored e-mails, all designed to scare you. The administration is exposing its refusal to share power with its TAs and RAs. But we can tell you from experience the union has dramatically improved graduate students’ quality of life, improved the quality of the research and teaching we offer and improved the University of Iowa. We welcome University of Minnesota TAs and RAs as the sixth graduate employee union in the Big Ten.

Patrick Oray and Chris Burgess are graduate students at the University of Iowa and, respectively, the president and campus chief steward of UE Local 896-COGS. Please send comments to [email protected]