The Iowa District Court for Polk County upheld a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) finding that reimbursement of graduate student fees to graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Iowa are a mandatory topic of bargaining. PERB initially ruled in COGS’ favor during contract negotiations last winter. The Board of Regents had sought to overturn the PERB ruling based on the argument that reimbursement of graduate student fees were not a mandatory topic of bargaining because they were linked to student rather than employment status. Ruth Bryant, Communications Chair of COGS Local 896, said, “The District Court’s ruling validates and strengthens COGS’ fight against mandatory fees.”

Many members of COGS receive a tuition scholarship to support the costs of graduate education. The union fought very hard for years to win this major victory and just in this last round of negotiations won full tuition coverage for graduate employees in the College of Education. But even as tuition scholarships were won, the University of Iowa began to dramatically increase mandatory student fees far beyond their original intent, and without accounting for the disbursement of those funds within the university. Fees are a significant part of the growing financial insecurity that graduate students face and create a much larger debt burden that will negatively impact their futures.

Public funding for higher education has shrunk dramatically over the last few decades, and as a result the financial burden has shifted to individual students. Graduate students carry 40% of all student debt and have increasing uncertainty about securing job opportunities that will allow them to pay back their debt burdens.

Graduate employees teach the majority of undergraduate contact hours and provide front line research at the University of Iowa, and they deserve to be compensated at a level that does not put them in debt. Jeannette Gabriel, president of Local 896 said, “A critical way the University of Iowa can show its commitment to supporting graduate students and maintaining quality graduate education programs is to reimburse all mandatory fees for graduate employees.”

Joseph Cohen, UE attorney, commented on the case by saying,

“From a legal perspective, it is hard to understand why the university has taken the extreme measure of going to court here. PERB and the District Court have agreed that the university was required to bargain over the Union’s fee reimbursement proposal. Moreover, the parties actually came to an agreement over fee reimbursements months ago. To drag out the process by appealing what amounts to a purely theoretical issue at this point would seem to be a tremendous waste of public resources.”