Science Work and Service Work: Exclusion and Exploitation at the University of Iowa

Organize the Lab: Theory and Practice

Chapter 4

Science Work and Service Work: Exclusion and Exploitation at the University of Iowa

By Glenn Houlihan and John Tappen

In recent years, a revived militant left-wing movement has emerged among adjunct and graduate labor within higher education, organizing around low pay, precarious working conditions, and a deskilling of the profession amidst a decline in public funding for universities. Graduate workers in the humanities and social sciences, witnessing the decline of material working conditions and the full-scale erosion of the academic job market, have been overrepresented among the activist base in union organizing.1 The historical absence among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers in higher education labor organizing, relative to those in the humanities, led us to examine one historical example of how management perceives and handles STEM graduate student labor, and what this has meant for union organizing efforts.

Our work here examines one archive—a record of investigations, grievances, meeting minutes, and newsletters from the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS-UE 896), affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which now represents graduate workers at the University of Iowa (UI)—as a case study that contributes to a broader analysis of the place of STEM in higher education labor activity. The benefit of the COGS archive is its rich history: the union formed in 1996 and predates the more recent resurgence of labor organizing at universities. As such, the COGS archive constitutes an early narrative of academic worker struggles and management tactics to suppress organized labor. What emerges as the most compelling facet of this archive is UI’s repeated attempts to exclude a variety of graduate assistants working in science research labs from the union’s bargaining unit. Humanities and social science departments were rarely subjected to these attacks at UI, which demands that we inquire into why science departments were consistently targeted for exclusion and what made them so vulnerable to these tactics.

In what follows, we review a series of disputes between the union and management over the inclusion of research lab assistants within the bargaining unit. What surfaces in the archive is management’s continued appeal to “service to the university” as the linchpin for designating who “works” at the university and, thus, who can be classified as an employee and included in the COGS bargaining unit. Here, service is narrowly defined, and management’s insistence that research assistants (RAs) in science labs do not provide service to the university at once reveals the coercive nature of research assistantships and mystifies both the labor involved in academic research labs and the political economy of universities increasingly reliant on funding from research grants. Based on our findings, we argue union campaigns must recognize university RAs who labor in science labs as workers and defend their inclusion within bargaining units.

“Service” or “Academic Pursuits”?

Conflict between COGS-UE 896 and the UI regarding STEM graduate workers inclusion in the union bargaining unit provides us with an unexpectedly generative entry point into debates surrounding what constitutes “work” and who can be defined as a “worker” in university labs.

Prior to the certification of COGS in 1996, the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) excluded many RAs from the “community of interests” of the UI graduate employee bargaining unit. Some research assistants were excluded on the basis that such positions were either “primarily intended as financial aid,” “designed to provide special orientation or experience in research areas or methods, but from whom no specific research duties or results are required,” or remunerated by “academic credit.” Graduate research assistantships from the UI’s Carver College of Medicine, such as positions occupied by graduate students in biomedical research, comprised the overwhelming majority of RAs carved out of the official bargaining unit for UI graduate employees. The UI and departments within the Carver College of Medicine claimed that lab work performed by RAs was excluded because such work did not provide a “service” to the university but was instead integral to the students’ “academic pursuits.”2

The exclusion of RAs from the COGS bargaining unit hinged on whether these assistants provided a “service” to the university, explicitly defining “service” against “academic pursuits.” From the perspective of the UI and PERB, graduate assistants in research labs work with mentors and learn techniques essential to their academic progress, effectively meaning their time spent in labs is purely a learning experience and not a service to the university. From the perspective of the UI, service is work that cannot be of educational value to graduate students and a relationship with a professor as supervisor, not mentor or teacher. Such a definition fits cleanly with teaching assistants, whose appointment as instructors has no necessary correspondence to their academic research and whose relationship to a supervising professor pertains only to course delivery, not academic progress.

Work—as a service to the university—is reduced to the visible service of teaching university undergraduates and reflects a similar dominance of service and care work in the contemporary US, as a large majority of the American labor force are employed in the service sector, as opposed to agriculture or industrial production.3 However, this type of service—characterized by face-to-face interaction with undergraduates—obscures the distinct political economy of university research labs and the labor of RAs.

Many labs are funded through the National Institute of Health (NIH) and other external grant agencies to conduct research in specific areas. For each grant awarded to a professor for research undertaken in their lab, the university receives a significant portion of the funds at a facilities and administration rate—as of 2022, the rate is 54.5 percent for grants funding on-campus research.4 These grants are contingent on a lab’s research output, where graduate students serve as RAs to fulfill the research stipulated by the grant.

Research assistants in the College of Medicine typically spend more than 40 hours a week conducting lab work and some coursework. These departments allow RAs to choose the labs they work in based on their research interests. In the eyes of management, this work is not “service” as it is deemed a part of their progress towards a degree. However, the work structure in each lab is dictated primarily not by the RA but by the professor who runs the lab, who in turn, is accountable to the requirements of the funding institutions. This critically limits the autonomy of RAs.

In these instances, RAs who receive “special orientation or experience in research areas or methods”5 do not obtain these skills solely for their benefit; instead, they are also prerequisites for conducting research that contributes to the overall mission of the lab, which, through the funding of NIH and other grants, generates revenue for the university.6 While public colleges and universities like the UI do not extract surplus value directly, they remain a site of exploitation, which, according to the authors of “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” “serves as a space through which a vast amount of capital moves in order to consolidate as profit elsewhere. This is made all the more possible by the supposed benevolence of colleges and universities, which serves to rationalize the exploitation of labor in the name of their educational mission.”7 When the dominant conception of university work takes the form of service work, the inward-facing, atomized nature of laboratory work—labor that enhances the university’s value—is rendered invisible.

COGS Challenges Exclusions

The first trace in the archive of COGS challenging excluded departments came in 2001 when COGS tested the limits of microbiology RAs’ exclusion from the bargaining unit (one of many departments excluded before COGS’s certification) by attempting to hang union literature within their building. The union filed a grievance over the lack of bulletin board space for union literature in the microbiology building. A provision in the COGS contract allowed for half of all existing bulletin board space to be used by the union “solely for the posting of information to employees in the bargaining unit.”8 However, a subsection in the same article stated that new bulletin board space would not be granted to the union in departments with fewer than twelve bargaining unit employees. The union’s grievance challenged the ambiguous language in the contract, forcing management to clarify and justify the lack of existing bulletin board space granted to COGS.

The UI denied the grievance at levels one (department level), two (college level), and three (Vice President of Human Resources), citing PERB’s outline of the COGS bargaining unit as excluding research assistants in many College of Medicine departments. As the third and final grievance response states:

These [microbiology] appointments serve as a means of financial aid, are intended as learning experiences in the academic program, and the students have received academic credit… I must deny the grievance presented, as the application of the bulletin board language of the collective bargaining agreement is not applicable to the Department of Microbiology.9

While not legally within the COGS bargaining unit, RAs in microbiology benefit from the healthcare negotiated by COGS for all graduate students. Additionally, RAs working in departments excluded from the bargaining unit have involved themselves in organizing campaigns to benefit all graduate employees, not only those within the limits of the bargaining unit. For instance, improvements in healthcare and a reduction of graduate student fees negotiated by COGS in previous contracts were victories shared by all graduate workers at the UI.

However, an administrator in the department claimed “the department does not participate in COGS” when pressed about locating a space for the literature.10 The department’s position aligns with PERB’s, explicitly attempting to sever the link between COGS and the benefits granted to RAs in Microbiology.

Four years later, COGS again attempted to fight bargaining unit exclusions, this time in the radiology department, which had created new RA positions that academic year. A level 3 grievance submitted on October 4, 2005, states:

The aggrieved employees (and others in Radiology) have been excluded from the bargaining unit. All the employees are research assistants and they are not affected by any of the exclusion criteria in the contract and certification. This is a violation of Article I, Article II, and any and all other Articles and Sections that apply.11

In their October 28 response, denying the union’s grievance, the Human Resources office (HR) employed the same reasoning as seen in the previous microbiology grievance denial, even referring directly back to that case for precedent. In their response, HR wrote:

Graduate research assistants in Radiology… perform research to be used by the graduate students in the development of theses. In this sense their appointment is a means of financial support without a service obligation that is unrelated to their academic progress. In addition, these students may receive research credit for this work. In summary, the tasks performed are in pursuit of their own academic progress, and are indistinguishable from any effort obligation related to the financial support provided through the research assistant appointment.12

The rationale for excluding radiology RAs cuts to the crux of our concern: when work is deemed by the University as integral to graduate students’ own academic progress, inclusion in the bargaining unit is foreclosed. In other words, the university considers RAs trainees distinct from workers. However, an offer letter written to one of the grievants in radiology underlines the contradictions inherent in the university’s logic: “This appointment as a graduate research assistant requires an average of 20 hours of service per week over the course of the appointment.”13 Twenty hours of required “service” per week is work, regardless of its relevance to academic pursuits.

In addition, HR‘s response to the grievance questioned whether unit inclusion was even appropriate for the grievance procedure. It was HR’s understanding that “PERB would continue to hold exclusive jurisdiction over the composition of the bargaining unit under Iowa law… I do not believe a grievance arbitrator has authority over a subject reserved for PERB.”14 However, in the case of new RA positions in the radiology department, the absence of a history of radiology RAs allowed the department and HR to classify these positions outside the bargaining unit; tethering the work of the assistantship to “academic progress.”

This complex web of bureaucratic processes was exploited by the UI chemistry department, who, in that same year, attempted to reclassify nearly all of its RAs as outside the COGS bargaining unit.15 However, a grievance filed by COGS opposed the removal of 56 RAs employed in the chemistry department. COGS successfully argued that any changes to the bargaining unit were under the jurisdiction of PERB, which led HR to reinstate the 56 chemistry RAs.

The university delivered its response to the attempted chemistry carve-out the same day as they confirmed the exclusion of radiology RAs. While affirming the union’s grievance, the UI implied that chemistry graduate workers perhaps should be excluded from the bargaining unit. “The record indicates the circumstances in the Chemistry department are very similar to those in the basic science departments of the College of Medicine, who have been consistently excluded from the bargaining unit,” wrote HR. “I believe that the research assistants in the Department of Chemistry should remain as originally appointed and designated as ‘included’ in the bargaining unit for the time being.”16

The justification for the initial exclusion of RAs conducting research in the College of Medicine from the union’s bargaining unit made COGS vulnerable to future carve-outs sanctioned under the same terms: “a loop-hole the size of the contract,” as one COGS steward put it.17 The exclusion of graduate workers in the College of Medicine laboratories set a precedent to question the employee status of all graduate students who work in research labs. Contestations over the classification of new RA positions in radiology and the attempted exclusion of chemistry RAs, who, as part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, had historically been included within the bargaining unit, all constituted attempts to exploit this weakness.

Seeking to inoculate themselves against criticism, the UI HR concluded their denial of the radiology grievance by comparing the wages and healthcare of biomedical engineering graduate workers (included in the bargaining unit) with those of radiology graduate workers (excluded). After comparing the wages, which were indeed similar, HR stated: “Both receive the same health insurance contributions. It does not appear that the research assistants in Radiology are financially disadvantaged by their exclusion in relation to their peers in Biomedical Engineering.”18 This clarification raises us to a crucial question: why does the university continually seek to reduce the bargaining unit if wages and healthcare benefits remain the same in excluded departments? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that a smaller bargaining unit diminishes the collective power of graduate workers at the UI by undercutting the union: the primary organizing mechanism by which graduate workers contest the terms of their employment. Moreover, even if graduate stipends remain consistent with union-negotiated wages, exclusion from the bargaining unit positions RAs as students rather than employees, thus resulting in a loss of critical contractual benefits, including a right to union representation and a grievance process.

Grievance Backlash

COGS, like any union, sought to have a rigorous grievance process that would contest university power. The archive includes accounts of grievances filed by chemistry RAs in 2004 and 2005, close to when the university began to pursue unit exclusion. Indeed, having discovered a series of serious complaints related to the chemistry department in the archive, we argue it is no coincidence that the university subsequently attempted to exclude the department from the bargaining unit and, in turn, stifle the grievance process itself.

One chemistry graduate worker experienced such egregious working conditions that COGS filed three separate grievances on their behalf in August 2004. These grievances disputed the non-renewal of the worker’s appointment and routine overwork, among other complaints. During a meeting with the university and COGS, the worker described falling ill after being pressured to clean poisonous smoking apparatuses and regularly working far above their contracted 20 hours a week appointment. The first grievance went to arbitration, although gaps in the archive do not reveal the arbitrator’s final decision.19

Moreover, dirty apparatuses were not the only health and safety concern in the chemistry department. A 2005 Steward’s Report noted how “COGS was able to assist an employee in Chemistry who was seriously injured in a lab accident last spring recover the out-of-pocket expenses of his medical treatment.” After the worker’s compensation claim was denied, “[COGS] helped him file a tort claim against the state of Iowa, which has just been approved. He will receive around $600.”20 These are just a few among many COGS grievances and investigations related to issues in science departments and research labs. The poor working conditions for graduate workers in university research labs is well documented, and they illustrate what sociologist Erin Hatton refers to as “status coercion”—a profound power imbalance between STEM graduate workers and the professor who serves as their principal investigator (PI). Hatton defines status coercion as work under threat of punishment, a condition that is heightened in the context of RAs who rely on assistance and cooperation from their PIs—in the form of co-authored papers, letters of recommendation, or simply passing grades—in order to continue their research in and beyond the university.21 This power imbalance positions RAs as acutely dependent on PIs and, therefore, particularly subject to the type of dangerous and degraded working conditions that RAs in the chemistry department had to contend with at the UI.

While the archive attests to the limitations of the grievance process, we argue that workers actively submitting grievances presented not merely a headache for management but an indication of increased worker militancy among RAs in the department. Furthermore, we read these grievances as evidence of eroding working conditions in the department, especially concerning health and safety. Bargaining unit exclusion, therefore, became a management tactic to quell RA organizing around declining working conditions. Effective or not, filed grievances represented a fundamental threat to university myths that frame the relation between RAs and PIs as principally one of collegial harmony and cooperation, not coercion.

Remaining Vigilant

As Eldredge and Baublitz argued in this magazine in 2019, graduate worker unions “offer a fundamental rebalancing of power, support for targets of harassment, and greater transparency and accountability from university administrations.” The authors underlined the importance of a formal grievance procedure, which “better serves the student because they are offered an avenue for recourse that is not administered by the very party that has thus far permitted their vulnerability and exploitation.”22 As the COGS archive has revealed, the University of Iowa sought to mitigate gains made by graduate workers through unionization by surreptitiously seeking to reduce the size of the bargaining unit. This contraction served two chief purposes: firstly, to weaken the organizational power of COGS by reducing the number of members; secondly, and more insidiously, carving graduate workers out of the bargaining unit reduced their access to union recourse, such as a rigorous grievance process. The chemistry department powerfully illustrates this logic: after COGS heavily utilized the grievance process in 2004 to address issues in the department, the University sought to exclude all chemistry graduate workers from the bargaining unit a year later, in 2005.

Moreover, a close reading of the University’s reasoning to justify bargaining unit exclusion reveals an important site of contention: what constitutes “work” in the contemporary university structure, and how the invocation of terms like “service” and “trainee”  mystifies the value-generating work of RAs. Indeed, if teaching became tied to academic progress in the humanities and social sciences—not an impossible proposition—would teaching assistants then, in turn, become susceptible to bargaining unit exclusion too? “A loophole the size of the contract” fittingly encapsulates this troubling point of weakness for graduate worker unions. Based on the narrative in the COGS archive, graduate students who worked in research labs were especially vulnerable to being excluded from the bargaining unit because their work was not recognized as service work.

The contemporary university accumulates capital in various forms through a myriad of sources. There are also crucial non-tangible financial benefits to the university derived from the labor of graduate workers, such as the reputational gains of having student work presented at conferences and published in prestigious journals. In the last nine years, teaching assistants at the UI have seen a 20,000 credit hour reduction in their teaching, which has resulted in fewer graduate instructors and a dwindling of the COGS bargaining unit amidst increased adjunctification. Alongside this reduction in graduate instruction hours (service work), research awards to the University grew from $313 million to $415 million, as a more significant percentage of the University’s funding comes from grants and contracts than from state funding. Between 2019 and 2021, revenue from grants and contracts outstripped revenue from tuition.23

A likely consequence of this increased investment in research labs is further attempts by the UI to chisel away at the COGS bargaining unit, restricting workers’ access to the grievance procedure. Yet, as our archival work has shown, a grievance procedure in isolation isn’t enough to prevent work conditions from deteriorating. A renewed focus on militant organizing—at the UI and beyond—is essential to enforce protections won through bargaining and ensure that workers don’t backslide towards contract complacency.

Our findings also offer something of a roadmap for graduate workers currently organizing at universities across the country, such as Indiana University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We urge worker-organizers to oppose carve-outs during the certification process and to remain vigilant for future attempts to exclude workers under flimsy pretenses, especially those laboring in STEM fields.

Back to Contents


  1. Marc Dixon, Daniel Tope, and Nella Van Dyke, “‘The University Works Because We Do’: On the Determinants of Campus Labor Organizing in the 1990s,” Sociological Perspectives 51, no. 2 (2008): 379.
  2. Campaign to Organize Graduate Students V. State of Iowa (University of Iowa), Public Employer, 4959 (Des Moines, IA. 1994) & University of Iowa memorandum, “Revised Guidelines for the Appointment of Teaching and Research Assistants at The University of Iowa,” May 25, 1995. 
  3. “Table B-1. Employees on Nonfarm Payrolls by Industry Sector and Selected Industry Detail – 2022 Q01 Results,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 1, 2022.
  4. “Financial Analysis,” Facilities & Administration (F&A) Rate, July 1, 2018,
  5. Graduate Research Assistants whose work includes “special orientation or experience in research areas or methods” are definitionally excluded from the COGS bargaining unit. See “Revised Guidelines for the Appointment of Teaching and Research Assistants at The University of Iowa,” Campaign to Organize Graduate Students V. State of Iowa (University of Iowa), Public Employer, 4959 (Des Moines, IA. 1994) & University of Iowa, May 25, 1995.
  6. In the 2020-2021 academic year, the University of Iowa received over $200 million from NIH grants alone. See “Data Digest,” Office of the Executive Vice President & Provost, University of Iowa, accessed March 1, 2022,
  7. Abigail Boggs et al., “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” Viewpoint Magazine, January 19, 2022,
  8. Collective Bargaining Agreement between Board of Regents, State of Iowa and The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, Local 896/COGS, July 1, 2001 – June 30, 2003.
  9. Assistant Director of Human Relations to COGS, February 14, 2002.
  10. COGS Steward, “more Microbiology Dept problems” e-mail message to COGS, November 5, 2001.
  11. Grievance number 69 — level 3 grievance submitted October 4, 2005. 
  12. Senior Associate Director of Human Resources to COGS, October 28, 2005.
  13. University of Iowa Department of Radiology research assistantship offer letter to accepted graduate student, March 12, 2005. (Emphasis added)
  14. Senior Associate Director of Human Resources to COGS, October 28, 2005.
  15. Grievance number 70—level 3 grievance submitted October 6, 2005.
  16. Senior Associate Director of Human Resources to COGS, October 28, 2005. (Emphasis added)
  17. Minutes from COGS Stewards Report for District Council, October, 2005.
  18. Senior Associate Director of Human Resources to COGS, October 28, 2005.
  19. Grievance numbers 45, 46, 47—level 2 grievance submitted August 17-18, 2004; UE Local 896 – COGS V. Board of Regents, State of Iowa, and University of Iowa, Board of Regents Brief 05-GA-069, (Des Moines, IA, 2005).
  20. Minutes from COGS Stewards Report for District Council, May 2005.
  21. Erin Hatton, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 65–70.
  22. Colleen Baublitz and Zachary Eldredge, “#UsToo: How Unions Could Fight Harassment in STEM,” Science for the People 22, no. 1 (Summer 2019),
  23. Information & Resource Management, 2020-2021 Data Digest, Office of the Executive Vice President & Provost (University of Iowa: March 2021), 61, 65, 71,