COGS, GAPSA leaders criticized for pro-union letters

Two members of the Council of Graduate Students also received payments from the United Auto Workers for organizing efforts.

by Jenna Wilcox

Graduate student government at the University of Minnesota saw backlash this week after sending open letters endorsing the union effort that were signed by leadership in the organizations.

Both letters were signed by members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Council of Graduate Students. Those who wrote them listed their GAPSA or COGS title after their name, although both organizations are neutral on the union effort.

Some student government leaders also received payments from United Auto Workers last year for organizing for the union and were criticized for a perceived conflict of interest.

One letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the Minnesota Daily, while the other was published on the Graduate Student Workers/United Auto Workers site.

Scott Thaller, a GSWU spokesman and COGS executive member who signed the open letter, said the letters were a reaction to an email sent out last week by University President Eric Kaler.

In the email, Kaler encouraged all students to vote, although he said a union was not in their best interests. He listed COGS and GAPSA as places where the University seeks input from graduate students — implying that the existence of graduate student government as a reason why they don’t need a union, Thaller said.

He said he and the individuals who wrote the letter did not write them in their COGS capacity, but as graduate students familiar with the organization.

Brittany Edwards, acting president of GAPSA, was one of six representatives of GAPSA who signed the letter.

She said she doesn’t think they did anything wrong because they were expressing their personal opinions and it would have been disingenuous not to include their GAPSA titles in the letter.

“Kaler is the one who decided to bring up GAPSA in a way that wasn’t reflective of our mission or goals so we had a need to respond to that,” she said.

Edwards said she thinks there is a double standard between Kaler’s letter and the letter from the graduate students.

“He is speaking about his personal opinions so why is there some sentiment that the student government should be muffled, or that we, as individuals, shouldn’t be allowed to express our personal opinions about this issue that affects all graduate and professional students at the University,” she said.

In January, COGS decided to enact a neutral policy on the union effort and would not offer any information about any union group on campus, according to COGS President Emily Combs.

She said they chose to be neutral on that issue because they represent all graduate students, some of which are not eligible to join the union.

Combs said she was not aware of the letter before it was sent and would have preferred if the members had left off their COGS leadership titles.

“I did not think it was appropriate to attach the COGS name to that, although I was glad that they made it clear in their letter that they were speaking from their position as individuals,” Combs said.

Andrew Wagner, a member of Graduate Students Against GSWU, said they used their positions unethically to generate votes for the union on the week of the election. He said individuals would trust them as elected government and vote the way they said.

“The damage is done,” he said.

Two leaders in COGS who signed the letters were paid by United Auto Workers in October and December 2010, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The amount totaled about $35,500 for both.

Wagner said this goes well beyond student government politics.

“This is a bad union doing bad things,” he said.

Melody Hoffman and Sara Nelson are both current members of COGS and were paid organizers for the UAW during the fall of 2010.

They said they signed the letter as individuals who wanted to voice an opinion, but not on behalf of COGS.

“Our intention was to clarify what we felt were real points of misinformation about the way [the administration] represented the role of COGS and GAPSA,” Nelson said.

Hoffman said despite the claims of conflict of interest, she is proud of the letter and stands behind everything that was written.