Event unites Big Ten graduate students to discuss unionization

Some argue unions help keep TAs from being overworked by professors.

by Matt Graham

Representatives from five Big Ten schools’ graduate student unions spoke Friday to University teaching and research assistants.

Approximately 150 people gathered in Cowles Auditorium in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs for the event, put on by the Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 and the Core for Democratic Universities.

Representatives from the University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Illinois, University of Michigan and Michigan State University shared experiences and encouraged the unionization efforts of University of Minnesota graduate students.

Health care was a main topic of the event.

“We found ourselves arguing with (the University of Illinois) about whether or not grad students deserved health care,” University of Illinois student Sanjay Garla said.

He said graduate students at his school have more extensive health coverage than faculty members as a result of the union’s work.

Another major theme was the need to make things easier on graduate students from outside the United States.

“We’ve made sure that international employees don’t have to pay any extra fees,” University of Michigan representative David Dobbie said of his union’s progress.

The guest speakers also said the unions have been helpful in keeping professors from overworking their TAs and in getting more parking for graduate students.

They also said concerns about a potential union harming graduate student relations with faculty members were unfounded.

“Where the union is, things are OK in terms of faculty-student relations,” said Chris Burgess, a University of Iowa student.

University of Minnesota graduate students in attendance said the success stories of unions in other schools encouraged them.

“It helps to hear from people who’ve actually experienced it,” said Daniel Kronemann, a University of Minnesota microbiology research assistant.

University of Minnesota geography TA Rajyashree Reddy said the meeting reconfirmed his support for a union.

“It helps to have other people to point to,” Reddy said.

University of Minnesota American studies fellow Ryan Murphy, a GradTRAC organizer, said Minnesota’s graduate students suffer from not being organized.

“We’re the lowest-paid students in the Big Ten,” he said.