Grad assistant union will benefit U

As most members of the University community now know, graduate assistants at the University are building a union and seeking legal recognition for it. As a recent Daily editorial noted, the outcome of this effort will have consequences not only for graduate students, but also for undergraduates and for members of the faculty and staff.
While state law gives graduate assistants alone the power to decide, through an election, whether they wish to represent themselves through a union, it makes sense for everyone here to think about what sort of educational community the University ought to be and whether a graduate assistant union is consistent with that sort of community. In thinking through these questions, it is helpful to look at other universities, both those with recognized unions and those where union drives are currently underway.
Recently, a great deal of attention has been focused on the strike by graduate assistants on eight campuses of the University of California system. While the California case is important, its relevance to the situation at Minnesota is that it shows what is “not” likely to happen here. Graduate assistants in California have been seeking union recognition for the last 15 years. On each of the eight campuses with graduate assistants in the University of California system, a majority of graduate assistants have voted in favor of recognition. In Minnesota, that would be the end of the story. Minnesota law guarantees the right of graduate assistants to form a union. If a majority of University graduate assistants votes in favor of union representation, the University is required to bargain with the union in good faith. As long as the University complies with the law, and University administrators have given every indication that they intend to do so, no conflict over recognition will emerge.
In California, the situation is different. To begin with, California law is not explicit about the rights of graduate assistants. While it guarantees public employees the right to form unions, it does not speak directly to the case of graduate assistants. University of California officials have seized on this omission as a pretext for refusing to negotiate with the unions through which graduate assistants have chosen to represent themselves. University of California administrators claim that graduate assistants do not have the right to union representation.
Because of this refusal, and after a long history of seeking every available means to persuade the University of California to negotiate in good faith, University of California graduate assistants finally decided that they had no choice but to strike. This was not a decision made by a small leadership group. On the contrary, the decision to strike was made by a vote open to all graduate assistants in affected job categories. Eighty-seven percent of those who cast ballots, literally thousands of graduate assistants, voted in favor of striking.
It is worth putting the position of the University of California’s administration in perspective. Both the speaker of the California Assembly and the president pro tempore of the California Senate have called on the University of California to negotiate with the unions, saying that the University is misinterpreting state law. U.S. Representative Howard Berman, D-Calif., who, as a member of the California Legislature, wrote California’s public employee labor law, has also indicated that the University’s interpretation of the law he wrote is wrong. The intervention of these public officials helped bring the University of California and the unions into unofficial negotiations aimed at ending the impasse.
What’s more, the University of California administration’s position is at odds with the most fundamental international human rights agreement, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by virtually every nation on earth, including the United States. Article 23, section 4, states: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” International human rights agreements are binding on their signatories, and the refusal of a public institution to allow a group of citizens to enact their fundamental rights constitutes a violation of international law. California graduate assistants did not strike over a few pennies or even a few dollars; they struck in order to protect one of their fundamental rights.
Finally, California’s own Public Employee Relations Board has vindicated the unions’ position, saying that graduate assistants are employees with full unionization rights under the law. In a December ruling, the Board pointed out that it is not unions that are disruptive of the academic enterprise, but the University of California administration’s refusal to recognize the rights of graduate assistants.
The California board’s position is consistent with the experience at the 15 campuses around the country where graduate assistant unions are recognized and bargain with university administrations. The nation’s oldest graduate assistant unions are at the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin-Madison. At these institutions and others, graduate assistants have improved not only their own situations — through improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions — but those of undergraduates, by winning guaranteed teaching assistant training and limitations on class size, for example.
Because of the protections of Minnesota law, the situation here is likely to produce the benefits of union recognition without the costs of a lengthy battle to get there. Is it possible that there will, someday, be a graduate assistant strike at Minnesota? It could happen. By law though, graduate assistants and University administrators would first have to go through negotiations, followed by 45 days of mediation. Then a majority of graduate assistants would have to vote to strike. Strikes do happen, but they are exceedingly rare. Less than 1 percent of all union contract negotiations lead to strikes. Nearly all strikes by graduate assistant unions, including all of the long ones, have involved unions whose right to recognition is being denied. Even in California, the recent strike lasted just four days and did not disrupt final exams.
The thousands of graduate assistants who have signed union authorization cards have many different reasons for choosing a union. Some are primarily concerned with material conditions, because they can’t pay their rent or buy health insurance for their children. Some want to make sure that their graduate programs remain attractive to the best graduate students. Some believe that all human beings should have a voice in decisions that affect their lives and that communities are strongest when all of their members are represented. Not one, as far as I know, has joined the union-building effort based on a wish to disrupt the University’s operations or harm the quality of teaching and research at the University. Most of us have chosen to make our careers in universities precisely because we are committed to teaching and research. We believe that a recognized union will help make the University stronger. What we see at universities with recognized unions confirms this belief.
Andrew J. Seligsohn is in theDepartment of Political Science and is a GradSOC Steering Committee member.Send comments to [email protected]