Some question GradTRAC

Matt Graham

Graduate employees will decide later this month if they want a union to represent them, but some are already saying they are unsure if they want to unionize.

If the Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 receives a majority of votes from participating graduate employees, it will have legal authority to negotiate with the University.

But some graduate employees question the necessity of a union.

“This is a transient position,” said Patrick McGary, an electrical and computer engineering research assistant. “This is not a livelihood.”

McGary said most graduate students are only at the University for two to five years, and the University covers graduate employee tuition.

“We will all be paid very well for the education that the University has paid for us to get,” he said.

Ryan Murphy, a GradTRAC organizer and American studies fellow, said he disagrees with McGary’s assessment.

“The problem is, you still have to pay the bills, and you still have to take care of yourself while you are here,” he said.

Aaron Wlaschin, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Council of Graduate Students chairman, said his group has negotiated graduate employee stipends and teaching assistant duties with its department.

He said the students his group serves have benefited.

“Our department has a policy that it tries to keep salaries competitive with other chemical engineering departments,” he said.

Wlaschin said he worries GradTRAC might hinder his council’s ability to negotiate directly with the department.

“They said it won’t (hinder us), but I’m not so sure,” he said.

But Murphy said those concerns are unfounded.

“Those departmental-type organizations are still functioning and are very vibrant” at unionized schools, he said.

Questioning the issues

One of GradTRAC’s biggest issues is graduate employee health care, but some graduate employees said they already have a good health-care package. They pay the lowest health-care premiums of any employee group at the University, students said.

Ken Williams, a chemical engineering research assistant, said the University covers 95 percent of graduate employees’ health care.

Murphy said GradTRAC doesn’t disagree with Williams about the quality of the graduate employees’ health plan.

“But we want to put it in legal writing,” he said.

Murphy said that graduate employee health-care premiums have gone up since he started at the University. The University is currently pushing for a cheaper employee health package, which would place more burden on the employees, he said.

Williams, who joined approximately 20 other students to create the student group Truth About Unionization, said he is also worried the national division of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union might be more concerned with its investment than the status of graduate employees at the University.

“This is a business venture,” Williams said. “About 70 percent of the proposed $15 per month that all graduate employees will be required to pay will go directly to the national office.”

But Murphy said GradTRAC members will be paying half or less of the national union’s average dues.

“Anybody with the thought that grad students are a windfall of profit for the union should think again,” he said.

Some at the University said they are also worried the national union might be unfamiliar with “academic culture.”

But Murphy noted that, while the national union currently represents graduate employees at the University of Iowa, it represents many higher education workers nationwide.

Common concerns

Some students said they feel they will be forced to join the union.

Students said they worry only GradTRAC supporters will vote, easily securing a simple majority for the union.

If the vote passes, even graduate employees who elect not to join will be required by Minnesota law to pay 85 percent of the union dues.

“Even if they don’t join the union and they give up their voting rights, nonmembers will have to pay their ‘fair share,’ ” McGary said.

But Murphy said all graduate employees will benefit.

“At the end of the day, employees will start paying dues when we get wage increases, but that increase will offset it,” he said.

Murphy said graduate employees run the union entirely, and all political and economic decisions will be made to benefit everyone.

“We’re not going to pass anything that’s bad for grad students,” he said.