University graduate employees will decide next month if they want union representation.
The state’s Bureau of Mediation Services approved a request last week to hold a vote from graduate student employees across the University. It will happen April 11-15.
The Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 filed the request. It has been seeking to unionize the University’s teaching and research assistants.
To create a union, a majority of the approximately 4,500 possible voters must approve GradTRAC as the official organization to represent them in labor matters.
If passed, “the vote will basically give us a government mandate saying that the University has to negotiate with us,” said Ryan Murphy, a union organizer and American studies fellow.
University officials had hoped for an election through mail-in ballots after finals week. The state rejected that request, because it felt on-campus balloting would improve turnout, Murphy said.
“The government’s job is to maximize the number of people voting,” he said.
Murphy said many graduate students would be out of the area after finals and might not be reached by a mailing.
Carol Carrier, University vice president for human resources, said the University felt it would be more convenient for graduate students, who are often not on campus, to have a mail-in ballot.
Carrier said the University is neither for nor against any potential union but questions the necessity of one.
She said teaching and research assistants’ dual status as students and employees makes them “a special employee group.”
“We think that the notion of direct interaction between graduate students and their department Ö probably yields a much better working environment,” she said.
She also expressed concern at the “mixed reaction” received by the University of Iowa’s
graduate student union – the other graduate employee group represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America – about the group’s lack of familiarity with “academic culture.”
Despite the concern, Carrier said the University of Minnesota encourages graduate students to participate.
“We believe very strongly that every graduate student who could be impacted by this should be well-informed and should vote,” Carrier said.
Karen Buhr, vice president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, which represents graduate students in student government, said GAPSA could not take a position on unionization because the group represents too many different interests.
“Our only job is going to be to provide information to our students,” she said.
Phyllis Walker, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, said her union supports GradTRAC.
She said there are currently 4,500 unionized workers on campus. GradTRAC would double that number.
“The more people who are unionized, the stronger we all are,” she said.
Murphy said he expects graduate employees to be more supportive of unionization than they were in 1999, when they voted against a similar measure.
He said this year’s vote has a better chance because the current movement has been during one academic year, minimizing the graduate employee turnover that hurt support for the last vote.
Murphy also said the recent economic downturn has made the union a necessity for graduate students.
“The University (of Minnesota)’s budget picture isn’t quite so rosy,” he said