Some workers with families support union

Some graduate employees said GradTRAC would help them balance the roles of student, employee and parent.

by Matt Graham

Leni Marshall said it is hard for her to give proper time to her doctorate work.

A mother of 6-year-old twin daughters, she works three teaching jobs to support her family and edits the National Women’s Studies Association Journal for free.

Masha Zavialova’s teenage children are older than Marshall’s, but Zavialova faces her own unique challenges.

Her husband cannot afford to send money to support their children, she said.

“My husband lives in Russia, and the country is in bad economic conditions,” she said.

Marshall and Zavialova are graduate employees and doctoral candidates in the University’s English department. Both are mothers who say having a union will help them balance the roles of student, employee and parent.

They said that just because teaching and research assistants are temporary positions does not mean graduate employees are not in need of a union.

“We’re here for six years,” Zavialova said of doctorate students. “That’s enough time for our kids to become adults.”

Marshall said many of the University’s graduate employees are here longer than some professors or administrators.

The University does not track how many graduate students raise children, but between 450 and 500 graduate employees have dependent contracts with the University’s health plan, said Carol Carrier, University vice president for human resources.

She said graduate students can get coverage elsewhere and dependent contracts could be used to cover “spouses and/or one or more children,” so the number of graduate students raising children could be higher or lower.

“We wouldn’t differentiate between spouse and children (in the health plan),” Carrier said.

Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 officials said they hope to gather that information.

“This is one of the reasons we want to unionize, so we can study and know these things about this population of employees,” said Ryan Murphy, an American studies fellow and GradTRAC organizer.

Multiple priorities

But multiple jobs are often a necessity for graduate employees raising children.

Marshall said it is hard to feed family members and also take care of their health.

“If you have to choose between health care and food, you’re going to choose food,” she said.

But not all graduate employees can take on extra jobs to help pay for children.

Zavialova said law prevents international graduate students from taking jobs outside the University. For someone such as Zavialova, who does not receive help from her husband, that law can make raising children while attending school very difficult.

After expenses, “I have about $300 a month to take care of a family of three,” she said.

But even for graduate students with more help than Zavialova, funds can be difficult to manage.

Aside from income from her three jobs, Marshall’s children receive support from their father, whom she has been separated from for three years.

But she said it is still difficult to provide for them.

“My kids actually want to play piano, but we can’t afford it,” she said. “It would be really nice to be able to give them what they see their friends are having.”

Marshall said many graduate students leave the University when they still have the opportunity to do a few more years of research.

She said such a move can bring graduate students more immediate funds than the University pays them but is not necessarily good for the students in the long term.

“If I can get a job next year, I’ll have to take it,” she said.

Marshall said a union could greatly improve graduate student conditions at the University.

“I’ve been in unions before, and I think that they can do a lot of good things,” she said.

She points toward the University of Michigan, which has had a union in place for more than 30 years. She said graduate students there receive a special child-care stipend. University of Minnesota graduate students do not get such a benefit.

Dissenting voices

Ken Williams, Truth About Unionization founder and chemical engineering doctoral candidate, said he does not doubt a union might help some graduate employees.

“You can always find some special cases,” he said. “But we’re trying to look at all of the graduate students.”

He said students making the minimum amount or those raising families could see a benefit from the union, but he feels GradTRAC would not serve most graduate employees.

But Zavialova said a union is needed to protect the employees who need it most.

“The University administration is afraid,” she said. “But not all the people have all the problems. A few people here have problems that need to be addressed.”

One of the big issues is health care for dependents.

“Other universities pay for dependent health care,” she said, but the University of Minnesota does not.

But Williams said he doesn’t think a union would improve dependent coverage.

Union benefits

Aside from health care and pay benefits, Marshall said the University of Minnesota also must do a better job finding summer jobs for its graduate employees.

She related a story of some international graduate students to whom the University of Minnesota promised jobs and funding for the school year.

“They paid all that money to come over here,” she said. “And guess what? No jobs.”

Zavialova said many employers on campus refuse to hire graduate students, preferring to employ undergraduates for less.

“A lot of (undergraduates) have work-study, so campus employers don’t even need to pay them,” she said.

Marshall said the most important aspect of the union is its ability to raise awareness.

“I think a lot of the time, (the administration) is not aware of our reality,” she said.

Graduate employees are often encouraged to negotiate with their departments, but “there’s no official route through the University of Minnesota that the departments can make anything happen,” Marshall said.

She said the University of Minnesota claims there is no need for a union to negotiate.

“I’m so tempted to walk into (University of Minnesota President) Bobby Bruininks’ office and say, ‘OK, let’s negotiate,’ ” she said.

Zavialova said she hopes a union will allow them to deal more easily with the administration.

“In an institution, they can only make things happen when there are procedures,” she said. “A union will provide procedures.”