Strength found in affiliates for GradSOC

by Kelly Hildebrandt

During the next month, graduate assistants will decide if they want the Graduate Students Organizing Congress to be their exclusive representative at the University.
But when graduate assistants mark their ballots, there will be a slew of other affiliates — local and national — standing behind GradSOC.
The structure of a union is complicated. There are organizations on the local, state and national level.
GradSOC is the local organization trying to organize graduate students. Education Minnesota is the state affiliate, while the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers are the national affiliates.
Add to that the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which is a confederation of unions across the country, and GradSOC’s bargaining unit is complete.
Matt Basso, a member of GradSOC, likens it the National Football League: a bunch of teams working together.
“Just as collective strength is true for individuals, that’s true for unions as well,” said Melinda Jackson, also a member of GradSOC.
If graduate assistants vote for GradSOC, they will automatically be represented by all these organizations, said Ray Mackey, regional director of the AFT.
Paul Enever, a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization, said he objects to Education Minnesota representing graduate assistants, although he has nothing against the organization itself.
Because of GradSOC’s affiliation with both the NEA and AFT, along with the AFL-CIO, Enever said the graduate assistant union would be more expensive than other unions.
Although the exact fee structure hasn’t been determined, all graduate assistants would have to pay dues. Those who do not choose to become members of the organization could pay up to 85 percent of the membership fee, known as a fair share fee.
However, this is much lower than regular dues, Jackson said. Because graduate assistants make less than regular educators, they only pay 25 percent of what any other union member would pay.
GradSOC officials have stipulated that fees would be no more than $200 per year.
State affiliation benefits
A lot of students have misconceptions about unions, Basso said. They should be asking what they have done for us already, not what they are going to do, he said.
An improved work environment, health care and greater input into the educational system are some of the things Education Minnesota can do for graduate assistants, said David Moracco, an Education Minnesota employee working with GradSOC.
“I think for a long time the value of graduate students has been understated,” he said.
Official representation with Education Minnesota would provide a number of services, including help with bargaining a contract and legal services, Moracco said.
First, the fees all graduate assistants pay would provide them with liability insurance, something Moracco said is important at a research institute.
Second, Education Minnesota provides a grievance procedure for all graduate assistants if they have problems or complaints, he said.
A number of full-time staff members would also be hired to field questions graduate assistants may have about the union and what benefits they are entitled to.
In addition, Education Minnesota will provide lobbying services for graduate assistants at the state Legislature.
“We have 4,000 members here,” Moracco said. “The issues that can be resolved through Legislature would become very important to Education Minnesota.”
NEA/AFT benefits
University graduate assistants would also have the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association lobbying for them at the federal Legislature.
The AFT, which has 1 million members, has a higher education division as well as the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals.
The alliance is a collaboration of all graduate assistant unions in the AFT, including the University of Michigan and the Madison and Milwaukee campuses of the University of Wisconsin, said John Curtis, former president of the Michigan union and member of the alliance.
The primary function of the group is to help graduate assistants organize a union and act as an advocate for graduate assistants in the AFT, Curtis said.
Currently, the biggest issue in higher education is the loss of tenure track jobs, Curtis said. Fewer tenure-jobs means more adjunct faculty, and graduate assistants are relied on to teach and do research.
Both the NEA and AFT are predominantly made up of K-12 educators. Although Enever said there may be a relationship between K-12 teachers and teaching assistants, there is no relationship with research assistants.
The structure of Education Minnesota, which has 65,000 members, is further muddled by a recent merger. In 1998, the AFT and NEA merged at the state level. Thus, the Minnesota Federation of Teachers and the Minnesota Education Federation became Education Minnesota.
There have also been talks of a merger at the national level. However, at the last Representative Assembly meeting, the NEA voted against a merger.
Moracco said the issue of merging the national affiliates will be discussed at the next NEA Representative Assembly meeting this summer.
Since the merger, the NEA has created guidelines for Education Minnesota.
Because Education Minnesota now has two national affiliates, they must pay dues to both organizations.
Education Minnesota must pay the full dues they owe to NEA for the 1998-99 membership year, in addition to AFT fees.
Because Education Minnesota can’t pay both the NEA membership fees and the AFT fees, the NEA allocated them a $2 million paper loan, to be paid back in installments.
At this time, Education Minnesota isn’t paying back the loan, Morocco said.
Another reason Enever is opposed to Education Minnesota representing graduate assistants is because of this loan. He believes Education Minnesota will charge graduate assistants higher dues to alleviate the debt.
But Moracco said the loan will not have an effect on graduate assistant dues.
Although nothing is set in stone, Moracco said they are anticipating a merger at the national level, at which point the paper loan would be resolved.
Why Education Minnesota?
Three years ago, GradSOC began investigating their options.
“We didn’t just say to ourselves, ‘A union is the way to go,'” Basso said.
In addition to seeking union affiliation, GradSOC investigated seeking representation independently, as well as creating a group similar to the Council of Graduate Students. After visiting a number of schools, they found those with unions were the most successful, Basso said.
When GradSOC chose its affiliation, Education Minnesota hadn’t been formed yet. They chose AFT to be their national affiliate; when the merger occurred, they had no choice in the matter. That’s why graduate assistants will have two national representatives.
Although seeking representation independent of state and local affiliates was an option, they quickly realized it was next to impossible, Basso said.
Due to the magnitude of this campaign — 4,000 graduate assistants — Basso said it would have been hard to talk to everyone involved. For the drive to be successful they would need someone willing to fund a lengthy campaign.
The two unions they looked into were Education Minnesota and The United Electrical Workers. Education Minnesota was chosen because it was the largest in the state and it has a strong presence in the Minnesota education system, Jackson said.
Enever said that although he realizes the need for affiliation, he believes GradSOC representatives should have waited longer to choose which organization would represent graduate assistants.
He cited the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as an example. They waited until after the card-signing drive to decide.