Graduate assistants have no need for a union

Realistically, I can’t imagine how the University can show greater appreciation for assistants.

For several months, Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 has organized a remarkable campaign. On three different occasions, representatives have approached me to argue their case; each time I shared my views and concerns with them. But this is no longer a theoretical debate – next week, it comes to a vote, and whatever the outcome, we are all in it together.

Before we demand changes in our employment, we should realistically assess how we are treated as graduate assistants. The typical assistantship is a “50 percent appointment,” meaning that the student should expect to work 20 hours a week for the 39 weeks of fall and spring semesters.

In the current academic year, the minimum salary offered for a 50 percent appointment is $10,806. Beyond that, our tuition is fully paid – $8,174 for two semesters. Students like me who are from other states also get a nonresident waiver, worth $7,100. Totaling those, the hourly wage becomes $33.40 per hour. Believe me, I wasn’t earning that while working as a part-time bank teller before grad school. Even if we exclude the tuition benefit, this comes to $13.85 per hour, also better than my teller job. But at the bank, I didn’t receive any health benefits. The University annually spends $2,160 per graduate assistant to provide us with good health insurance, not to mention heavily subsidized coverage for spouses and children.

As employees, I’d say that we are being treated quite well, especially because being a graduate assistant isn’t exactly grueling labor. If you came to the University expecting a part-time graduate assistantship to offer the pay of a full-time job, you will always be sorely disappointed. We didn’t come to grad school for this employment but for future opportunities. Most of us consider those future jobs to be so valuable that we have been willing to borrow money to pay for the needed education.

Even if we are being treated well, perhaps union negotiations will force the administration to treat us better. Let’s consider the principal demands made by the union:

In my three years of teaching at the University, my department has demonstrated consistent concern and support for its teaching assistants. Sure, I’d feel all warm and fuzzy if the department gave us each an iPod; but realistically, I can’t imagine how they can show greater appreciation while still pushing us to accomplish our duties.

Unfortunately, the number of teaching assistantships depends on student course enrollment; similarly, research assistantships are only as plentiful as the grant money obtained by the department’s faculty. The union will not be able to control either of these factors, so they cannot promise or get the administration to promise that there will be enough positions for all of the department’s students.

Their only influence might be in how the available positions are allocated among the students. I’d hate to see any bureaucratic rules hamper the way our director of undergraduate studies, Simran Sahi, has allocated TA posts in the economics department. From my observation, she has been reasonable and equitable in her assignments, basing these on the graduate students’ preferences, teaching ability and the department’s needs.

This might surprise you, but the administration has regularly delivered annual raises to graduate assistants even without pressure from a union. In five of six years, our minimum salary has been raised, roughly maintaining the same inflation-adjusted value. For next year, University President Bob Bruininks has secured for us a sizeable 10 percent increase. I highly doubt that collective bargaining can squeeze out any more than that.

This illustrates a crucial point: A union isn’t a prerequisite to having good work conditions. Too often, we think in terms of unions taking on the big bosses of industry and delivering protection for defenseless workers. That might have been true early last century, but it is hardly applicable for skilled jobs in today’s competitive work environment. The employer needs us as much as we need them. A superb example is in my wife’s first job as a registered nurse: She chose to work for a hospital where nurses are not unionized. Yet her hospital provides equal if not better compensation and benefit, and was recently identified as one of the best places in Minnesota to work in health care.

Before we cast our ballots, we must consider the direct cost. If unionization succeeds, every grad student becomes a union member and is required to “contribute” monthly dues, estimated to be $15 per month worked. That’s $135 to $165 per year for most of us. (Does anyone else recall the complaints last year when we had to pay $114 of our own yearly insurance premiums for the first time?) It’s clear to see why the union is excited about this unionization; with 4,500 graduate assistants, they can count on up to $742,500 per year. Of that, more than two-thirds will be sent to the national union office – nearly half of $1 million.

Can the union deliver enough to justify that cost? It is highly doubtful. I see the union as a speculative venture, with unlikely rewards but unavoidable costs – and if unionization is approved next week, those costs will hit every graduate assistant. We will all have to deal with the new policies that the union signs into our contracts. This is not a time to let others decide on our behalf; we must each weigh the issue ourselves.

Brennan Platt is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]