Panel talks grad union specifics

The panel pointed to potentially high turnover rates to state their case.

Cali Owings

After the administration’s attempt at union discussion failed, a panel of union organizers, deans, human resources representatives and experts discussed graduate assistant unionization Monday night.
Students had approached the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Council of Graduate Students to hold an information session, but student government was unable to approve the information sessions in a timely manner. Bree Dalager, an officer from GAPSA, took it upon herself to start the discussion by inviting experts to speak and answer questions.
Since debate around the topic has been heated, Dalager was careful to have the discussion moderated by a professional parliamentarian. Though there have been outbursts at student government meetings and talks with the administration, the audience members during the session were not allowed to participate vocally.
Strict regulations regarding the panel were in place to prevent demonstrations from interfering with the discussion.
Venkat Durbha, a research assistant in mechanical engineering, said the session was “amicable,” and he hoped students who were on the fence about unionization had a better understanding of what the union can do for them.
Several panelists pointed out that a graduate assistant union would have high turnover rates as people complete their programs and the decisions students make about the union today would affect students enrolling in graduate programs in the future.
To Durbha, who will finish his program this year, it is an opportunity to “leave a good system in place” for the students who come after him.
The panel outlined some of the potential benefits and costs of a union.
Under a union contract, students could negotiate a floor for teaching and research assistants’ salaries. But potential improvements are not all wage-based.
Students could utilize collective bargaining in standardizing the expected workload of graduate assistants, creating health benefits packages and improving other working conditions such as safety.
Cecilia Aldarondo, with United Auto Workers, said unionization is mostly about giving graduate assistants a seat at the table when decisions are made and reproducing the best practices across departments.
To Rajan Vatassery, a third-year chemistry graduate student who is opposed to unionization and participated in the panel, said any of the union’s benefits would be outweighed by its cost.
“The only thing they can guarantee is they will take 1.15 percent of my salary,” he said.
Graduate assistants who choose to be represented by the union would pay 1.15 percent of their total salary in dues to UAW. Since individuals can opt out of union membership in Minnesota, students who decide not to join the union would likely pay up to 85 percent of the dues required of members.
However, the union would still be obligated to bargain equally for fair-share members who are not part of bargaining unit.
Dalager said this was the first of more information sessions to come since many left with questions still unanswered.
There is no timeline for when the union will be put to a vote, but signatures from students are valid only for six months from the signing date. Union organizers have told the Minnesota Daily they had collected enough signatures to hold a vote.
Patti Dion from the Office of Human Resources said the University would prefer to work with students directly regarding their concerns, but is not anti-union. She said University employees were represented by 11 different unions.