Kelly Hildebrandt

Graduate assistants are currently earning support for a union vote that could pave the way for better wages and health care.
The card-signing drive, organized by the Graduate Students Organizing Congress, started in August and has until February to acquire the minimum number of signatures needed to win a union vote.
Better wages, a binding contract and a cap on student fees are just some of the issues GradSOC wants to address if a union is formed.
Graduate assistant unions are not uncommon. The University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have both had unions for many years. In fact, this will be the second time graduate students at the University have attempted to unionize. The first was about 10 years ago when the drive failed to gain enough support.
“Until University officials respect the work we do, it is unlikely that we’ll persuade them to give us the wages we deserve,” said Andrew Seligsohn, a member of GradSOC’s steering committee.
A union would give graduate assistants a general voice in the decisions that affect their working conditions, said John Schampel, a GradSOC member.
“I just think collective bargaining is, in the long run, in the best interest of the graduate students,” said Leonard Goldfine, a research assistant in educational policy and administration.
This September marked the beginning of the new health care plan for graduate assistants. The plan offers students dependent coverage for the first time along with better mental health and dental coverage.
The success of the health plan has demonstrated that GradSOC has power, said Aylin Altan, the congress chairwoman of the Graduate Assistant Health Insurance Committee.
Christine Maziar, dean of the Graduate School and vice president for research, is also working on improving graduate assistant stipends. These stipends pay for tuition and provide a cash supplement for graduate assistants.
“I was pleased to see the dean has concerns about these issues,” Seligsohn said about the student stipends, adding that any improvements are welcome.
“Even if there are short-term changes made, we have no guarantees that those will be maintained,” Seligsohn said, referring to the union drive 10 years ago when graduate students first got health benefits.
The Graduate School made those health care improvements because it was the right thing to do, said George Green, associate dean of the Graduate School, adding that he hopes to also make improvements in stipends.
Maziar declined to comment on the union drive because she said she doesn’t know enough about the issue.
The drive
Currently, GradSOC has 600 members and 1,227 signatures, Seligsohn said.
To get a union vote, GradSOC needs signatures from 30 percent of the 3,700 graduate assistants. To be eligible to sign a card, students must be graduate assistants, which means they must be teaching or research assistants for the University. GradSOC members said they would like to surpass the 30 percent minimum and obtain signatures from 65 percent of the graduate assistants.
After the signatures are obtained, the Bureau of Mediation Services reviews the signatures to be sure they are legitimate. The bureau then ascertains whether there is enough support to hold a union vote. To start a union, graduate assistants must secure 50 percent of the vote plus one, said mediator Pete Obermeyer.
Graduate assistants and the University would then start bargaining over a contract. Obermeyer said this doesn’t necessarily mean they will need a mediator.
“Generally, the organizations start out face to face,” Obermeyer said, adding that the bureau doesn’t enter all bargaining relationships.
If either side does opt for a mediator, a mediation services representative would work with both sides either jointly or separately to “attempt to craft a settlement,” Obermeyer said.
Support for the union is somewhat mixed. A research assistant in biological sciences said he doesn’t know much about the union because he is graduating soon. He said one problem is students are coming and going so fast that it is difficult to find support.
Seligsohn said the amount of signatures they have gotten is evidence that people support the union and he doesn’t think the graduate assistant turnover rate will affect support.
“While we’re here, we need decent wages,” Seligsohn said.
The Council of Graduate Students has elected to stay neutral on the subject of unionization, said Martin O’Hely, president of COGS.
In the event of a union vote, O’Hely said COGS student representatives would vote on whether to support the union.
The issues
Although GradSOC doesn’t have an official platform yet, there are several improvements they would like to see, including better wages and capped student fees.
“Those improvements would make the University of Minnesota a better place,” said Seligsohn, adding that wage improvements would be a primary goal.
Seligsohn said teaching assistant wages are $1,700 less than the Big Ten average; an average assistant makes about $10,000 per year.
Health care is another issue GradSOC would like to improve. “The plan itself is a great plan,” Altan said. “It’s still pretty expensive to insure dependents.”
Under the new plan, assistants are covered 100 percent. With the new plan, the University pays $60 for additional dependent coverage, which amounts to about 30 percent to 50 percent of the cost, Altan said.
Non-graduate employees at the University are also covered 100 percent, but the University covers about 80 percent of dependent coverage, Altan said.
“Graduate students only make $10,000 a year and Yudof makes $200,000,” Altan said, adding that she feels graduate assistants should be treated like employees.
A student fee cap is another issue that will be covered. The issue was brought to the forefront when the College of Biological Sciences added a $100-per-quarter computer fee to graduate students.
Schampel, who is currently working to rescind the fee, said the students were given no warning that the fee would be added.
Graduate assistant student fees used to be $160 per quarter, Schampel said; the increase brings the cost to $260 per quarter — about a 60 percent increase.
Undergraduates have been charged the computer fee for about two years, Schampel said, adding that there was no assessment done to determine if graduate students use the computers.
“In our department, virtually no one uses these machines other than e-mail,” Schampel said.
Other college unions
There are many universities throughout the country that have graduate assistant unions. The University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are two examples.
In the past, both of these colleges have grappled with the same issues GradSOC is currently dealing with.
The University of Michigan has been recognized as a union on and off since 1975, said Chip Smith, a union member.
At the University of Michigan, health coverage has been a major issue and still is. Assistants get full coverage and have the option to choose from about six different plans, Smith said.
The University of Michigan’s contract runs out February 1999, and health care is something they hope to improve, Smith said. Dental benefits, child care and benefits for same-sex dependents are some issues they want to address, he added.
The University of Wisconsin’s graduate assistant union, established in 1969, is the oldest collective bargaining unit for graduate assistants in the country.
M.J Curry, a union member at the University of Wisconsin, said graduate assistants have health coverage that is equal to the faculty.
Wages have also been an issue at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Curry said Wisconsin is at the bottom of the Big Ten as far as wages go. The assistants’ low wages were created through a pay cut when the full tuition waiver was created, Curry said.