by Kelly Hildebrandt

Both University officials and graduate assistant union organizers are saying that the other has breached state labor statutes intended to ensure a fair graduate assistant union election this spring. Neither side has taken official action against the other, preferring to work out the problems through discussion.
University officials say they’ve received complaints that union organizers have visited graduate assistants at their work sites to discuss union issues, which violates the guidelines. Graduate Students Organizing Congress members say e-mail messages sent out by University administrators misrepresent their rights.
Union supporters want increased wages, better health care and an improved grievance procedure for the more than 4,000 teaching and research assistants eligible to vote.
To win a union, 50 percent plus one of the total number of eligible graduate assistants who vote must vote yes to collective bargaining representation by Education Minnesota. The state hasn’t yet set the date of the election, which is expected to be held spring quarter.
The University must follow guidelines issued by the state Bureau of Mediation Services in a maintenance of status quo order, which prevents officials from promising or threatening changes in graduate assistant work conditions depending on whether they support the union.
In addition, the University and the Graduate Students Organizing Congress must follow guidelines in the Minnesota Labor Relations Act, which prohibits discriminating against graduate assistants if they support the union and prohibits union organizers from visiting graduate assistants while they’re working.
“The main purpose of the order is to have a fair, level playing field,” said Josh Tilsen, a BMS mediator.
The University has received complaints that union supporters have visited graduate assistants at their work sites to discuss the union election, said John Erickson, director of employee relations and compensation.
GradSOC member Curt Leitz said the organization is careful not to disturb graduate assistants when they are working, but because assistants have no set hours it is sometimes difficult. Upon the University’s request, organizers have also tried not to disturb co-workers during visits, said GradSOC member Melinda Jackson.
If students feel their workspace has been intruded upon they can talk to the General Counsel or call Employee Relations, said George Green, associate dean of the Graduate School.
Erickson said he has discussed it with GradSOC members and hope the issue is resolved.
However, GradSOC has some complaints of its own.
The University circulated several e-mails over the past few weeks to encourage graduate assistants to keep informed about the issue and to vote, Green said.
In the e-mails Erickson says that the law doesn’t obligate University officials to negotiate on matters of inherent managerial policy including “overall budget, utilization of technology, organizational structure, class size (and) workload,” among other things.
While GradSOC members concede they can’t negotiate budget, technology and organizational issues, they believe class size and workload are negotiable. It’s common for graduate assistant unions to negotiate these two points, Jackson said.
Because GradSOC feels Erickson’s statement might violate the maintenance of status quo, members have contacted Erickson to talk about the issue.
“The University can inform its graduate employees, but they aren’t allowed to create misleading information,” Jackson said.
Since negotiation of class size and workload are two things GradSOC organizers have told graduate assistants they intend to negotiate, they feel it is a misleading statement.
“Hopefully, it’s just a misunderstanding,” Jackson said, adding that GradSOC feels the University has been putting a concerted effort into informing students.