The Rhetoric of Unionization

The graduate student union vote this week is important for equality.

Trent M. Kays

This week is an important one for graduate assistants, graduate instructors, research assistants and others pursing graduate education at the University of Minnesota. As a graduate instructor, I realized the importance of this event some time ago. Graduate student unionization is an issue that has reared its head before at the University, and like those other instances, this time it could change the face of the University we attend and love.

The dialogue surrounding graduate student unionization has been diverse and antagonistic. One only needs to read the various letters to the editor the Minnesota Daily has published to understand that graduate assistants, regardless of what side of the issue they fall on, are adamant that they are right. Indeed, comments posted below online versions of unionization stories on the Daily’s website are some of the most vitriolic I’ve encountered.

There is no question that many graduate students are paid at or close to poverty level wages. I’m certain there are some graduate students who have been treated unfairly, though I’m not one of them. I’ve been treated as an equal and peer by professors in my department since I first arrived at the University. However, the vote this week on whether or not to unionize is about more than ensuring fair treatment. It’s about equality and the principles on which the University was founded.

I think many often forget that our University is a land-grant university. Its original purpose was to serve and educate the surrounding population, eradicate illiteracy, work for equality and ensure the public good is not sacrificed on the altar of expediency. I’m sad to say that the University has succeeded and failed in different parts of their mission, but the greatness of the University as it exists today would not have been possible without graduate students.

The University could not function as it exists without graduate assistants who live at or close to the poverty level. Graduate assistants work in almost every area of the university while working on their education. My time at the University is limited, but that doesn’t mean my contribution is unimportant. I have no delusions of grandeur; however, I am supported by the community that surrounds me and, in return, I support and contribute to that community. This relationship can only fruitfully exist in a culture that treats its inhabitants equally.

The University certainly is entitled to suggest that a union is not the right decision for, or in the best interests of, graduate assistants. The president of the University, Eric Kaler, was blunt in his assertion in a recent email to the graduate student body: “I don’t believe that representation by the United Auto Workers union is in your best interest.” I appreciate Kaler’s candor, but I feel he’s wrong. He speaks from a privileged position within a privileged institution. Of course, Kaler wouldn’t believe representation is in the best interests of graduate assistants; he has nothing personally to lose or gain whether unionization is successful or not.

The discussions of unionization have been fraught will vitriol, hate and ignorance. Given our vocation, I’m not surprised that graduate assistants would engage in fierce dialogue. Our studies instill in us the passion for such things, but the anti-unionization advocates seem to fall into a trap that highlights the great gap between academics and blue-collar workers. These advocates argue that the UAW cannot represent graduate assistants because they represent blue-collar workers. This argument, one I’ve heard many times, is dripping with privileged snobbery.

I have no qualms with being affiliated with blue-collar workers. I would be proud to be affiliated blue-collar workers and with an organization that represents those workers, especially as long as said organization represented my interests with the same passion. For anti-unionization advocates to suggest, whether directly or indirectly, that graduate assistants can’t be affiliated with the UAW and blue-collar workers is nothing short of classism. It is shameful and antithetical to the University’s founding mission.

A graduate assistant union will help graduate students work toward equity in pay and equality in voice, and it will be achieved through a founding principle of our nation: democracy. There is nothing wrong with democracy, though the rhetoric and language used by anti-unionization advocates seems to suggest otherwise. The propagation of inequality of pay and inequality of voice across the University can no longer be tolerated. It’s time for change, and graduate assistants must be the impetus of said change.

If the goal of our university is to work for the public good and ending classism, then why should we abide them within the structure that is supposed to work for the former and end the latter? We shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t be sold a lie that this University isn’t ours. This University belongs to the people, the professors, the graduate students, the undergraduate students and many others. If there is inequity and inequality within the hallowed walls of our University, then we must ferret it out and destroy it.

This week is important, and I encourage all graduate assistants to engage in the democratic process and vote. Regardless of where they stand on the issue, it’s important for graduate assistants to take some time and vote. This is critical because we will decide a significant aspect of the University’s future.


Trent M. Kays welcomes comments at

[email protected]