Former regent: Grad union is necessary

Steve Hunter, former regent, 2005-2011 secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO

 

This week, graduate research and teaching assistants from the University of Minnesota are voting to decide if they will certify a union. Not surprisingly, the pro-union graduate assistants have faced more than a few obstacles in their two-year drive for a union. This election is the last hurdle.

In a letter he sent to alumni recently, President Kaler said, “From public health to agriculture, from engineering to law, from philosophy to medicine, the University can attack and solve the challenges facing Minnesota, the nation and the world. That should be our calling. Efficient, effective and engaged, the University of Minnesota will continue to change the world.”

Graduate assistants in every department Kaler mentioned are contributing to those world-changing efforts. Closer to home, many of the same graduate assistants are also trying to change the University: They want a union. They want a voice in their own workplaces. They want to negotiate on an equal footing with the University to determine the terms and conditions of their work. These graduate student workers want a democratic workplace.

This is scary stuff for managers at the University who have trouble welcoming unions or workplace democracy. I believe a graduate assistants’ union would lead to positive changes, not just for graduate assistants but for the University as a whole.

For starters, a graduate assistants’ union could change and strengthen the University’s efforts to recruit outstanding students for its graduate programs. As a former regent, I’ve watched the fierce intercollegiate competition for talented scholars. Leading schools work to recruit talented graduate students who can contribute to their schools’ academic reputations and research while they work on advanced degrees. At the same time, talented students look for the schools that offer them the best opportunities for academic, professional and personal success.

The administration’s continuing opposition to workplace democracy clearly conflicts with its mission and efforts to recruit outstanding, multi-talented scholars. It seems to tell those who will help shape the academic, governmental and corporate institutions of the future that democracy — in the workplace at least — is unnecessary. That’s a toxic message that diminishes a great University formed to advance democracy in our state and throughout the world. Minnesotans deserve more.