Union offers graduate assistants nothing new

The ongoing debate between the Graduate Student Organizing Congress and Graduate Students Against Unionization has been, as expected, a hot topic on campus this quarter. Unfortunately, both sides have been skirting around a question at the heart of the union debate. It is not about money, paying dues, where the University ranks in the Big Ten, strikes, work environment or health care. It is about having a voice — a voice graduate students already have free of charge.
GradSOC wants everyone to believe that graduate assistants are the suppressed proletariat that must unite to gain recognition and respect. Organizers claim that higher wages, better working conditions and more encompassing health care all wait at the end of the union rainbow. They point to successes at other unionized schools saying, “That’s what we want.”
GSAU, on the other hand, claims that GradSOC has it all wrong. Graduate assistants at the University have a sweet deal. When you look at the numbers a little more carefully, GSAU members argue, the total compensation graduate assistants receive relative to cost-of-living rates is right in line with the rest of the Big Ten. Moreover, a union cannot hope to represent the divergent interests of teaching assistants and research assistants in dozens of degree programs.
Any worker, academic or not, in any field wants to make more money, to feel more secure, to garner more respect. It is the American way, the way driving our society to reach higher ends. If graduate assistants did not want more, we would be concerned.
But a union is not the best way to get it.
A graduate assistant union will create an artificial, unnecessary level of bureaucracy between graduate assistants and University administrators. Graduate assistants, indeed all graduate students, have established representative bodies through which they can lodge grievances, seek higher pay and tell the administration anything they want. The Council of Graduate Students and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly both stand ready to voice graduate assistant concerns within the current framework of the University. Were union organizers to have put the same amount of effort into these bodies that they have squandered proclaiming the benefits of a union, considerable changes might have been affected by now.
Furthermore, a union comes with a cost. Union members will face annual dues, a large portion of which will go to state and national union affiliates, as well as the prospect of a strike sooner or later that will disrupt our academic environment and potentially alienate faculty advisers. This is not worth an organization that offers little more than what all graduate students possess today.
The only reason graduate assistants should vote for a union is if they genuinely believe the administration is evil or that administrators want to exploit graduate assistants for their own wicked, capitalist ends. Yet this is not the case. Graduate assistants must abandon such paranoia and work with the University by means of organizations already in place. Graduate assistants already have a united voice, they need only take advantage of it. When graduate assistants receive their voting cards in April, they should choose to stick with the united power they already have.