Students are missing the facts in education

When GradSOC began their petition drive to bring a graduate assistants’ union to a vote, I thought most graduate assistants would eagerly embrace the opportunity to have a stronger voice in the decision-making process at the University. I was wrong. Without a crisis to serve as motivation, the two most common reactions to unionization from graduate students are yawning indifference and strong opposition.
I can somewhat understand the indifference. Most graduate students are too busy juggling the frenetic pace of their own lives in the pursuit of their degrees to carefully consider the ramifications of unionizing the University’s 4,000 graduate assistants.
According to Tamara Joseph from the GradSOC, there are exactly 4,000 graduate assistants, with a current GradSOC membership of around 2,200.
What puzzles me is the adamant opposition. Some believe the University’s graduate assistants should simply adopt a “put up or shut up” approach to their situation in exchange for the privilege of pursuing a degree, and apparently dropping out is a viable option for students dissatisfied with their compensation.
The most common reasons for opposing GradSOC’s efforts include satisfaction with current compensation and conditions of employment; not wanting to pay dues for services (representation) they did not ask for; a belief that the mission of the national union affiliate is incompatible with their interests and fears that unions breed corruption. I believe these arguments are based on prevailing misconceptions about unions and not the facts.
Compensation. Perhaps union opponents do not know that graduate assistant wages at the University have declined both in real terms and in Big Ten ranking in recent years despite a good economy. Although many graduate assistants consider their current health care coverage adequate, the two-year contract cycle means frequent changes can be complicated and problematic for many students. For example, a Ph.D. student attending for six years could have three different health plans. This means changing doctors three times. Other smaller issues are increased computer fees and limits to the number of credits a graduate assistant’s tuition benefit covers.
Conditions of employment. The cold, hard reality of employment is this: If you are not in a union, or do not have a personal written contract, you could be fired tomorrow for no reason whatsoever. Without a contract, you are considered an “at will” employee and your job security could depend on the mood of your boss. Even though my current boss is the salt of the earth, this idea of being completely at the mercy of my boss’ arbitrary decisions is frightening — and I’d be even more frightened if I were married, had children and owned a house.
Terms of employment also include perks such as vacation and sick pay. But employers without union resistance often have control over how and when these perks are used. Sometimes this control is abused. At some companies, an employee can be fired for “inappropriate use of sick time,” like using sick time as it accrues. Obviously, employers benefit when their employees simply allow their sick time to accumulate, because, unlike vacation pay, sick time is usually not paid out when an employee quits.
Dues. Union dues pay for medical and life insurance services and also proactive services such as negotiating salary scales. Even non-union members benefit from services like starting salaries. The dues that go to the national and international affiliates provide benefits to all workers in a broader sense. Some work-related legislative initiatives with strong union backing are minimum wage increases, workers’ compensation, the Medical Leave Act and OSHA standards.
National affiliate. National union affiliates commonly cross over into new industries. Although this makes some strange bedfellows, it should not cause alarm. When the United Steelworkers of America union first attempted to organize group homes many believed the steel company cared less about the developmentally disabled community — all they wanted was money from membership dues. But now, the steelworkers union has developed a strong commitment and reputation in representing the health care sector of their union.
GradSOC’s potential affiliation with the joint efforts of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers makes sense because professional educators make up their core constituency. In addition, NEA/AFT has a long history of working with graduate assistant locals, including the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan. In fact, the addition of graduate assistants to the union’s statewide chapter, known as Education Minnesota, could give higher education a stronger voice at our state Capitol.
Corruption. Corruption is probably the most ominous factor regarding unions. Fears that their dues might end up financing fat cat salaries and Cadillacs for union officials are justified. Jimmy Hoffa’s reign leading the International Brotherhood of Teamsters proved this could happen. Now, given the democratic participation within most union locals, this is unlikely.
For a graduate assistants’ union, the chance of corruption is even less likely. The temporary nature of graduate school almost ensures that the rotating elected leadership would not become entrenched enough to become corrupt. However, members would likely stay around long enough to pass on enough relevant information to create an institutional memory for graduate assistants, which facilitates the ability to learn from previous negotiations.
Next week, GradSOC will officially file a petition for the graduate assistant union election that will likely take place this spring. A graduate assistant union might not have an immediate impact on graduate assistants, but this is not just about immediate gratification. It’s also about what a graduate assistant union means for future University students. A union is not about one specific issue or grievance, it’s about ensuring representation and having a voice in the decision-making process.
Ed Day’s column appears every Thursday