Should grad students have a union?

Multiple authors



This week, graduate assistants will be voting on whether to unionize. The election is the culmination of an effort of several semesters that has involved many players and organizations, so the effort is worth recapping.

Graduate students are voting on whether to be represented by a union called Graduate Student Workers United/United Auto Workers. Union organizers started the process of organizing by gathering union authorization cards signed by graduate assistants; getting 30 percent of graduate workers to sign these cards would allow them to file for a union election.

There was a second path to a union as well. If organizers collected union authorization cards from a majority of graduate students, they could ask University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler to sign a joint petition to form a union and bypass the election process. Organizers collected the required cards and asked Kaler to sign the joint petition; Kaler refused. Anticipating Kaler’s refusal, organizers filed for a union election with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services at the same time.

We, the Minnesota Daily Editorial Board, found both a joint petition and a union election to be democratic routes to forming a union. A joint petition required a majority of graduate students to sign cards, and a union election will require a majority of graduate students who vote to vote in favor of a union.

In our opinion, the unionization effort is a reaction to University decisions and decision-making processes that are undemocratic and lack transparency. Some recent examples include mandated furloughs for all University employees, a decision made by central administrators who ignored dissenting views. The Graduate School was also recently decentralized without proper communication or transparency. As we wrote recently, “It’s natural for graduate students to feel powerless in the wake of these decisions. Democratic reforms like unionization make a lot of sense in response to an autocratic management style.”

The election will take place over five days, and there will be different voting locations on each day, which can be found at Below are opinions on whether graduate students should unionize from graduate students themselves and other members of the University.  Some are excerpts of previously printed letters to the editor or guest columns, and some are new opinions. Many of the letters have multiple authors — to see the full list of authors for each letter, visit

The idea of these letters is to present the currents of argument that have been represented in the Editorials & Opinions section about the graduate student union over the course of months from a variety of speakers with a variety of opinions. We have received more letters and a wider variety of arguments in support of the union, and the section below reflects that rather than trying to split the space into exactly equal chunks. It is our impression that most graduate students are in favor of a union, but we also believe graduate students should have as much information as possible and understand the potential pros and cons of a union before voting. If you want to understand more about how the union election came about, The Minnesota Daily’s previous news coverage can be found by clicking on the “Union” header in the Topics section of




GAPSA not sufficient for grad students

President Eric Kaler recently wrote the following to the graduate research and teaching assistants at the University of Minnesota: “We are an academic community. We actively seek broad-based input through University-wide committees and governing bodies such as COGS [Council of Graduate Students] and GAPSA [Graduate and Professional Student Assembly]. At the same time, our graduate assistant appointments are predicated on individualization. … We would prefer to continue to work directly with each of you to provide you with competitive wages and benefits; obtain your input on committees; and support your advanced learning, teaching, and research.”

We are writing as current members — and one recent  member — of the Executive Board of GAPSA to clarify some points about our organization that we feel have been misrepresented by the University Office of Human Resources and by Kaler. Research and teaching assistants are a small percentage of the group GAPSA represents: the graduate and professional students of the University. We represent the graduate schools, but we also represent professional schools such as the Carlson School of Management and the dental, medical, pharmacy and law schools. We have no role in negotiating wages and benefits to any person employed by the University. Only a union gives graduate assistants the power to negotiate these priorities and secure a legally binding contract to protect them.

These functions fall outside of the mission, goals and power of student governance at our University. We also feel this falls far outside the scope of the Office of Conflict Resolution, as Office of Human Resources has suggested.

Although our organization is neutral, we as individuals are strong supporters of the democratic values of collective bargaining and organized labor. As individuals, we encourage you to support these values with us by voting yes for the Union Graduate Student Workers United/United Auto Workers next week or by encouraging your peers who have a vote to vote yes.

President Brittany Edwards
Vice President for Grants Dana Meade
Vice President for Programming Joseph Matson
Vice President for Public Affairs Chet Bodin
Vice President for Student Affairs Nicole Conti
At Large Director for Student Affairs Amit Singh
Former Vice President for Student Affairs Adair Rounthwaite


Union won’t help

Our group, Graduate Students Against the GSWU, is unaffiliated with the University of Minnesota administration or with union organizers. We will support whatever decision is made next week, but we outline here our reasons for voting no to unionization.

The most important reason is that, given the financial state of the University, it is unlikely a union will secure salary, benefit or other monetary increases from the University. There are not large, untapped sources of money that a union working on our behalf could access. If there were, we suspect that one of 11 unions currently representing workers on campus would have already done so. Instead, these unions have had to accept furloughs, pay freezes and layoffs while graduate students without a union have been the only group to receive pay raises during the financial crises of the past few years.

Given the fact that we are in graduate school, money is not our only concern. We are also concerned about the conditions of our workplace, whether they are labs, classrooms or offices. We require concessions from the University for sick leave, family leave, health/dental coverage and many other policies. These concessions have, however, already been made in good faith by the University in order to make our University more attractive to prospective graduate students. Additionally, the University limits the work load a teaching assistant can be assigned, sets a minimum pay that each TA must receive and provides a mechanism by which graduate students can resolve disputes regarding any of these policies, or anything else related to the graduate student experience.

The subject of dues is very important for many students since the $200 to $350 annual fee that the United Auto Workers charges can add up over five or six years. For most of us, this is more money than we pay for our health coverage. Furthermore, these dues represent the only change that union organizers can guarantee will occur if we are unionized. The distribution of this money is also a problem — at a minimum, more than half of dues will leave the University community to fund the UAW International, with the remainder going to the local union chapter. Students who disagree with this distribution would have limited options for opting out of this fee; everyone would be required to pay at least the “fair-share” fee and, by trading away their voting rights, would still be required to pay up to 85 percent of member dues.

The unionization effort is based on good intentions from people whom we consider our peers. However, the fact that they are not able to point to a graduate student population that is oppressed by the University makes us wonder if such a group exists. Organizers express concerns that the University may start mistreating graduate students and at that point, we will need a union. In response, we point to the fact that the University graduate students have voted down a union three times in the past 22 years (1990, 1999 and 2005). If the University had been mistreating graduate students during that time, our predecessors would have enlisted the support of a union for protection. The fact that they did not supports an unbroken trend of support of the graduate student population by the University.

Graduate Students Against the GSWU — multiple authors

[Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of a longer letter. To view the letter in full and its more than 100 signers, visit]


Int’l students can speak for themselves

A point that keeps recurring in the debates about graduate assistant unionization is the position of international graduate students. Anti-union pundits argue that many international graduate assistants have been intimidated by other graduate assistants organizing for the union. Notably, this issue almost never gets raised by international students who say they themselves have been harassed but by American students “defending” international students who are supposedly unable to speak up. As international students, we find this rhetoric troubling.

The notion of international students who have been too polite or intimidated to fend off scary Graduate Student Workers United organizers is somewhat bizarre. International students are capable of speaking for themselves and of defending their ideas to colleagues. Reinforcing stereotypes that they are silent and passive is, frankly, condescending. The ways that unionization will impact international graduate assistants are the same ways it will impact other graduate assistants.

As international graduate assistants in favor of unionization, we do not have any illusions that a union contract will miraculously triple our pay or eliminate any and all conflicts between graduate assistants and their advisers or principal investigators. What we do believe is that it will create a higher baseline of respect for graduate student work than currently exists. Too often graduate assistant labor is treated by departments, whether intentionally or not, as an infinitely extendable and expendable resource.

Assistantships that radically exceed the number of appointment hours, or those for which working hours are not even kept track of, can have major consequences for students’progress towards a degree. They also have consequences for graduate assistants’ abilities to engage in activities, such as publishing and presenting at conferences that are essential to success on the job market. Regardless of what gets negotiated in the contract, unionization will at the very least make departments aware that graduate assistant labor is something that needs to be negotiated and not just dictated.

Merle Ivone Barriga Ramirez, theatre arts and dance

Shankar Krishnan, aerospace engineering and mechanics

Niels Niessen, comparative literature

Adair Rounthwaite, art history

Amit Singh, aerospace engineering and mechanics


Corporate-style University fights unionization

The drift of the University of Minnesota toward the corporate model has been inexorable and undeniable. In general, it has been an unwholesome and detrimental direction. There are undoubtedly strong forces pushing the University in this direction. That does not make the movement in this direction a positive development.

The drift toward the corporate business model can be seen in the increased use of contractual academic professional and administrative appointments instead of tenured faculty, the growth of administration in terms of budget and personnel and the increased micromanagement that comes with this, and the increasing disparities in pay for the administration compared with the rest of the employees at the University. And we now learn  of the use of costly leaves and golden parachutes for high-ranking administrators at the very time that course offerings are being diminished, faculty pay is frozen and furloughs are forced.

None of these decisions and dispositions of resources have been done with the active — as opposed to pro forma — consultation of faculty or any other of the important components that comprise this institution. The result of our administration acting alone is an embarrassing spate of unfavorable publicity, which affects all of us.

A corporate-leaning administration opposes organized graduate assistants (and faculty) as a matter of course. In my opinion, our University and our state would be better served by welcoming shared governance with graduate assistants, faculty and staff and increasing the focus on our basic research, education and service missions.

Steven Sperber

mathematics professor


Union unnecessary

I don’t understand the pro-union position where the University of Minnesota administration can, on a whim, slash all pay and benefits to graduate assistants. Why would they do that?

Graduate assistants are the lifeblood of the University. Cutting their benefits would only exacerbate problems since the University would have a harder time recruiting graduate assistants. It’s more likely the University would hire fewer graduate assistants rather than cut funding to the current ones.

Union supporters should accept that graduate assistants occupy a relatively low position on the academic totem pole and understand that this is all temporary.

Sam Blass

University student


University should pursue cooperative relationship with grad assistants

Many labor historians accept majority certification of a union as the most effective and democratic way for employees to form unions. This is because employers frequently use union elections as an opportunity to aggressively campaign against the union. Unfortunately, as evident in testimony from graduate assistants who were around during the last union drive, the University of Minnesota has a history of fighting graduate assistant unionization.

Seth Berrier, a doctoral candidate and research assistant in computer science and engineering, explained, “Politically, the University was well prepared to wage war against grad student unionization. They did so with a calculated campaign of misinformation that would have done any GOP candidate proud. Their negatively charged prose came primarily in the form of direct emails from the Department of Human Resources. They promised doom and destruction in a world of grad student solidarity. It was clear that they were frightened by the strength we would possess.”

From a letter sent by the current Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor leader Sen. Thomas Bakk to President Eric Kaler, it appears that practices haven’t changed. Bakk wrote, “It has come to my attention that you have posted a document on your website about the graduate assistant union drive, entitled, ‘Frequently Asked Questions About Unionization.’ In this document you claim that a union cannot improve health care, rate of pay, job security and workload. As you know, by law these are mandatory topics of bargaining. Your characterization of the union as being unable to ‘improve’ these terms and conditions of employment misrepresents the important gains in wages, benefits, rights and protections that all employees may achieve through collective bargaining.”

The University administration will turn over a new leaf in its institutional history and embark upon a productive, cooperative bargaining relationship with the graduate assistants that they rely upon so heavily to fulfill its research and teaching missions.

Bruce Braun

professor, Department of