Graduate students consider unionization

by Douglas Rojas

More than 20 University graduate students from several departments joined together Thursday in observance of a “National Day of Action” to raise awareness and support for efforts to unionize graduate students on campus.
Members of the Graduate Student Organizing Congress distributed literature and collected signatures for a petition at several sites on the Twin Cities campus. The goal was to get the word out to other graduate students and members of the community to encourage support for a graduate student union.
The main purpose of national organizers was to find out what concerns other graduate students have about their working conditions and to explain the benefits a union might bring.
“It can really be a very productive thing,” said Matt Basso, a graduate student in American Studies and a member of the congress. A union, he said, “will give us a voice in how decisions are made regarding either graduate students and even larger issues.”
According to Basso, the University often makes decisions affecting graduate students without consulting with them. Basso cited a cap administrators last year placed on the number of credits for which graduate teaching assistants can be reimbursed.
A union would address issues of job security, excessive workloads, fair wages that reflect the amount of work of graduate students, and improvements on health coverage, Basso said.
Currently, some graduate teaching assistants find out whether they will be teaching courses in a given quarter only after the quarter has begun. Basso said that situation makes it hard for graduate students to plan their own work and academic schedules.
About 40 percent of the classes at the University are taught by graduate students, and their salaries vary between departments. A union would seek to establish an equal salary distribution among graduate students, Basso said.
During the day’s events, reaction to the idea of a graduate student union fell across a broad spectrum, said Todd Michney, a graduate student in History and a congress member.
“Most people were at least willing to talk to me for a second,” Michney said. “Very few people said ‘no way,'” he said.
Matt Hansen, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, said it might be true that graduate students don’t get fair pay, but experience and knowledge are the most important rewards that graduate students receive. Hansen is concerned that a union might change graduate students’ relationships with advisers and undergraduate students. Nevertheless, he said, “I would like to know more details about it.”
In 1991, graduate students held a union election and turned down unionization. Today’s union advocates said the ’91 election turned too much on the issue of health benefits, so when the University granted improved insurance to graduate students, the union had little support.
During nation-wide observance, more than 30 campuses across the United States joined in a protest to show their support for graduate student unions.
There are currently 12 legally recognized graduate students unions in the country, including those representing graduate students at Yale and the University of Michigan.
Students at Michigan joined in the national observance, even though they already have a union. “We want to show our support for schools that are forming unions,” said Darcy Leach, a Michigan graduate student and national press coordinator for the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. “Most people don’t know what’s going on with university graduate students,” she said.
Officials of the coalition, which represents graduate students employee unions, said they have heard in recent months from at least 20 campuses wanting to start unions.