Academic backgrounds bring perpective to union voting

by Kelly Hildebrandt

While differences still remain between pro- and anti-graduate assistant union factions after Tuesday’s union election defeat, most agree that the differences between the sciences and humanities played a major role in the outcome.
The state Bureau of Mediation Services announced Tuesday there would be no graduate assistant union at the University. About 3,000 of the eligible 4,000 graduate assistants voted in the month-long, mail-in election; 1,298 voted for a union while 1,713 voted against it.
Although Graduate Student Organizing Congress members said a majority of graduate assistants signed cards indicating they wanted a union election, the polls didn’t show the same enthusiasm for collective bargaining.
“Obviously, some people changed their minds,” said Curt Leitz, a member of GradSOC.
GradSOC’s inability to convince graduate assistants in the science and engineering departments that a union could benefit them played a key role in Tuesday’s loss.
Additionally, the University’s announcement that they will increase graduate assistant wages, as well as a belief that organizations are already in place to represent graduate assistants affected the outcome of the election.
Sciences vs. Humanities
Traditionally, in campus union drives the engineering and science departments are against collective representation while the humanities are in favor of it.
That was the case in this union drive, where one of the key issues was graduate assistant wages. Many engineering and sciences graduate assistants questioned why they needed union representation when they were already satisfied with their wages and working conditions.
In humanities departments, graduate assistants are usually at the bottom of the pay scale, while engineering assistants are at the top.
In the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences, research and teaching assistants get paid about $16,500 each year, said Beverly Harren, senior administration director, and they generally receive a raise on a yearly basis.
In the Department of Political Science, however, graduate assistant wages are a bit lower. A graduate assistant teaching one course is paid about $10,500 for an academic year of nine months, said Cheryl Olsen, assistant to the department’s chairman. Typically, they also receive a raise on a yearly basis.
This was also the case in the faculty union drive two years ago. In an informal poll done after the election, it was estimated that Institute of Technology members voted against the union two to one.
“Engineering and physical science people are on the whole satisfied with their working conditions,” said Dave Olschki, a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization.
To compensate for this discrepancy in support for the union, Leitz said GradSOC members tried talking to engineering and science students about what a union could do for them.
Olschki said the split between the sciences and humanities wasn’t just a wage issue, but also a difference in teaching and research assistant needs. In the sciences, research assistants are more prevalent.
GSAU members were concerned that a union would be geared toward teaching assistants. The main argument was that if a union enforced strict work hour restrictions, research assistants’ theses work would be hindered, possibly prolonging their stay at the University.
GradSOC members told graduate assistants that if a union was created, research assistants would be in the majority, Leitz said.
Many students Olschki spoke to before the election didn’t think a graduate assistant union could represent all students.
Giving in to demands
As in past elections, the University made concessions during the campaign that likely affected graduate assistant votes.
In November, Graduate School administrators announced they would be raising the basement level pay scale by about $1 per hour for graduate assistants. The change was because of a surplus in tuition fringe benefits.
John Erickson, director of employee relations, said the decision to increase graduate assistant wages had been decided during a Board of Regents meeting some time before the union campaign heated up.
This increase followed suit with other University union elections. Just before the 1974 election, the administration created the Council of Graduate Students to act as a representative for graduate students. In 1990, the administration enacted a health plan for graduate assistants, which was the driving force of the union campaign.
Leitz said when GradSOC started the campaign, members expected the University to make these concessions, although it didn’t change the organization’s campaign strategy.
“Their record continues to be unblemished,” said David Moracco, a coordinator with Education Minnesota, GradSOC’s state affiliate, adding that the University has a well-known record of fending off union-organizing efforts.
These improvements are coupled with an e-mail message Graduate School Dean Christine Maziar sent out in late April. Although the message didn’t tell graduate assistants to vote against a union, it said she felt students were more likely to achieve their goals with faculty and administration within the current “nonadversarial structure.”
“It was a conscience issue,” Erickson said of the message, explaining that Maziar wanted students to know how she felt about the issue.
He added that the message was dispersed late enough in the election that it’s difficult to say whether it had much of an effect.
“I thought it was rather underhanded,” Leitz said about Maziar’s letter, adding if he were someone unaware of Minnesota’s labor laws, he would have thought the dean was telling him not to vote against the union.
When GradSOC was granted a union election, the state Bureau of Mediation Services issued a maintenance of status quo order, which prohibits the employer from promising or threatening changes in graduate assistant work conditions depending on whether they support the union. The order doesn’t stipulate that the employer cannot discuss the issue of unionization with the employee.

Alternatives to the union
GSAU’s short but influential campaign drive against the union in the months before the election created more dialogue about the issues at hand.
“I do think it is easier to tear something down than build it up,” Leitz said of GSAU’s two-month anti-union campaign.
Olschki said the key goal of GSAU was to disseminate more information about the GradSOC union and to create dialogue.
Although GradSOC campaigned for two years, Olschki said it wasn’t until right before the election that people really started paying attention.
Leitz said it is difficult to say how important GSAU was in deciding the outcome.
GradSOC’s loss leaves graduate assistant representation up to COGS and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. During the campaign, many graduate assistants questioned the ability of the two organizations to represent graduate assistants.
“If change is going to happen, students have to get involved,” said Cheryl Jorgensen, former GAPSA president. She added that although there has been a lull in GAPSA’s activity, it has increased in the past year.