Grad assistant union debate spawns GSAU

With the graduate assistant unionization election a little more than a month away, it is time for all graduate students to think hard about the costs and benefits of unionization. As with any issue of importance, there are two sides to the unionization debate. Until now, the only unified voice on this issue has come from Graduate Students Organizing Committee, the organization that wishes to become recognized as our graduate assistant union. Therefore, several of my peers and I have come together to form Graduate Students Against Unionization.
Our purpose is to educate graduate students about the negative outcomes of unionization and to ensure a vigorous debate of the issues. Our concerns about graduate assistant unionization are too numerous to list here but are discussed in detail at our Web site, However, there are three key features of a union which will affect all graduate assistants: union dues, unrecognized diversity and the creation of a rigid work environment.
All graduate assistants who join the union will have to pay union dues. Much of the dues is used to pay affiliation fees with state and national labor unions. GradSOC is affiliated with four other unions: the NEA, the AFT, the AFL-CIO and Education Minnesota. These affiliated unions will decide how much GradSOC will owe them in affiliation fees; we graduate assistants have no say in that. GradSOC members would only be free to decide how much money they want to collect in dues over and above the affiliation fees.
GradSOC itself estimates that our dues would run between 1.5 percent and 2 percent of each member’s salary and admits that dues “will be relatively high.” Taking the median hourly graduate assistant wage rate, assuming a 50 percent appointment, and applying a dues rate of 1.5 percent, the average graduate assistant would expect to pay nearly $250 a year in union dues. If the dues rate is 2 percent, that figure jumps to $325 per year. For most graduate assistants, that’s nearly two months worth of groceries or more than half a month’s rent.
According to Minnesota state law, GradSOC can charge nonmembers 85 percent of the union dues as a fair-share fee. Because the union is negotiating a contract on your behalf, even if you don’t want them to, you will be compelled to pay a “fair share” towards the union. By choosing to pay only the “fair share” fee and not the union dues, you lose out on your right to choose GradSOC’s leadership and to vote on the contract that will govern your working conditions.
Now, when you put it all together and multiply the individual dues by the number of graduate assistants at the University–approximately 4,000 — GradSOC will raise more than $1 million in union dues each year. Sadly, somewhere between 50 percent and 75 percent of that money will be sent off to those affiliated unions and will not go to the direct benefit of graduate assistants at the University.
Under GradSOC’s union, both an English teaching assistant and a neuroscience research assistant would be subject to the same contract and the same work rules. Obviously, the needs and concerns of these two individuals are vastly different, and there is no way that a single binding union contract can effectively represent their disparate interests. In fact, the interests of RAs and TAs are sometimes at odds with one another. A single union cannot effectively defend the interests of both TAs and RAs.
While current mechanisms of graduate student representation such as Council of Graduate Students may be less powerful than a union, they ultimately preserve the diversity of the campus through a representative process which allows problems to be addressed on a department by department basis.
One of GradSOC’s biggest campaign promises is to improve graduate assistant pay. GradSOC’s ability to do this is questionable at best, since any pay raises would have to come through negotiation with the University. The University is not obliged to pay us more just because we unionize. In order to bring about increased pay, GradSOC will need to enforce strict working hours rules. This is a nearly universal union practice and is even done by teachers’ unions. The idea is to prevent unionized workers from providing additional labor without an according increase in pay.
GradSOC suggests that excess workload problems be resolved in the same way that they are handled at the University of Michigan — by increasing the graduate assistant’s appointment. However, there’s a wrinkle to this. Many RAs and TAs at the University are international students and hold either F-1 or J-1 visas. Under federal immigration law, holders of those visas cannot work for pay for more than 20 hours a week. Therefore, most foreign students would be legally prevented from holding the larger appointments which unionization would indirectly create. Not only would these international students be receiving less pay than their American counterparts, they would be subject to the union’s rigid work hour rules.
Instead of simply receiving a paycheck every two weeks, graduate assistants would now be filling out time cards or punching in and out of time clocks. Will your advisor have to sign your time card each week? Think of the hassle you would face if one week you forgot to submit your time card on time. One of the things that many graduate students enjoy about the academic environment is its informal working conditions which include flexible hours, unspecified vacation and sick days, and the ability to do some work at home.
There are many reasons why graduate assistants should think twice about forming a union. There is no doubt that GradSOC’s campaign promises sound good and the intentions of GradSOC supporters are generally well-meaning. As always, the devil is in the details. The combination of local, state and federal laws will combine with union policies and procedures to create a bureaucratic nightmare that will ultimately hurt many of the individuals GradSOC seeks to help. After all, most graduate assistants who have been hurt under the current system have not been injured by malicious University administrators but by the University’s unbending and unmanageable bureaucracy. Why then should we add one more layer of bureaucracy to the mix? GradSOC would tell you that this bureaucracy will be on our side, but bureaucracy is rarely ever on anyone’s side but its own. Remind yourself how much of our money GradSOC will be sending to state and national union affiliates and then decide whether a union will be on your side or its own.
Paul Enever is a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization which is a group of graduate students who oppose GradSOC’s drive to unionize graduate assistants at the University.
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