Graduate workers’ union will have power

Graduate unions work. They are the only way for graduate, teaching and research assistants to guarantee themselves an equal voice in the decisions regarding our working lives. While in many ways the University does well by its graduate workers, we face significant problems that the University administration has shown itself unwilling to rectify time and again.
Graduate workers at Minnesota are not alone; our peers across the country are also demanding the right to collectively bargain contracts that provide guaranteed improvements in working conditions, wages and benefits. Among the many current graduate union drives, there will be no less than 10 elections this spring around the country. Fundamentally, we all demand the same thing: the material respect and stability afforded our peers at unionized schools like the Universities of Massachusetts, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Here are the facts. The University is ninth in the Big Ten for graduate assistant wages. According to the University’s own Office of Planning and Analysis, last year the average University research assistant made $1,706 less than the average research assistant in the Big Ten, while the average University teaching assistant made $1,319 less. Graduate workers at unionized schools like Michigan and Iowa made the most. Disturbingly, the decline in graduate worker wages at Minnesota — six years ago we were in the middle of the pack — has coincided with a precipitous decline in graduate assistant jobs. According to the same OPA report, over the last four years, the number of teaching assistant positions has declined 16 percent, more than five times the Big Ten average; research assistants have fared even worse, losing an astonishing 27.5 percent of positions. Contrary to what some might believe, unionized graduate workers at Big Ten schools have had the most success in protecting their jobs. Indeed, Iowa has even increased its research assistant positions while gaining perhaps the best wages in the conference.
As well as protecting their jobs and wages, graduate workers at unionized schools have also won significant improvements in their health care coverage. At Michigan, graduate workers choose between eight different plans, many of which include free coverage for spouses and dependents. Here, in an effort to keep our health care cheap, the University only asks providers to guarantee their rates for two years. Because of this our coverage has continuously changed. Only once, last year, when GradSOC activists along with COGS effectively demanded changes, have they made improvements. Yet the current plan falls substantially below what graduate workers and their families need. Graduate workers, especially international students who cannot supplement their income, simply cannot afford decent coverage for their spouses and children. Only a union can negotiate a long-term solution to these problems.
In a series of recent e-mails, copies of which also appeared in graduate workers’ home mailboxes, John Erickson, the University’s director of Employee Relations and Compensation, has presented information which can be taken to imply that a union is notthe answer to graduate-worker problems. Interestingly, he has done this while presenting himself as a neutral advisor on the matter. I and many other graduate workers across the University wondered about our inability to unsubscribe from Erickson’s e-mail list, as well as who was paying for the postage on these 12,000 pieces of mail. However, these are matters of secondary importance to the less than neutral message contained in his correspondence. Each of Erickson’s letters implicitly contended that the University’s graduate students do not need a union because the administration would continue to take care of us. One can only imagine that Erickson was alluding to the substantial across-the-board wage increase for graduate workers that the University announced in January. Yet this wage increase only brings the University up to the Big Ten average; it does not cover losses to inflation over the last 6 years and is being funded by the $2.56 million surplus built up during five years of over-charging departments for the fringe-rate on graduate workers’ salaries. The increase does not directly cost the University and is only guaranteed for two years. This is not a commitment to graduate workers.
Virtually no wage increases for more than five years, then a large increase just prior to a union election? Coincidence? I think not. In fact, the last time graduate workers received mysterious letters from the administration promising to make us a University priority — and the first time we were granted health care benefits — was 10 years ago during the last union drive. Graduate students trusted the administration’s promises and gave them a second chance. Our predecessors made a mistake.The administration has not earned our trust. It has no track record to suggest the improvements they promise will endure. In order to guarantee graduate workers a wage that keeps pace with cost of living increases, in order to win improved health care for ourselves and our families, and in order to guarantee ourselves the stability and respect we deserve, we must empower ourselves.
Over the last two years, GradSOC volunteers have had more than 10,000 conversations with graduate workers about their working lives. GradSOC is a grassroots movement. Our conversations, unlike Erickson’s three e-mails, were informal and did not carry the prestige of Erickson’s high office. We could not, and did not, promise the world. Instead, we listened as peers and noted the successes other graduate worker unions have had in addressing some of the same problems we face. Hundreds of us created a vital organization that did research, took surveys and, above all, continued to share ideas and talk to other graduate workers. Naming our desire to have a guaranteed voice in the decisions about our working lives, 2,500 of us signed cards supporting GradSOC. We are not asking for the world, just what we deserve. Only a union — our union — through the power of collective bargaining can negotiate a fair contract with the University. On April 15, graduate workers should vote to empower themselves by voting for their union — by voting GradSOC.
Matthew Basso is a GradSOC member and graduate student in the Program in American Studies.