Anti-union sentiment spurs debate

Kelly Hildebrandt

In the wake of a six-month-long signature-collecting drive and with a union election just down the road, a newly formed group is hard at work dispersing information against a University graduate assistant union.
Graduate Students Against Unionization, an official student organization consisting of more than 100 graduate students, began its crusade in early March.
The new organization is not opposed to unions — even graduate assistant unions — but opposes a union run by Graduate Student Organizing Congress, said Paul Enever, one of the founding members of the anti-union organization.
“They’re well-intentioned, but they haven’t thought of the implications,” said Dan Olschki, also a member of the organization.
GradSOC began rallying for a union election last summer. Although an exact election date hasn’t been set for the approximately 4,000 graduate assistants on campus, an election is likely around May.
The union would be affiliated with two national teachers’ unions as well as Education Minnesota, a local affiliation.
To win an election, 50 percent plus one of the eligible graduate assistants who vote would have to do so in favor of a union. The only graduate assistants at the University eligible to vote are research and teaching assistants.
GradSOC officials say a union would help increase wages, as well as improve the health plan and grievance procedure.
“There is something in it for all graduate students,” said Matt Basso, a member of GradSOC. “There is something in it for the skeptics.”
GSAU’s opposition to GradSOC stems from many factors. Enever said GradSOC hasn’t done an adequate job informing graduate assistants at the University and that many graduate students aren’t knowledgeable about what a graduate assistant union would mean.
“I personally think when they have all the facts they will think it is a lousy idea,” Enever said.
Although GradSOC received signatures from more than 50 percent of graduate assistants during the union drive to win a vote, Enever said this doesn’t secure a union victory in the fall; it only indicates that graduate assistants want to have a union vote.
The primary issues GSAU members are concerned about are the membership fees GradSOC would charge if a union is elected and the differences between research and teaching assistants.
Fair share fees
If graduate assistants vote for collective bargaining, those who decide to join the union will have to pay dues. However, under state labor laws, non-members will also be charged up to 85 percent of the member rate, which is called a fair share fee. A union is legally bound to represent all graduate assistants and not just members.
“A lot of graduate students think if they don’t join, they don’t pay,” Enever said.
Based on other graduate assistant unions, GradSOC officials predict fees will be no more than $200 per year for members.
On other campuses, about 45 percent of those fees go to affiliation costs. But at the University, about 60 percent of graduate assistants’ union fees will go to union affiliates.
The higher number comes from GradSOC’s affiliation with two national labor unions, while most unions only have one national affiliation.
Also, since the bargaining unit is much larger than other graduate assistant unions, it costs more to maintain. The University’s bargaining unit would consist of about 4,000 graduate assistants; the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s is 2,600 and the University of Michigan’s is 1,600.
“That’s a lot of money to give away to an outside organization,” Enever said.
Researchers vs. teachers
Another concern GSAU officials have is that GradSOC hasn’t recognized the differences between research and teaching assistants, which span everything from workload to health care.
Although both the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have unions that represent both teaching and research assistants, many graduate assistant unions only represent teaching assistants. These include the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
However, GradSOC officials say they are trying to build a platform that will represent everyone by putting out surveys and creating work groups about the major issues so students can voice their opinions.
Additionally, more than 50 percent of research assistants signed cards saying they wanted a union election, Basso said.
“We want as many people involved as possible,” said Melinda Jackson, a member of GradSOC.
Enever said the major difference is workload. Teaching assistants typically work with a faculty members other than their adviser on material that isn’t related to their theses. Research assistants typically work with their advisers on a topic directly related to their theses.
If graduate assistant work hours are restricted through a union, research assistants’ work time is limited, Enever said, possibly extending their stay at the University.
Although he is only paid for 20 hours a week, Enever said he often works up to 60 hours each week.
“I don’t want that choice to be infringed upon.” he said.
But GradSOC officials say they have no intention of regulating work hours unless graduate assistants have a problem. Additionally, they said there is no way of enforcing such strict regulations.
“It’s up to the graduate worker to file a grievance,” Basso said.
Currently, many graduate assistants are being paid 20 hours a week but work much more, which is part of being a student, said Amy Galford, a member of GradSOC.
“My concern is that I have to accept their word on that,” Enever said, adding GradSOC hasn’t addressed the issue in their constitution.
Edgar Johnson, a member of the graduate assistant union at Iowa, said although the work is different, in his experience, research and teaching assistants share many of the same concerns such as wages and health care.
“The nature of the jobs are different but the conditions of the job aren’t,” Johnson said, adding that university employees often have more common concerns than not.
Monetary issues
In addition to workload, wages are also different, Enever said. Typically, research assistant wages come out of grant money whereas teaching assistant wages are taken out of departmental funds.
If wages are increased, more will come out of grant money as well as department funds, which could have a number of effects, including a decrease in the number of research assistants, Enever said.
A lower number of research and teaching assistants could then lead to a higher student/assistant ratio, which leads to lower undergraduate education level, Enever said.
In turn, the reputation of the University would fall, as would the ability to bring outstanding undergraduate and graduate students to the University, Olschki said.
“Then it becomes a vicious circle,” he said.
In addition, Enever said many students already have direct input into their pay rates and if a union is formed they would lose that.
But GradSOC members maintain that a union will financially better graduate workers, and that at unionized schools like Iowa, employment rates are rising while the University’s are decreasing.
From 1993 to 1997 teaching assistant positions at the University decreased 16 percent while research assistant positions decreased 27 percent, according to a GradSOC newsletter, which was confirmed by University’s Institutional Research and Reporting.
At Michigan, where the union only represents teaching assistants, positions declined less than 1 percent. Teaching assistant positions at Iowa declined less than 2 percent while research assistant positions declined less than 9 percent.
Finally, GSAU members say the differences between research assistants and teaching assistants even go as far as health care.
Research and teaching assistants working 20 hours a week pay for half their health care and the University pays the other half, said George Green, associate dean of the Graduate School. The University pays the full health care costs for graduate assistants working more than 20 hours.
A percentage of the graduate assistants’ salary is taken out and put into the fringe rate in order to pay for the health care, Green said. Typically, research assistants have year-long appointments while teaching assistants have academic year appointments of eight months, which means research assistants end up paying more into the fringe rate.
Is there another way?
Although Enever says there are problems at the University, he believes they can be solved without a graduate assistant union.
“If as much energy as has been put into GradSOC as the Council of Graduate Students we could have solved these problems a year ago,” Enever said.
Enever cited the recently improved health care plan as an example of how changes can be made without a union. In fall 1998, COGS and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly successfully lobbied for improved health care for all graduate assistants.
In addition to the Council of Graduate Students, GSAU members say the Student Legislative Coalition has been an effective lobbying group at the state Legislature and that petitions and rallies are also an effective way to bring about change.
“We all have a voice, we don’t need to pay someone else to speak for us,” he said.