GradSOC planning for upcoming union election

by Kelly Hildebrandt

These days, the Graduate Students Organizing Congress is busy trying to establish a platform for negotiating a contract if a graduate assistant union is elected this spring.
To do this, GradSOC has sent out a 10-page survey to all graduate assistants and established work groups that all graduate assistants are welcome to join. Each work group has a specific focus, such as wages or health care. Members will research how the issue was negotiated at other schools, as well as talk to University graduate assistants to come up with a concrete idea of what they want, said Melinda Jackson, a GradSOC member.
The election date for a graduate assistant union hasn’t been set yet, but it is expected to be in April or May. To win a union, 50 percent plus one of the graduate assistants who vote need to be in favor of collective representation by Education Minnesota. Roughly 4,000 research and teaching assistants are eligible to vote.
Although GradSOC is just starting to develop the platform, the key issues so far are wages, workload and a clearer graduate assistant job description, Jackson said.
Opposing views
Graduate assistants who responded to the GradSOC survey indicated they think they should at least be paid the Big Ten average, Jackson said. Currently, University graduate teaching assistant wages are ranked seventh and research assistant wages are ninth in wages in the Big Ten.
One common question that arises when talking about increased graduate assistant wages is where the money will come from.
“Money at the University is very limited,” said Paul Enever, a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization, a new student organization that recently formed as another information source on the union election.
One possible ramification of increased wages, Enever said, is fewer graduate assistant positions at the University.
But the University can request a large budget from the state Legislature and choose to allocate more of it to raise graduate assistant wages, said Curt Leitz, a GradSOC member.
“We haven’t been made a priority in the past,” said Matt Basso, a GradSOC member.
Many of Basso’s colleagues take on extra jobs to make ends meet, which he said affects their education and teaching and in turn affects undergraduate education.
Graduate assistants at the higher end of the pay rate are often concerned that they will take a pay cut if a union is elected. However, GradSOC supports raising both the ceiling and floor of graduate assistant wages, Jackson said.
While forming a platform, GradSOC is trying to get everyone involved because if a union is formed, it would be legally bound to represent all graduate assistants, not just members.
“We want this to be a radically democratic union,” Jackson said, adding that means getting as many assistants as possible to participate.
To accomplish this they are continuing conversations with graduate assistants and trying to get people from all University departments involved with the work groups, Basso said.
“When we do win — and we will win — every department will have representation,” Basso said.
Teaching vs. research
GSAU members don’t think GradSOC has reflected the diversity of graduate assistants at the University. GradSOC doesn’t reflect the difference between research and teaching assistants, Enever said.
One issue GradSOC plans to negotiate is graduate assistant workload, which is different for research assistants than it is for teaching assistants.
While teaching assistants often work with someone other than their adviser and on topics not related to their theses, research assistants often work solely toward their degrees, Enever said.
Regulating work hours, which is one of GradSOC’s issues, could then prolong the time it takes a research assistant to get a degree, Enever said.
For example, Enever is only paid for 20 hours a week but often works about 40 to 60 hours.
“I don’t want that choice to be infringed upon,” Enever said of his work schedule, adding that if a union is elected it could legally enforce strict graduate assistant hours.