Union proponents can still work for good

The issue of graduate assistant unionization has finally been resolved this week, but not even those who opposed the Graduate Student Organizing Congress should find much cause to celebrate. The fact that 1,200 or so students felt strongly enough to vote for this union is a fact we should not walk away from.
I watched the vote count on Tuesday and felt the atmosphere in the room grow heavier as the student observers from GradSOC watched the “no” votes accumulate. I saw the tears in the hallway and the devastated looks on the faces of these students. I have been there; I know what it’s like to have poured heart and soul into an intense political campaign for something that I believed in deeply, only to have the same sort of outcome. In the midst of that painful moment, it is important that we reach out to our graduate student colleagues and make an effort to reconcile the divisions that this campaign created. Some damage has been done, but it is not irreparable.
The vote defies simplistic analysis. Students voted both for and against the union for a variety of reasons; some principled, some pragmatic. In the coming days and weeks, students who were active in GradSOC will have to remind themselves why they joined the campaign in the first place. They should resist carrying bitterness or resentment away from this experience because that would benefit no one. The vote was not close, and the turnout was high. The result can be taken as a clear reading of the sentiments of graduate assistants, whatever their reasons. But to reject the union is not to reject the goals that we all share. For many, this was a dispute over means, not ends.
To those who simply wanted a union independently of its goals, or who got caught up in the national movement, there is not much to say. But those who supported the union as a means to achieve some worthwhile goals can and should continue to pursue those goals, from the strong position that we have within governance and consultation at the University. The Council of Graduate Students and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly are national models of strong and effective graduate involvement and advocacy, but their agenda is set by those who show up and choose to participate. Graduate assistant’s issues have always been high on the agenda, and COGS has done a very good job of representing those interests.
COGS’ constitutional mandate is both its strength and its vulnerability, however. It is a governing body and will continue to advocate the interests of graduate students, regardless of how many of us choose to participate. The way to make it stronger and more responsive to specific concerns is to increase participation.
Some have said the union campaign reflected COGS’ lack of awareness of graduate assistant concerns. It might be more accurate to say that much of the support for the union was a reflection of many graduate assistants’ lack of awareness of exactly what governance is about and what we can accomplish if we unite and use our position within the University effectively. COGS will put more resources into orientation and outreach, but graduate students also must take it upon themselves to find out more about it.
Graduate students in every department are asked each year to elect and send representatives to the COGS General Assembly. Those representatives carry forward the concerns of graduate assistants within their departments and carry important information back to their constituents. In those departments where graduate students do not self-organize, we ask the department’s director of graduate studies to identify someone to represent their interests in COGS. We also encourage graduate students to connect their involvement on departmental committees with their COGS involvement in order to maximize effectiveness at both ends. Yet, out of nearly 200 departments with graduate students, only about 140 choose to elect representatives to COGS, and only 40 to 50 attend each General Assembly meeting.
It is important to let the union campaign be over, to leave behind the rancor and division and to take a positive approach. It might take some time for the wounds to heal, but it is in the interests of all graduate students to come together now and use the means at hand to achieve our shared goals.

Barbara VanDrasek is the executive vice president of COGS and a graduate student in geography.