Grad students rally for a union

Alan Bjerga

Graduate students and labor activists celebrated the “real” labor day Thursday with a rally on Northrop Mall supporting a University graduate student union.
Speakers ranging from historian Peter Rachleff to representatives of local unions addressed labor issues, focusing on the continuing efforts of the Graduate Student Organizing Congress to unionize University graduate students.
Student labor organizers held the noon rally on May Day, which is a workers’ holiday in many countries, to “bring out the message that grad students are concerned about the University and its workers,” said Jay Wendelberger, a history graduate student and event organizer.
“We’re serious about this movement,” Wendelberger said. “And we’re serious about what we’re doing.”
At its first meeting last November, the graduate student congress was a group of about 20 students representing five departments. Now it is an organization with about 150 students in 30 departments, with varying degrees of involvement. The rally drew an audience that fluctuated between 50 and 100 people throughout its two-hour duration.
Although organization activists say they are pleased with the increased interest, official recognition as a collective bargaining agent remains a lofty goal. About 4,000 students are classified as potential members of a graduate student bargaining unit at the University. To meet their goal of gaining collective bargaining for graduate students, organizers will have to win the support of at least half of them.
The recent University faculty union vote, which narrowly failed despite widespread faculty dissatisfaction with proposed changes to tenure, shows the difficulty of this task, Wendelberger said. But, he added, graduate students may have more tangible reasons to unionize than faculty.
“Grad students are more clearly workers,” Wendelberger said. “They get paid starvation wages, get a bad health care package — these are much more clear interests for organizing.”
Organization efforts have included regular meetings and such observances as last February’s “National Day of Action,” when about 20 graduate students distributed literature and collected petition signatures as part of a nationwide campaign supporting graduate student unions.
Also this week, the organization launched the “GradSOC May Day Webpage Guerrilla Action,” an attempt to get people to change the Internet home pages of campus computers to the Graduate Student Organizing Congress home page.
University union efforts are part of a national trend toward unionized graduate assistants. A graduate student strike across the University of California system last fall brought no response from California administrators, but did bring national attention to concerns about student salaries and working conditions. Currently, a court case involving Yale’s graduate student union is addressing whether students teaching at private universities are officially students or employees under federal labor laws.
University union organizers cite an imbalance between workplace responsibilities and benefits as the main reason for a union.
“We have some really solid issues,” said Sarah Laslett, an American studies graduate student and composition instructor. “The pay scale hasn’t been adjusted upward since 1991, health benefits don’t cover families, we don’t have a set grievance policy, and many University facilities aren’t up to safety codes.
“Since we’re recognized as public employees, we have a right to a union,” Laslett said.
Whether that right should be exercised is a point of contention for some University officials who are concerned with the effects a union may have on relations between administrators, faculty members and graduate assistants.
“There are concerns among university administrators nationwide that entering into an employee-employer relationship through collective bargaining endangers the collegiality of people who work together,” said Graduate School Dean Mark Brenner.
“It’s important to remember that graduate students are students and employees. They’re gaining professional training while they’re studying … their experiences vary across departments, and (administrators) try to deal with their individual needs through open communication.”
A major disadvantage of a union, Brenner said, is that having a collective bargaining agent eliminates the individual voices of graduate assistants. Also, a union would only be for graduate student workers, while current representative organizations — the Council of Graduate Students and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly — represent all graduate students.
“We have to look at how unions relate to other organizations,” Brenner said. “I think what’s most important is open communication, and we work very hard with COGS and GAPSA to meet graduate student concerns. They’re a high priority.”
Wendy Grebner, a vice-president of the Council of Graduate Students, said her organization has not yet fully examined the relationship it would have with a graduate student union. “(A union) is in a very formative stage right now,” Grebner said. “We’ve been very successful at keeping lines of communication open, but until COGS has voted on whether to support a union or not, we really don’t have a position on it.”
Currently, there are 12 legally recognized graduate student unions in the United States, including ones at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. Responding to recent statements by Yale Graduate School Dean Thomas Appelquist that unions endanger the “collegiality” needed for common intellectual inquiry, Wendelberger said such statements “fly in the face of experience.
“How many hires at Yale have been hired from Michigan and Madison in the past 20 years? I got my master’s at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. We were unionized, and it didn’t make a bit of difference,” Wendelberger said.
Showing their support for the graduate student congress were local representatives from the Teamsters, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.