Unions not solution for all campus groups

Collective bargaining on university campuses is becoming a hot issue across the country. Last fall, the University gained national attention for a faculty unionization drive that ultimately failed. On Friday, graduate students rallied on Northrop Mall for union representation, as have graduate students at other public universities. During the fall and winter quarters of this school year, students in the University of California system rallied in support of a union. Today, meanwhile, unionization votes among civil service professional employees at the University will be tallied.
If unionization is supported, these employees will join the ranks of clerical and technical civil service workers, who already are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The value of unionizing on campus, however, varies from group to group. Civil service employees, for instance, have advocated unionization for a long time. The unionization of another branch of civil service employees is a natural step toward greater cohesion among those workers. On the other hand, another University group considering unionization — graduate assistants — should weigh their options carefully before deciding on collective bargaining.
The unionization of civil service workers creates a forum in which common staff concerns can be advocated. The University’s clerical workers joined AFSCME in 1991 and its technical employees followed in 1993. Collective bargaining exists to serve the common interests of workers, and the unionization of civil service employees could help solidify not only their purpose but their negotiating power.
One difficulty unions face on campus, however, is achieving consensus. To reach 2,800 clerical employees for input on issues advocated by the union is a daunting task. Graduate assistants, meanwhile, number around 4,000. The part-time status of graduate assistants is another obstacle to union participation. Instead, the power of graduate assistants in the departments — a more manageable number of employees — could be utilized to advocate the unique needs of students. Students run the risk of diluting that power by joining a union.
The issues that graduate assistants have raised in the call for a union — higher wages and better benefits, in particular — are valid. To a degree, issues such as these are addressed by the Council of Graduate Students and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. But if common issues cannot be promoted by graduate student organizations, students will be faced with a dilemma. They will have to decide if they want to consolidate their power on broader, shared concerns at the risk of losing autonomy in working directly with their departments.
The union is a difficult apparatus to negotiate. Its power for collective bargaining and political lobbying is attractive, especially during an era in which roles in academia are changing. But the power of graduate assistants within departments can be cultivated and may — considering the logistical trap posed by unions for large and disparate groups — be a logical alternative to unionization.