by Kelly Hildebrandt

Sometime this spring, graduate assistants will most likely head to the polls to decide whether they want a union. But not all students are convinced a union is necessary.
Union opponents cite dues, resistance to another bureaucratic organization and an already satisfactory working environment as reasons to vote against collective bargaining.
“I’m perfectly happy with the way things are now,” said Dan Magan, a Ph.D. candidate in the industrial relations department.
The signature drive to obtain a union election began Aug. 1. For a vote to be established, the Graduate Students Organizing Congress needs signatures from at least 30 percent of the graduate assistants — research and teaching assistants — at the University
GradSOC obtained the 30 percent minimum before the end of fall quarter and has continued the drive in hopes of gaining support from at least 50 percent of the graduate assistants, said Britt Abel, a member of the graduate organization’s steering committee. The organization needs 50 percent plus one vote to gain a union in the election.
GradSOC has signatures from about 48 percent of graduate assistants and hopes to wrap up the drive in the next two weeks, said Andrew Seligsohn, also a member of the steering committee.
At the end of the drive, GradSOC will submit the signatures to the state Bureau of Mediation Services. Mediators will then check the signatures to ensure that all the signatures were submitted by a research or graduate assistant. The bureau will then decide if and when a union election will be held.
GradSOC organizers say a union will give graduate assistants a voice in the decisions made at the University concerning them, Seligsohn said.
Some of the improvements the union activists would like are better wages, a better health care plan and the creation of a grievance procedure.
If a union is elected, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association — known as Education Minnesota — will represent graduate assistants.
Graduate assistants will have the option of not joining if a union is elected. However, GradSOC would have the legal responsibility to represent all graduate assistants, not just members, said David Moracco, an Education Minnesota employee working with GradSOC.
One reason people don’t want to be part of a union is because they don’t want to pay the dues, Seligsohn said.
Edmund Kao, a graduate assistant in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, said he is certain that a union is going to cost graduate assistants money through union fees.
But Abel and Seligsohn said a union will help negotiate a wage increase to cover the dues and that a graduate assistants’ bargaining unit has never lost money in the process.
Although dues vary depending on the bargaining unit, sometimes non-members as well as members must pay them, although non-member dues aren’t as much, Moracco said.
The dues pay for the cost to organize the bargaining unit, usually consisting of at least one staff member, and the usual costs to run an office. If graduate assistants vote for a union, the fee amount will be decided on by the entire bargaining unit, Abel said.
One of the downfalls of a union is the democracy of it, said Lisa Jordan, director of women’s and diversity programming in the Industrial Relations Center. “Even if you vote no, there’s still a union that represents the graduate students,” she said.
“I don’t think the union has the power to do anything they’re promising to do,” Kao said, because without additional funding those changes are beyond anyone’s power to change.
Magan said he doesn’t see a need for a union. When he has a problem he said he’d consult the chairperson of the department rather than call someone he doesn’t know to bargain for him.