The first public meeting between graduate assistants trying to unionize and University of Minnesota administrators got off to a raucous start Monday, with half of the standing-room-only crowd leaving just minutes in as part of an organized walkout.
The meeting was hosted by the University’s Office of Human Resources and the Graduate School. It was quickly overrun by many of the 250 students in attendance who cut off presenters, accusing them of avoiding a debate on the issue.
“An email could easily do your job,” one student shouted during remarks by graduate Dean Henning Schroeder.
The dean focused his speech on the University’s efforts to improve the lives of graduate students, which include plans to reform its tuition model to make it easier to put students on federal grants.
He also cited the University’s expansion of its excused absence policy, which was amended to allow graduate students who are parents to leave work for their child’s illness.
But union supporters, who made up most of the audience, said they can’t count on the University to treat them well.
“At the end of the day, they aren’t legally bound to keep any of [their] promises,” said supporter Charmaine Chua, a political science graduate student.
“Even if things are really great for me, at any time things that are very important could change,” said supporter and agronomy student Adria Fernandez . “Until we have a contract, we have no say in that.”
Chua said the teaching load graduate assistants take on — up to 30 hours a week for some students — at a lower pay rate than faculty, combined with their pursuit of a degree, can be abusive.
“There’s obviously exploitation going on,” Chua said.
Organizers said that they have received signed cards, which are used to measure support for a union election, from more than 50 percent of graduate assistants, though Fernandez said organizers are holding off on submitting the cards to build up more support. Thirty percent support is required to trigger an election.
Signing off to vote does not guarantee the signer will vote for the union in an election, leaving unknown how much concrete support exists.
Fourth-year chemical engineering graduate student Christine Balonek said she wasn’t the only one against unionizing.
“I know a lot of my colleagues are against it,” she said. “We just don’t think it’s necessary and people have other avenues to take.”
Balonek also said she thinks many graduate students don’t know of those other avenues, which include participating in advisory committees through the Council of Graduate Students.
Bree Dalager, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly vice president of student affairs, said she approved of unionizing in general and that understanding deans and student advocacy is not as strong as union representation would be.
But she disapproves of the union’s organizing tactics, which she said were not transparent.
“Enough [students] have raised concerns that I feel like there’s a pattern.”
Labor negotiator Patti Dion also briefly presented on the requirements to start a union as part of what she and OHR Vice President Carol Carrier called the University’s role as a neutral educator.
“It’s your individual obligation to go out and find as much information as you can,” Carrier said, “to satisfy the test of, ‘Will this be a good thing for me or my colleagues to do this?’”
Many students said that was disingenuous, and the University was positioned against unionization. Chua cited language on OHR’s webpage focused on the things the union could not do.
Chua said language on OHR’s webpage framed unions negatively, focusing on their limitations.
COGS President Devin Driscoll said his organization will vote on a resolution Wednesday night to plan an information session on the issue this fall. The resolution would invite representatives from the union and others of expertise, Driscoll said.