Little to lose from a union

Graduate students run no risk of worse working conditions if they favor the UAW union.

Eric Best

This week, as graduate students make their way to voting booths to decide on the future of a union on our campus, one thing to consider is the often overlooked intentions of the United Auto Workers of America. If you’re like me, you would wonder why a historically blue-collar union would want to represent graduate students. But in fact, as early as 2007, the UAW has altered its image away from industry workers to one of representing higher education. This reflects a trend of growing unionization of graduate schools across the country — including five in the Big Ten alone.

But what does the UAW seek to gain from students? In order to function, the UAW requires dues from those it represents, as does every union. Currently, union dues are 1.15 percent of an hourly worker’s wage or approximately two hours’ pay a month, though dues may be decreased to a “fair share fee” of 85 percent of the original amount for nonmember beneficiaries of the union. This is around $200-350 a year for most students, and this money would be spread locally and internationally to fund the UAW.

If the UAW doesn’t stand to gain much other than operating costs from students, then what do graduate assistants have to lose or gain from a union? For one, there are issues at the University of Minnesota that are decided without sufficient discussion with students. The University has mandated furloughs that will end up causing graduate assistants to lose money and potentially crucial experiences to their educational or career goals. During a time of rising tuition costs, lowered state funding and extra graduate fees, such decisions stifle graduate students’ ability to fund their education.

Recently, many graduate students have found that their problem is not economic, but professional. The abrupt decentralization of the Graduate School exploited students who did not have the power or organization to bargain over such issues collectively. Through such inappropriate behavior, the University is failing in its mission to be responsive to the needs of its employees and the academic community. Clearly not every graduate student has faced these problems but for the ones who do, the experience can threaten students on a professional level.

Gaining a union also opens up the opportunity for increased political lobbying power for the graduate student body. The UAW can serve as a funnel for the most disenfranchised and underrepresented population in the nation: students.

Dissenting voices among graduate students find trusting unions to represent them accurately difficult. Even more believe it is unfair to force a union on future generations of students. Yet, even if a union is not perfect when it comes to serving its members, the University community can stand to grow a bit more democratic. Decisions like those mentioned above are made with little transparency and without acknowledging dissenting views. Future generations of students may welcome the union; if they don’t, a union can be dissolved. Though I’m not a graduate student, I would want a partial voice rather than none at all in regards to my workplace and education.

Ultimately, it seems as though graduate students have more to gain than lose from unionizing. The UAW has a history of bargaining for increased benefits and wages, which have potential to outweigh costs of union dues. Ideally, there would not have to be a union. A union is only necessary when as individuals, we lack the power to bargain for ourselves. Thus, it is in our best interest to support unionization in order to support the University’s mission of “being conscious of and responsive to the needs of the many communities it is committed to serving.”