Union loss isn’t the end of action

Graduate students still face problems that wouldn’t have been addressed by bargaining.

Eric Murphy


On Monday, Minnesota’s Bureau of Mediation Services announced that University of Minnesota graduate assistants voted against certifying a union with the United Auto Workers. We can celebrate that the decision was a democratic expression of the will of graduate assistants. It’s worth taking a look at what that decision will mean going forward.

Union membership nationwide has declined from around 30 percent of workers post-World War II to around 12 percent today, a decline helped along by globalization and anti-union pressures from employers.

But unions also get maligned, often with reason, as simply a campaign arm of the Democratic Party. The conflation of unions with the Democratic Party platform has probably done damage to unions; the Democratic Party brand, as with most institutions in current electoral politics, is toxic.

For unions to be successful in the future, they must break their deep association with and connection to the Democratic Party. Not only do Democrats routinely betray their union backers, but in exchange unions also get caught in the crossfire of partisan politics.

If the Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated anything, it is that working through corrupt and failing institutions, like electoral politics in its current state, is not sufficient. The movement has shown that people can organize themselves and work outside of the established system to get results. Organizers and supporters of the graduate student union should take this lesson to heart — a union is not the only way to organize or address their grievances. They can and should find other ways to organize and empower graduate students.

The power of organized graduate students goes beyond collectively bargaining for better working conditions. There are a number of complaints about problems that affect graduate students but couldn’t be addressed through bargaining — high graduate student fees and high administrative spending, for example. Solving these problems demands other forms of action. One problem that profoundly affects graduate students is declining state funding for higher education. One of the advantages of a union would have been its ability to more easily organize actions at the Capitol to fight this trend, but there are still avenues to do so in the absence of a union.

The graduate student union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has taken full advantage of these larger-level organizing and action tactics that go beyond strictly bargaining. That union, the Teaching Assistants’ Association, kicked off the protests in Madison last year and the occupation of the state Capitol in response to Governor Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill. That protest wasn’t just about Walker eliminating collective bargaining for public employees; Walker’s budget also proposed cutting $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system and significantly restructuring it.

After organizers collected a million signatures to trigger a recall election for Walker, most unions fell in line behind a traditional Democratic candidate who has a history of forcing union concessions. But the Teaching Assistants’ Association has so far refused to endorse a candidate, removing themselves from the toxic system of electoral politics and focusing their efforts elsewhere.

The TAA should be the model for the University of Minnesota graduate students, even without a union. Organizing is about more than unions, and democracy is about more than elections. In the face of unresponsive institutions like the state Legislature and the University administration, graduate students might do best to pursue a strategy of direct democracy and organization inspired by the peaceful tactics of the Occupy movement to address grievances that still remain.