Grad union supporters take cues from neighbor schools

Graduate students at five other Big Ten schools — and 30 nationwide — have already unionized.

As they seek to organize a union for more than 4,000 of their peers, graduate employees at the University of Minnesota have four decades of history and handfuls of examples to follow.
Of the 12 universities in or entering the Big Ten conference, five have labor unions for at least some of their graduate employees — adding to a total of 30 institutions nationwide, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions.
“We are certainly taking a lot of lessons from past unionization campaigns,” said Adria Fernandez, an organizer and agronomy student at the University, “both here and at other schools.”
One role model lies in neighboring Wisconsin, whose flagship university in Madison was the first to have its graduate employees unionized more than 40 years ago.
Since then, the Teaching Assistants’ Association has developed a more stable relationship with the human resource employees that represent the ground level of management. Unlike the University of Minnesota, those employees are not the chief negotiators for management — Wisconsin does not have a state charter for its university, which means the union bargains directly with the state, currently led by Gov. Scott Walker.
Until a bill that would strip the state’s public employees of most bargaining rights makes its way through the courts, the union is operating under an informal contract extension, said Megan Jeffers, an HR specialist at the university.
Jeffers said the relationship between its Academic Personnel Office and the TAA can vary by the year because of the level of turnover of leadership and departing employees. But currently, she said, the two sides get along well.
“We have a very collaborative relationship,” she said. Several years prior, before she joined the department, “the relationship was a little more contentious,” she said.
Kevin Gibbons, an outgoing co-president of the TAA, said its main functions are collective bargaining, enforcement of its contract, internal and social organizing and political advocacy.
“On average we would probably meet four to five times a semester,” Gibbons said of the level of interaction members have with the union. He cited volunteer political canvassing, paying dues and regular emails to members as the most common points of contact a member has.
Gibbons said there are different levels of involvement among members.
“Some people will be heavily involved,” he said, while “others are busy and go to meetings now and again.”
Jeffers cited consistency as an advantage of working with its graduate employees as a collective.
“They have one document that governs the employment relationship that we can all go to,” she said.
On the flip side, she said, a department looking to hire another student may not be able to afford the provisions a contract requires. “[It] might hamper some flexibilities.”