Grad students taking sides as union vote nears

More than half of the 4,000 graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota have signed cards supporting a union election.
April 19, 2011

After almost two semesters of hearing the pros and cons, it’s nearly time for graduate assistants to make a decision.
More than half of the 4,000 graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota have signed cards supporting a union election, according to student organizers. Though calling an election requires the support of only 30 percent of those eligible, supporters said they plan to organize through the summer to bring that figure up.
Graduate students who want the ability to bargain collectively for pay and health care and to resolve grievances more efficiently have been organizing since the beginning of this academic year. They could file the cards with the Bureau of Mediation Services at any time. From there, the bureau would set a time for a vote and administer the election.
Signing a card to support an election does not guarantee the signer’s pro-vote for the union, though, making it difficult to gauge support. Further, because of confidentiality protections, it is impossible to learn the breakdown of support for the union by discipline area.
The Minnesota Daily picked three teaching assistants at random from different parts of the University to get their take on the union.
‘My concern is if things start to get worse.’
“I’m very happy with my situation now,” Kyle Green, a second-year doctoral candidate in sociology, said of his stipend, his health care and his time overall at the University. “My concern is if things start to get worse.”
“The stimulus package has provided a buffer for the University,” Green said, and as it recedes, the University “is going to have to choose certain areas that are going to have to be cut.
“In a time when there’s such pressure, it’s important to have some sort of collective voice that is listened to,” he said. “It is naive to assume that it will pan out well for graduate students,” because if it doesn’t, “at that point it’s basically too late.”
That, Green said, would be unacceptable, given “how central [graduates are] to providing education to undergraduates.”
Assistants grade papers, meet in office hours and teach discussion sections and courses, he said, freeing professors to do research.
“Class size is growing, and professors are expected to focus on doing the research that builds the University’s name. If we care about the education of the undergraduates we should care about the grad students.”
‘I haven’t really met anyone that isn’t for the union.’
For having one of the nation’s best creative writing programs, Lucas De Lima said, the University doesn’t pay its graduate assistants very well.
“It’s one of the lowest,” the second-year creative writing MFA candidate said, citing schools like Washington University that compensate student instructors who teach creative writing several thousand dollars more than the University, hurting its competitiveness.
De Lima said having union representation would help his colleagues get a better deal than the $13,000 stipend for teaching they get right now. “Everyone is for the union among the MFA students,” he said.
For the University to remain competitive, he said, “students need more representation and better [working] conditions.”
“I just think it would be beneficial for students and the University as a whole.”
‘I think we are moving ahead in that same direction.’
Amit Singh, a second-year doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering, said he doesn’t understand why University President Bob Bruininks would be uneasy about the idea of a graduate student union.
“We cannot talk [out] these kinds of issues one-by-one,” he said. Assistants need the ability “[to] talk to the University on an equal footing.”
Because he started a master’s degree before extending his study to a doctorate track, Singh has been at the University since 2006. He said he thinks the school will soon join the company of schools with unionized graduate students, which include the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan.
“A lot of universities have adopted this. I think we are moving ahead in the same direction.”

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