Graduate student assistants at the University of Minnesota have been working toward a union for nearly a year, and last week they took two steps that would each grant them success.
By requesting the University sign a joint petition to form the union, graduate assistants would bypass a union election. Organizers have also filed for an election, though, if the University refuses to sign.
There have been multiple unilateral administrative decisions in the recent past that shed light on the need for collective bargaining rights. Last year, in the wake of budget cuts, the University imposed furloughs on all employees. Faculty and staff outspokenly opposed the action, but it was passed almost unanimously by the Board of Regents. In another case, the University decentralized the Graduate School — a decision met with anger over the lack of transparency and communication.
It's natural for graduate students to feel powerless in the wake of these decisions. Democratic reforms like unionization make a lot of sense in response to an autocratic management style.
No matter how they get there, it seems clear that graduate students want to unionize. Complaints over student fees, health care and student-to-TA ratios, among other issues, have been voiced frequently over the years as budget cuts affect graduate students.
There are benefits to either of the courses organizers take. With a union election, every graduate student assistant has the chance to vote. A joint petition signed by the University requires half of graduate student assistants to sign union authorization cards first — still a democratic option. And it would give the University administration a chance to start its relationship with the union on a positive and constructive note.