In vote this week, graduate workers take sides on union backed by UAW

United Auto Workers has helped student workers unionize at universities nationwide.
March 19, 2012

For graduate student employees at the University of Minnesota, Monday marks the beginning of a week-long election that could end in the formation of a union.

About 4,400 graduate student employees are eligible to vote. In order to form a union, a majority of voters must be in favor of it.

Despite previous failed attempts, union proponents at the University think organizing with the United Auto Workers will be the key to forming a union this time around.

Both the University and UAW encourage students to vote, as they will be affected by the outcome. If a union passes, students who aren’t members will be required to pay UAW because they benefit from contract negotiation.

David Larson, an employment law professor at Hamline University, said unions are a “headline issue” right now, from Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law passed last year to the right-to-work bill currently in Minnesota’s Legislature.

“Things are extremely polarized in terms of union organizing,” Larson said. “Any attempt is going to be very contentious.”

He said the hard part is getting the union organized. Once it’s in place, the University is obligated to bargain in good faith.

Scott Thaller, a Graduate Student Workers United/UAW spokesman, said graduate student employees have been organizing the past two years, collecting signatures from 30 percent of graduate student workers to request a union election. They also sought to file a joint petition with the University, which would have formed a union with 50 percent of graduate employees’ support.

In October 2011, the University sent a letter to GSWU/UAW alleging that the organizers had harassed other graduate student assistants in order to garner support for their campaign. It asked that they cease soliciting “in University workplaces during work time.” A follow-up letter sent in early December said that the University had continued to receive complaints.

The state’s Bureau of Mediation Services released dates for the union election in early March.

Larson said a union could assist in negotiating a “more manageable workload” for graduate student workers who commonly have the biggest classes.

“So now the only question is are they going to vote in favor? If I’m a graduate student working the kind of hours that they have, I don’t have any idea why I wouldn’t vote in favor of a union,” Larson said. “They’re paid so much less and have so many more students to take care of compared to full-time faculty.”

The current state of affairs

When University of Minnesota graduate student employees tried to form a union in 2004, they partnered with the United Electrical Workers.

Thaller, who was involved in that campaign, said it was less organized than the current one.

In that election, 70 percent of eligible graduate student employees voted, with 60 percent voting against a union, according to Patti Dion, director of employee relations and compensation at the University.

She said the University surveyed graduate worker salaries at Big Ten schools and found that University graduate employees earn about $1,000 more than the Big Ten average. At the University, they make about $13,300 each semester.

Five Big Ten schools have graduate worker unions: the University of Wisconsin; the University of Michigan; Michigan State University; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa.

Each year, the University of Minnesota revisits its compensation and benefits for its graduate student employees. Dion said when employee wages were frozen in fiscal years 2009 and 2011, graduate students were exempt in order to stay competitive with other universities.

She said changes to compensation and benefits are made at the department or college level, not University-wide.

In the past five years, health insurance premiums for graduate student employees have not increased — the University has absorbed the increased cost, she said.

Kari Thompson, president of the University of Iowa’s Local 896/COGS, said the relationship with the union and the university started out as adversarial.

Iowa’s union formed in 1996-97 after a failed first attempt. It represents more than 2,600 graduate student workers.

“We’re at a point now where the administration really respects us as an organization and recognizes that the contracts we bargain are helpful to them in recruiting better graduate students,” Thompson said.

She said the biggest fight has been for tuition scholarships for all employees. The most recent contract guaranteed 100 percent of tuition for student workers in the school’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Currently, the University of Minnesota offers tuition scholarships for student workers, depending on the number of hours that graduate student works each semester.

The union for graduate student employees at the University of Iowa has raised minimum salaries by 48 percent since its inception, according to its website.

While Dion said the University respects the graduate student workers’ right to unionize, the administration prefers to work with them at a “local level,” not through a third party.

She said of all employees at the University, only one-third are part of a union.

“There are no guarantees that there would be changes because of a union,” Dion said.

A ‘strong history’

Though “auto workers” is in the union’s title, any union can represent any group of workers, Larson said. When choosing a union to join, organizers generally look for one that’s run democratically and transparently.

UAW represents graduate student employees at several other higher education institutions, including California State University, the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts.

“It was a huge fight here,” said David Parsons, president of UAW 4121, which represents about 4,500 academic student workers at the University of Washington.

He said the group was “instrumental” in securing collective bargaining rights.

UAW provides assistance in negotiation and makes sure policies are enforced. With UAW’s help, academic student workers at the University of Washington have improved health care insurance for dependents and policies on child care, mitigated effects of student fees and ensured workload protection, Parsons said.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst joined with UAW in November 1990 and won its first contract a year later, Ryan Quinn, a UAW 2322 representative, said via email.

“The UAW is a very democratic union, which appealed to graduate students, who feel strongly about having a voice at work and within their union,” he wrote.

That “strong history” of helping other universities across the country unionize convinced University graduate students to invite UAW to support their campaign.

“They found that the UAW is really on their game with this,” Thaller said.

UAW representatives serve in an advisory role to graduate student employees, Thaller said, telling them the best ways to get others involved in the campaign and allowing them to be better organized than in previous years.

If a graduate student employee union is formed, the UAW will advise them in contract negotiations, offering insight on issues like health care insurance.

Members of the UAW will pay dues amounting to 1.15 percent of their gross salary, while non-members pay their “fair-share,” which could be up to 85 percent of what members pay, Thaller said.

The UAW is required to represent all graduate student assistants, whether or not they are members.

Union dues contribute to an organization’s lobbying efforts. The more workers paying dues, the more revenue there is to represent workers’ interests.

“They want workers joining their union,” Larson said. “They need workers joining their union.”

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