Workers vote on union at University of Minnesota

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2012 - 9:19 PM

More than 4,000 graduate assistants statewide are eligible to vote on unionization this week. Previous efforts have been unsuccessful.

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Graduate research assistant Jeff Hall opposes unionization for student employees such as himself.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Graduate students who teach classes and conduct research at the University of Minnesota are voting this week on whether to form a union, closing a heated campaign that has dominated the campus newspaper and dotted graduate assistants' inboxes with back-and-forth debates over issues of pay, dues and representation.

It is the state's largest public union election in recent years and comes at a time when legislators are debating a so-called "right-to-work" amendment.

Those who support the union say that organizing would create a level playing field for graduate assistants to negotiate terms of their employment. Without a union, they argue, the U can and will change pay and working conditions without consultation.

Many of those in opposition say it's unlikely that a union will be able to secure pay raises in exchange for hefty dues. A single union, they say, can't represent the diverse interests of graduate assistants in many departments.

About 4,400 assistants on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses are eligible to cast ballots. A majority of those who do will determine whether to form a union.

Three past efforts to unionize the university's graduate assistants failed when put up for a vote. During the most recent attempt, in 2005, about 58 percent of graduate employees who cast ballots voted no, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.

The political and economic climate of higher education has worsened since then, said Peter Rachleff, a Macalester College professor and labor historian. Increasingly, colleges and universities are replacing retiring professors with non-tenure-track positions, destabilizing the academic ladder.

"Today's graduate students are beginning to realize that they face perhaps a lifetime of insecure, precarious labor," Rachleff said. "If you remove confidence about future rewards, then questions get a lot sharper about present sacrifices."

Earlier this month, the U's Office of Human Resources e-mailed graduate assistants a bar graph showing that its average pay for graduate, research and teaching assistants beats the Big Ten average. Research assistants at the University of Minnesota, for example, make about $13,300 a semester, while their counterparts earn an average of $12,900, the office said.

Five of the 12 Big Ten schools have graduate worker unions, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. Nationally, about 25 campuses have recognized graduate-assistant unions, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions.

At the U, where the union has been backed by the United Auto Workers, dues would amount to 1.15 percent of a member's gross salary, while a nonmember would pay a "fair share" rate up to 85 percent of that.

That would be about $250 a year for Jeff Hall, a doctoral candidate in microbiology, immunology and cancer biology who is urging graduate assistants to vote "no."

He says that competition with other universities nationwide will ensure appropriate pay and benefits. He said that he's seen the university make policy changes requested by student government organizations. And he worries that if a union negotiates a higher stipend for some grad students, that will result in higher costs for others.

"Each department and program has different funding and student needs," he said, "and those should not be addressed on a university-wide scale."

Bryan Paulsen, a doctoral candidate and research assistant in chemical engineering and materials science, acknowledges that researchers in his department are well paid. Many of his colleagues worry that with a union, that could change, he said: "There's always that fear that for other people to do well, we'd have to give something up."

But based on what he's seen at other universities, Paulsen says a union could improve conditions across the board. His support for the union was strengthened when he witnessed how a change in the U's health care, raising the amount that dependents pay, affected a fellow graduate student's family.

"No one got a say in that," he said. "No one got to vote on that. It was out of our hands."

For months, administrators and union organizers have debated via e-mail whether a union would help or hinder graduate assistants' relationships with the faculty members they work beside.

"Relationships you now share with your faculty adviser may change substantially," wrote Steven Crouch, dean of the College of Science and Engineering. "Some discussions with your adviser may require intervention by a third party -- the labor union."

In a letter to the Minnesota Daily newspaper, Jerry Cohen, a professor in the Department of Horticultural Science, disagreed with such characterizations.

"In fact, by forming a union, the graduate assistants will have a negotiated contract that provides minimum work standards and protections," he said, "thus freeing us to focus on why we're here: our research."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

  • related content

  • Bryan Paulsen, a graduate student in chemical engineering and materials science, favors union representation.

  • During the first day of voting, graduate student employees cast ballots on union representation Monday at Moos Tower on the University of Minnesota campus.

  • THE VOTE

    Tuesday: East Bank, Vincent Hall, Room 120.

    Wednesday: East Bank, Nolte Hall, Room 120.

    Thursday: West Bank, Blegen Hall, Room 155.

    Friday: St. Paul, Student Center, Room 110; Duluth, Kirby Student Center, Garden Room.

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