Graduate student workers at the University of Minnesota again voted against forming a union.

About 62 percent of those who voted last week opposed the union, the state Bureau of Mediation Services reported on Monday, adding to a string of failed attempts to organize the students who teach classes and conduct research on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.

More than two-thirds of the 4,400 workers who were eligible to cast ballots in the weeklong vote did so.

This was the state's largest public union election in years and the fourth try at unionizing the U's graduate assistants since 1990. The last two elections, in 1999 and 2005, were closer calls.

"It's a bummer," said Ilana Percher, a teaching assistant in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

Union organizers, backed by the United Auto Workers of America, argued that a union would give graduate assistants equal footing to negotiate terms of their employment and protect against arbitrary changes to pay and working conditions.

U administrators fought the union effort, telling assistants that they are better off negotiating one-on-one and warning that a union would hinder working relationships between graduate students and their faculty mentors.

"Flexibility in working with each individual student is fundamental and absolutely critical to success," U President Eric Kaler told grad students in an e-mail, urging them to vote.

Problems not widespread

After seeing the election results, some students and faculty members wondered if the drive would have fared better if working conditions had been awful across the board, rather than pretty good with some problem areas.

"Our system really does work well for the majority of graduate students," wrote Jeffrey Gralnick, an associate professor of microbiology, on the campus newspaper's website.

"I hope that the people who are unhappy and perhaps feel that they are being taken advantage of can figure out a way to change internal policies of their department or graduate program," said Gralnick, "rather than try to change the entire graduate student body."

Graduate, research and teaching assistants at the University of Minnesota earn more than the Big Ten average. Research assistants, for example, make about $13,300 a year, while their counterparts earn an average of $12,900, according to the U's Office of Human Resources.

In a statement, U administrators said they were "pleased" with the outcome of the election, which they said "allows the colleges continued flexibility to offer packages that are most appropriate for their individual employee groups."

Campus organizers point out that pay and conditions vary from department to department. While some assistants have strong salaries funded through federal grants, others are strapped with increasing teaching loads and class sizes.

Treated fine

Percher acknowledges that graduate assistants in her physics department are treated fine. But she notes room for improvement and knows that her colleagues in other departments are seeing their working conditions worsen with budget cuts.

"The disappointment for me is that there's no incentive for the school to stop doing this now," she said. "In that sense, maintenance is a real concern. Why should we wait until we have a crisis?"

Nationally, about 25 campuses have recognized graduate assistant unions, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions.

At the University of Michigan, teaching assistants are represented by a union. But a controversial push to unionize graduate research assistants was blocked this month when the governor signed a bill defining research assistants at public universities as students -- not employees. At the University of Minnesota, some union opponents made a similar argument.

Graduate students "come to the university primarily for their education," said Patti Dion, director of employee relations and compensation in the U's Office of Human Resources. "Their status as a student is just so intertwined with their status as an employee.

"The lines between those two roles are oftentimes blurry."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168