University of Minnesota grad students seek voice on the job

University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus graduate students are conducting a union organizing campaign to give them a collective voice in determining the terms and conditions of their work, which faculty, administrators, and the students themselves say is essential to the university’s mission.

“You don’t have to be working in a factory for your voice to be important,” said Brandon Wu, a teaching assistant and graduate student at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The university administration, however, is resisting this effort.

Members of Graduate Student Workers United UAW in January submitted to the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS)union authorization cards signed by a majority of the university’s 4,500 graduate student workers, who teach courses and conduct research. The BMS oversees public sector union elections in the state.

At the same time, graduate student union activists delivered a letter to the University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler saying that the fact that a majority of graduate students signed union authorization cards shows that they want to bargain collectively on matters relating to their job. The letter urged President Kaler to submit joint petition to BMS with the union. A joint petition would expedite union recognition. He declined.

Graduate students do much of the teaching at the University of Minnesota and, for that matter, at most large public universities. Nearly every undergraduate will at some point in their studies take a class that has been designed, planned, and taught by a graduate teaching assistant.

Much of the research that leads to the discovery of new knowledge in both the arts and sciences is conducted by graduate students. Some of this research has an immediate impact on the well-being of the community. For example, research assistants in the Molecular Biology Department are working on treatments and cures for diverse diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and heart disease.

Twelve hour work days are not uncommon for many graduate assistants. Many teach a full load, keep office hours, read to stay current on the emerging knowledge in their field, and conduct research.

Despite the importance of their work, the administration treats it as casual labor. Job security is limited or non-existent, the benefits are scarce and can be arbitrarily reduced or taken away, and there are no clear procedures for addressing job grievances.

“We graduate assistants are here working hard in research and in teaching,” said Scott Thaller, a research assistant in plasma physics to Workday Minnesota. “We deserve a voice in decisions that affect us. We are integral to the research and teaching of the university and it is important we have a say. A union would put us on equal legal footing for both parties to meet and negotiate.”

But the administration would like to keep its current relationship with its graduate students intact and has mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign. “The University was well prepared to wage war against grad student unionization,” said Seth Berrier, a research assistant in computer science and engineering, to the Minnesota Daily. “They did so with a calculated campaign of misinformation that would have done any GOP candidate proud. Their negatively charged prose came primarily in the form of direct emails from the Department of Human Resources. They promised doom and destruction in a world of grad student solidarity. It was clear that they were frightened by the strength we would possess.”

The administration has accused outside agitators from the UAW of using threatening tactics to get people to sign union authorization cards, but most of the organizing work is being done by graduate students themselves.

This organizing campaign is the fourth at the University of Minnesota since 1991. The union lost the last election in 2005, but union activists are confident that despite the administration’s anti-union campaign they can win this time. “This time, so many grad assistants are involved and support the way that a union will finally give us the right and power to advocate for ourselves, that we believe we will succeed,” Thaller said.”

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