Sunday, November 23, 2014
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University of Minnesota graduate students vote on joining a union
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A polling place where graduate students cast ballots for or against forming a union. Union organizers say the U's research and teaching assistants are worried about what they see as increasingly heavy workloads. Opponents say they won't get much for their union dues. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
About 4,500 University of Minnesota graduate students find out today whether they will be represented by a union. This morning state officials will count ballots cast last week. Union advocates say grad students need help to protect their pay and benefits. Critics say a union is unnecessary.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Graduate students perform key functions at the U. They grade papers, teach classes, and assist in university research.

Typically, the work is supposed to require 20 hours a week, but union activists say some have to work up to 60 hours, on top of putting in time for their own classwork and research.

Graduate student and union organizer Ryan Murphy says the U's research and teaching assistants are worried about what they see as increasingly heavy workloads. Murphy says graduate assistants want fair salaries, affordable health care, job security and respect for their work.

He says the proposed union, the Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition, or GradTRAC would compel university administrators to address graduate students' concerns.

"With changing budget priorities in the state of Minnesota, changing financial issues in higher education," he says, "we want that legal voice that protects the benefits that we have right now, and lends our voice to future discussions about changes in healthcare, changes in pay, all these things."

Murphy says GradTRAC organizers are trying to duplicate successful union drives at other Big Ten Schools including the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin.

"Those universities are at the very top in terms of not only pay, but in terms of health benefits for workers with children, job security, all these sorts of things that really improve our quality of life," he says.

I feel like things are going in the wrong direction, and hopefully the union can, if not increase my benefits, at least, maybe stop the downward slide.
- Dan Swenson, graduate student in mathematics

Students who want a union, like mathematics doctoral student Dan Swenson, say they want bargaining power and a voice with the administration. Swenson says in the two years he's been a graduate student at the U, his benefits have been cut and his fees have gone up.

"I feel like things are going in the wrong direction," Swenson says. "And hopefully the union can, if not increase my benefits, at least, maybe stop the downward slide."

Union organizers point to an Association of American Universities survey ranking Minnesota grad student salaries at the bottom of the Big Ten.

The base salary for graduate teaching and research assistants at the university is about $14,000 a year. But depending on the department, grad students can make up to $22,000 a year.

Ken Williams is on the high end of the pay scale as a graduate student in chemical engineering. He's the union movement's most vocal foe.

Williams particularly dislikes the fact that GradTRAC would be a local of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers.

"The current national union sponsoring this union effort is really highly partisan, and what they call themselves is a militant labor union that has all sorts of political agendas that I don't agree with," Williams says. "I would not want any money that I make at the university going towards [that union]."

Williams says he doubts he would get anything in return for his union dues, which would be a maximum of $15 a month.

Sentiments like that carried the day in the past. Two union drives in the 1990s failed.

George Green, the Graduate School's associate dean, says a union is unnecessary.

"It's not likely to accomplish much more than we're trying to accomplish without a union," he says.

Green says Graduate students employed by the university already have a generous health plan and competitive salaries.

"The university has every reason to be working, within the limits of its resources, to try to provide an attractive salary and benefit package and working situations for these people," he says. "Because they're part of the university, they're part of the teaching and research work we're trying to do, and if we can't pay them right and treat them right, then we won't get the best people, and we won't be graduating the best people."

The union will be certified if it receives a simple majority of the votes cast. A final tally is expected by noon.

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