Posted on February 10, 2012 by Richard A. Levins

 One of the most annoying things about being a professor is the day you realize that your graduate students are smarter and more articulate than you are. At first, it bothers you terribly. Then, as time goes on, you come to accept it more gracefully. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a few comments on my last posting on unions for graduate research assistants at the University of Minnesota. Some were in favor, some objected, but all were thoughtful and worthy of our attention.

I sent out a call for help in putting together my response. Sara Nelson, a graduate assistant and doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, offered something that I can’t improve upon.  So, I will simply quote verbatim:

“The bargaining unit is defined in Minnesota law – the only way to have a union is to have a union for all teaching and research assistants and graduate instructors.

“It is true that, as grad assistants, our work across the university varies greatly – but we are all grad assistant employees, and we are all affected by terms and conditions of our employment determined at the level of the upper administration (though the specifics of our employment are – and would continue to be with a union – determined at the department level). A union would give us the opportunity to negotiate on equal footing with the administration over these basic terms and conditions; a contract would be able to establish base pay, benefits, and job protections for all workers, but this does not mean a flattening of wages across the bargaining unit – above these minimums, diversity among departments is maintained and the functions of individual departments in setting competitive compensation is not curtailed. The fundamental point is that all graduate assistants across campus have the opportunity to provide their input on an initial contract and to vote on this contract, and grad assistants will not approve a contract that is not beneficial to them.

“Further, regardless of differences in pay and benefits, the union is able to give all graduate assistants democratic control in setting the terms and conditions of their employment, which are enforceable in a legally-binding contract.  Regardless of whether we feel satisfied with the status quo, the fact is that it can be (and has been) changed at the whim of the administration. My biggest concern, personally, is less increasing my compensation (though a cost of living increase every few years would be nice) than gaining this democratic control.

“Regarding strikes: strikes are extremely rare (more than 98% of contract negotiations are settled without a strike), and involve a sacrifice for any worker – they are a serious decision that no one takes lightly. Those of us in the social sciences and humanities who may not be funded on external research grants are still required to make progress in order to maintain our positions, and take our work as research and teaching assistants seriously enough not to abandon it except under the most dire of circumstances. A strike requires a 2/3 majority vote, in order to make sure that a super majority of members feel that a strike is absolutely necessary. Further, in the extremely rare case that grad assistants decide they need to strike, no one can be forced to participate in a strike or to discontinue work. The 2/3 majority is designed to ensure that a strike would have strong enough support to succeed.”

I thank Ms. Nelson for her help with this posting. More than that, I thank her and all of you graduate students who are working to find ways that a union can give each and every one of you a stronger voice in administrative decisions. You need it now and, believe me, you will need it much more when you take the next step in your careers.


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