University of Minnesota graduate assistants finishing unionization vote


University of Minnesota graduate assistants are wrapping up week-long voting on whether to unionize.

The students will finish casting their votes today Friday (today), and the results could come as soon as Monday.

Union supporters say they want a voice in decisions over pay and working conditions, which they say are uneven across departments — and often vary from supervisor to supervisor.

But it’s a decision with financial and managerial consequences to the U that could total hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in direct costs alone, U officials say.

“This is a very big deal for the university,” said Patti Dion, who handles compensation and employee relations for the U.

Graduate assistants are a subset of the 11,000 or so graduate students at the U, mainly on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses. They number around 4,500, and may work as research assistants in labs or run classes as teaching assistants, among other jobs.

Organizers aren’t saying that conditions are particularly bad. They make $13,500 a year on average, which is about $500-$1,000 more than their average counterparts in the Big Ten. Student organizer Scott Thaller, a research assistant in physics, said they pay no tuition, but do pay fees of up to $1,000, depending on the program. The health care program is competitive.

Thaller says they generally want to preserve those conditions and curb any sudden cost increases.

But some assistants, he says, say they work many more hours than they’re paid, get little or no vacation or raises, and need help with services such as child care. And he says the U’s grievance process is inadequate.

Collective bargaining, he says, would provide stability and curb potential abuses.

“With a union, we’d have an equal seat at the bargaining table,” he said.

Dion said boosting benefits could be costly. The payroll for those students runs around $57 million, so a 1 percent increase means more than half a million dollars just in added direct labor costs. Higher increases would run into the millions, she said.

The U doesn’t have much money in these tight economic times, she said. Money for raises and added benefits would likely come out of programs.

Graduate assistants are already a special class, university officials say. They say the U exempted graduate assistants from the 2009 hiring- and wage freeze, the wage freeze in 2011, and the furlough and temporary pay drop in 2010. Unionized workers, however, were subject to those cutbacks, they say..

Dion said the U would prefer to deal with students one-on-one. A union, she said, would disrupt the individual working relationships that faculty members have with them.

University administration doesn’t appear to be alone in its opposition. More than 90 graduate assistants signed an open letter on an anti-union Web site raising concerns over dues, which would be roughly $200-$350 a year, depending on a student’s wage.

(Update: Thaller’s dues estimates are higher that those derived from independent calculations of 1.15 percent of the average wage of $13,500 a year. Thaller was unsure what caused the discrepancy. He recalculated the figure and got a sum similar to his first estimate. The differing calculations might be based on differing assumptions. He said the university may have calculated a lower average annual wage than he did, because many graduate assistants aren’t employed during the summer. Thaller’s figure, however, assumes year-round employment.)

(Update: That range may be off. Based on the average annual wage of $13,500, average union dues would be just over $155. A union spokesman who had confirmed the original range said he is rechecking it.)

It also questioned the union’s ability to secure better terms in this economic climate, saying other unions would have gained concessions if the money had been there. It also questions the concerns of union organizers.

“The fact that they are not able to point to a graduate student population that is oppressed by the university makes us wonder if such a group exists,” it states.

The site, along with some faculty, have questioned whether it’s appropriate to unionize. They consider the graduate assistants students — not workers. They’re at the university for a short time, they argue, and won’t make a career out of being a graduate assistants.

Unionization of graduate assistants has happened at more than two dozen campuses around the United States.

A quick look at several public university campuses and systems — California, Washington, SUNY and Massachusetts — shows that unionizing did increase pay and benefits.

Student leaders involved in the unions laid out a list of pay and benefit increases they got in their first and subsequent contracts. Totaling the increases in pay and benefits, along with savings through waivers and curbs of various fee increases, indicates they outweighed the $200-$300 or so that graduate assistants paid in annual union dues.

Thaller referred to a 2000 Tufts University study that shows unionization did not hurt faculty-student relations — although faculty in the survey did show some concerns over the cost to university.

Although the unionization debate has been largely civil, the U has seen a few dust-ups. University administration has accused union organizers of being overly aggressive and of harassing students. Union supporters say that’s not true, and that the U is just trying to stifle students’ right to discuss the union.

In January, state Sen. Thomas Bakk (DFL- Cook) wrote a letter to U President Eric Kaler, saying the university was making misleading statements in its union literature. Kaler told reporters he’d look into it, but Dion said the U found nothing it needs to change.

Vote-counting begins Monday, and takes just a few hours, a state Bureau of Mediation Services spokeswoman said .

If unionization supporters win the majority they need, they’ll form a committee and start bargaining a contract.

Graduate assistants would then have to ratify it — the ultimate test of whether the union succeeds. Dion said first contracts at the U have generally taken 1-3 years.

Thaller said the union wouldn’t start charging students until they accepted a contract. It was unlikely, he said, that they’d approve an agreement that wasn’t worth the dues.

He said it’s the fifth time that graduate students have tried to unionize, and the fourth in the past 20 years.