As graduate students, we tend to have “jobs” beyond our coursework. Maybe we teach. Maybe we work outside the university. Perhaps our research is considered paid work. For a lot of us, this takes the form of a graduate assistantship: we have teaching assistants, research assistants, and assistants whose responsibilities are mixed or primarily administrative. There might be a union, and it's getting more common to have one: graduate assistants at Yale, Loyola Chicago, and Columbia have all voted recently to unionize. As a student at the University of Rhode Island (URI), my union is URI Graduate Assistants United (URI GAU). Regardless of what any graduate assistant thinks of unionization, it's still there. The union already exists here. The question is, what you do once you're at a university that has one? I say, communicate.
First off, unions have information. Because the union is composed of other graduate students (and maybe an outside employee--our one employee was a former union member), they have other important graduate student knowledge. They're likely to be in the loop about university events, including those with free food. They might know about conferences that your department hasn't heard about, because there are graduate students from all departments in the union. If your work is interdisciplinary, an extra ear to the ground about conferences and seminars outside your department is super useful. They might know about sources of funding that can support you getting to these conferences, too. Mine is even a funding source! This information is outside the official job of the union – but they have it, and you may as well take advantage of their knowledge. You can also add to it, using your knowledge of what's going on in your own department.
Then there's the information that is directly about the purpose of a union. That is, information about labor rights. Let's say you have a conflict in your department. The union should know any relevant procedures for handling this! Or suppose there's something in your contract that isn't clear … but it's important to you. This happened to me, as a disabled teaching assistant. As a student, I get accommodations through disability services. But as an assistant, do I go to disability services or to human resources? It wasn't specified. My department thought I went to disability services. Disability services thought I went to human resources. The union said the other people they knew about had gone to disability services. Disability services took care of my accommodations.
There's also collective bargaining. Regardless of whether your issues are the ones your union is making noise about, it's a good idea to know what they're pushing for! As you might expect, a pay raise is usually on the list. If the current health benefits are nonexistent or insufficient, those might be on the list too. Some unions provide updates on the bargaining process -- I know the URI GAU does. And if there is an issue you care about that your union isn't making noise about? They won't start if you don't tell them. If you do tell them, they might. When I started as a teaching assistant, I wasn't clear about where I went for accommodations because it wasn't specified. The bargaining team requested clarification, and they got it. There is a line in my contract that's there because I pointed out my issue, and my union made it their issue:
4.5 Disability Accommodations. The Administration and GAU shall adhere to Federal and State laws and regulations as they apply to treatment and accommodation of persons with disabilities. Requests for accommodations shall be submitted to the Office of Disabilities for Students.
That would not have happened had I assumed that since they weren't yet working on my issue, that meant they weren't willing to work on my issue. Instead, I talked to my union. Good things happened. What have you gotten from talking to your union?
[Image by Flickr user The U.S National Archives and used under Creative Commons license]