Trying Again in Minnesota

Six years after a bid to unionize teaching assistants was defeated, petitions are filed for a new vote.
March 2, 2005

Graduate students at the University of Minnesota have filed petitions with state officials seeking a vote to create a union for 4,500 teaching assistants and other employees.

In 1999, graduate students voted down a union. But organizers say that times have changed in ways that make them confident of a win in the election, which is expected for this spring.

"In 1999, we were at the peak of the boom and people felt very differently about their programs and their employment prospects," said Ryan Murphy, a Minnesota graduate student in American studies and an organizer for the union effort. "Now, every program is facing budget cuts."

Murphy said that the top issues are health care and pay. Minnesota's health care for graduate students has been good, he said, but is being eroded as students are being hit with larger and larger premiums and copayments. And pay at Minnesota -- averaging just over $10,000 -- is below levels of other Big 10 institutions, he said. The union would cover graduate student employees at the university's Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.

In the last union drive, the Minnesota students affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For this round, the students have gone with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, a union that also represents graduate students at the University of Iowa.

Murphy declined to say how many students had signed the petitions for a union vote. State law requires at least 30 percent of potential members to request a union, and Murphy said that the union's goal for people signing the petition was "congruent with our goal to win the election." The union, known as GradTRAC -- for Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition -- started organizing for the drive in October.

Most of the campaign to date has been through one-on-one and small group meetings, not public rallies and leaflets. "We're running a very individualized campaign, rather than a more glitzy media campaign. This is an intellectual process," Murphy said.

Dan Wolter, a spokesman for the university, said that Minnesota has not yet taken a position on the union drive, but may do so soon.

The university recently announced a 10-percent increase in the base pay rate for graduate assistants, which Wolter called "an acknowledgment of the need" for the university "to be more competitive" with other institutions.

Murphy said that while the graduate students were happy to see any salary increase, it was hard not to link the timing to the union drive. "We've gotten two raises outside of cost-of-living adjustments in recent years and they were before the 1999 election and this one," he said.

The Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper at the university, came out in favor of the union drive last week, with some reservations. In an editorial, it warned that a union might result in higher pay for graduate students, but fewer graduate students over all, given that the university doesn't have much money to give out.

But the paper added that the low wages currently paid to graduate students "make a good case for unionizing."


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