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Minnesota Graduate Assistants Deserve a Voice at Work

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The University of Minnesota (UMN) administration has just been given a huge opportunity to respect democracy in the workplace.

Graduate student activists just announced that a majority of all 4,500 UMN Graduate Assistants have signed cards choosing Graduate Student Workers United/UAW (GSWU/UAW) as their Union. Now the only thing standing between Graduate Assistants and moving quickly into bargaining for a first contract is university administrators' agreement to a simple request: that they join the Union in asking the state to certify the Union by verifying that a majority of all Graduate Assistants have signed cards asking to be represented by GSWU/UAW.

The reason UMN should do this is plain and simple: majority sign-up is a more democratic, fair, and efficient method for workers to decide whether to have a union. It allows the employer and the workers to engage in campaigning and it requires support from a majority of all workers, whereas so-called representation elections allow the employer to have an unnecessary, and often costly, second campaign against unionization and the outcome is determined by a majority of only those who vote in the election.

After thousands of private and public conversations among Graduate Assistants about GSWU/UAW, as well as UMN administrators' widespread dissemination of their opposition to unionization (through a University-run town hall forum and a lengthy University FAQ made available to all Graduate Assistants), the democratic will of Graduate Assistants should be respected.

In other words, university administrators have exercised numerous opportunities to have their say against unionization; they should now let the workers' voices be heard by letting the state count the cards. If a majority of all Graduate Assistants have said they want a union, they should have a union.

Employers often reject this democratic majority sign-up process, instead forcing workers to go through costly and time-consuming representation elections. In this case, UMN administrators have already campaigned for over a year and apparently failed to dissuade Graduate Assistants from wanting to engage in collective bargaining through GSWU/UAW. During the lead up to representation elections, employers often intimidate and pressure workers to vote against the union in the hopes more workers will vote "no" rather than "yes" on unionization. But, unlike majority sign-up, often neither vote in these elections surpasses a majority of all eligible workers.

Dragging out their campaign any longer will make clear not only that UMN is undemocratic and determined to prevent unionization, but also that they are willing to waste scarce resources engaging in a longer fight against their employees' wishes.

At the University of California, my 6,000 postdoctoral scholar colleagues and I understand very clearly where Graduate Assistants at UMN are coming from. We formed our Union in 2008 through a majority sign-up process, probably for many of the same reasons UMN Graduate Assistants have formed GSWU/UAW.

Having worked as postdoc without union representation (at Yale University and UC) prior to working under our new contract, I have a clear sense of the advantages that come with a union contract in the academic workplace. The added rights, respect, security and predictability that come with a collective bargaining agreement -- knowing in advance when you will receive salary increases, that you cannot be terminated arbitrarily, that you are entitled to a specified amount of time off, and numerous other contractual rights and protections -- allow us to focus more effectively on our groundbreaking research projects.

Through the democratic process of collective bargaining -- which for us involved electing a bargaining committee comprised of postdocs, gathering thousands of bargaining surveys, and voting to ratify bargaining demands and the final agreement -- our Union at UC negotiated a contract that establishes minimum standards for pay, benefits and working conditions while also maintaining flexibility where we had a mutual interest with the University in doing so. Compensation is a good example. Our contract language on compensation guarantees minimum experience-based salaries and annual increases for all postdocs, which puts postdoc pay at UC among the best in the nation, but also maintains flexibility by making clear that "nothing shall preclude the University from providing compensation to Postdoctoral Scholars at rates above those required."

Hopefully, UMN administrators will move swiftly to respect the choice made by Graduate Assistants to engage in similar negotiations there.