Point Unionization is the Best Deal
by Jeremy Moore, Christie Toth, & Patrick O'Mahen
Counterpoint …But What Are They Really Selling?
by Adam Duzik
In the coming month, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission is likely to order an election allowing Graduate Student Research Assistants (GSRAs) to decide whether or not they wish to join the Graduate Employees Organization. GEO is the union which currently represents roughly 1,800 Graduate Student Instructors here at the University of Michigan. Nearly 18 months after a group of GSRAs first approached GEO seeking to form a union, more than 1,000 have signed cards stating their support for joining GEO. As two GSRAs and a long-time GSI, we strongly believe that being a part of GEO will improve working conditions and increase the voice GSRAs have on campus, all while maintaining academic excellence at the University of Michigan.
GEO is a democratic organization run exclusively by graduate student members. The membership elects officers annually, and a Stewards’ Council made up of volunteer representatives from all academic departments manages the routine affairs of the union. Stewards’ Council meetings are open to all members. GEO members can vote in all union decisions, from hiring staff to setting dues and approving the budget. Members from all across campus play critical roles in developing and refining GEO’s platform in contract negotiations, and must approve any final agreement. Any member can inspect GEO’s finances, which undergo a professional audit each year.
GEO maintains a strong relationship with our parent union, The American Federation of Teachers, which has a tradition of low dues and local autonomy. The state federation does not interfere with local decision-making, but does provide support so our members can more effectively pursue member-determined priorities during bargaining.
Over the years, GEO has worked hard to improve pay and benefits for GSIs. Some benefits, such as zero-premium health coverage and access to childcare, have been passed on to GSRAs. But others have not. For example, GSRAs can only choose the basic GradCare health plan, while GSIs can choose from a variety of health plans with access to a wider array of out-of-network providers. International student GSIs are eligible to have their SEVIS fee – a $200 fee they must pay to the Department of Homeland Security – reimbursed by the university, while international GSRAs are not.
The benefits of having union representation outweigh the costs of dues. Take healthcare, for example. In 2011, University administrators increased premium costs for most employees. Pushing this plan on graduate students would have cost every GSRA at least $600 a year in increased premiums. This is considerably more than the roughly $435 in annual dues a year-round, half-time GSI currently pays under the existing GEO policy.
Without GEO and a union contract standing in the way, administrators would have forced premium increases on grads. In 2003, UM officials backed down from a plan to make grads pay hundreds of dollars in annual health insurance premiums after hundreds of GEO members
organized against the hikes. In contrast, Wisconsin graduate students saw their health premiums nearly triple after losing their rights to bargain for health insurance in 2011.
A union contract would also provide workplace protections for GSRAs. As the case of Jennifer Dibbern illustrates, the current procedures for dealing with GSRA complaints are woefully inadequate. When she claimed she was fired by her adviser for union organizing, Dibbern spent four months being alternately ignored and bullied by officials as she sought to redress the problem via existing protocols.
Though Dibbern’s case is extreme, numerous GSRAs report being shuffled through the bureaucracy while seeking assistance on issues such as taking family leave, dealing with abuse from their advisers, or navigating other job-related problems. In contrast, GEO-represented GSIs have a legally enforceable grievance procedure to efficiently solve problems that arise between supervisors and workers.
Opponents claim that a union will hurt University research because it will destroy “mentor-mentee” relationships between advisors and students. As Dibbern’s case illustrates, not all graduate students are protected by such relationships. A GSRA union would improve the climate by demanding accountability from supervisors, promoting
fair management practices, and encouraging GSRAs to take collective responsibility for maintaining good work relationships.
A few GSRAs –backed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank – want to prevent all GSRAs from having the opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union. By aggressively lobbying the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to not recognize GSRAs as both employees and students, they have tried to stop a fair election from even occurring.
The argument these groups make against GSRA unionization is a vague assertion that unionized GSRAs will destroy the University of Michigan’s “greatness.” Administrators expressed similar fears when they tried to stop GSIs and medical residents from unionizing in the 1970s. Those fears were unfounded. The university has maintained its academic excellence, and union representation has dramatically improved the lives of GSIs and medical residents.
Rather than stoking fear, our message is one of opportunity. We think that by choosing a union, GSRAs will improve the work environment for both graduate students and faculty. This GSRA union will also enhance the University of Michigan’s reputation for excellence by securing wages and benefits that enable the university to attract top-notch graduate students and the faculty who want to work with them.
Most GSRAs have already been visited at their home or office by a paid representative from the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), an organization trying to sell us on the idea of unionization. But what are they really selling?
GEO is asking all GSRAs to pay a mandatory, per-year, out of pocket fee of over $400; at such a cost, one would hope they would be clear on the benefits they intend to provide. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. GEO has only made vague campaign statements promising benefits via collective bargaining agreements. Any objective analysis of these claims shows that unionization is just not worth the cost.
The majority of graduate students fall under two types of appointments: GSRAs and graduate student instructors (GSIs). GSIs help professors teach undergraduate (and sometimes graduate) courses by grading, holding discussion sessions, and meetings with students in office hours. While GSIs may work with multiple professors in different classes during their studies, GSRAs choose an advisor early on in graduate school along with a multi-year research project. This set up requires a close relationship between mentor and mentee. Eventually this research becomes the student’s dissertation, to be approved by the professor and thesis committee, culminating in a doctoral degree. The relationship does not end there, however. Not only will the adviser write recommendation letters for years to come, but many students also continue collaborating with advisers throughout their careers, rendering these relationships invaluable.
As a result, most students choose their advisers carefully; the process can go on for several months. Thus, adviser “horror stories” are rare, usually resulting from conflicting personalities. Students can change advisors in such situations and complete their degrees in another lab. Grievance procedures, temporary funding, and guidance are provided to students by their departments, colleges, and the Rackham Graduate School. The university exists for the education and training of its students, and the university administration has shown over and over that they have the students’ best interests in mind.
GEO also cites the power of collective bargaining to secure benefits and stipends as a selling point for unionization. GSRAs were part of GEO until 1981, when the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) decided that GSRAs are students, not public employees, and thus unable to unionize. As such, GEO often makes the point that while GSRAs are paid similar stipends and benefits as GSIs, the university has no obligation to continue this practice without a GSRA union contract. In reality, there are great incentives for the university to continue improving GSRA benefits: competition. The University of Michigan has to compete with other top tier universities for the same graduate student talent and cannot afford to underfund its students, or those students will pursue an education elsewhere. Additionally, many departments will guarantee funding to their students for the duration of their study, assuming satisfactory academic progress. GEO’s “doom and gloom” scenarios of cuts to GSRA stipends and benefits have had 30 years to come to pass, but such a scenario has not materialized.
In dollars and cents, a GSRA union will end up costing GSRAs over $400 in union dues annually. That’s more than $2,000 over the average 5 years spent on a Ph.D based on current stipend and dues levels, all for naught.
A unionized employee can choose to opt out of membership, forfeiting their right to vote on union matters, but will still be forced to pay the union’s service fee. Currently, the difference in dues for full members and service fee associates is very small, meaning that even GSRAs who decline membership will still be forced to pay over $400 per year. Instead of increasing the amount of money GSRAs receive, unionization ends up costing GSRAs. For GSRAs with dependents, $400 a year is a lot of money to pay on an already tight budget. International students in this situation are often in worse positions, especially if their spouse is unable to work due to visa restrictions, leaving the GSRA stipend their only source of income.
The issue of GSRA unionization has been brewing for over two years now, with representatives from GEO and its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (a member of AFL-CIO), soliciting students in their labs, offices, and even their homes. GEO has its own interests and goals, which are to have as large a membership and incoming dues as possible. The “benefits” GEO is selling to GSRAs are ill defined and nebulous, with a steep cost and no option to opt out. Ultimately, unionization is not in the best interests of GSRAs.
About the Issue
Point author: Moore is a GSRA in the College of Engineering. Toth is a GSRA at the Sweetland Center for Writing. O’Mahen is a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Political Science. He has worked as both a GSI and as a GSRA.
Counterpoint author: Adam Duzik is a PhD candidate and GSRA in Materials Science and Engineering. He is also a member of Students Against GSRA Unionization (SAGU).
Edited by: Mike Guisinger
Cover by: Lulu Tang