MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL and DULUTH, Minn. —By a 2,487-70 vote, graduate student workers at the main University of Minnesota campus in the Twin Cities—known statewide as “The U”—and its campus in Duluth voted to unionize with the United Electrical Workers.
The victory was the latest in a string of wins on university campuses for the independent union in both union-friendly states such as Minnesota and less-friendly states such as Indiana. UE has also racked up grad student wins at two prominent Illinois universities, Northwestern and the University of Chicago. The new Minnesota unit will represent 4,100 workers.
The grad students “are standing up for each other and getting themselves organized” with UE “because workers organizing workers is our strength,” said UE’s national President, Carl Rosen. He commented on the win at The U after a zoom press conference on UE’s contract battle against Wabtec, current owner of the nation’s oldest, largest, locomotive production plant.
“The tremendous pressures” on the grad student workers “and the negative consequences in higher education” also led the Minnesota grad student workers, and the others “to try to level the playing field” by organizing and bargaining, Rosen added.
UE’s success in organizing some 11,000 grad student teaching assistants, graduate assistants and research assistants, not counting those at The U, puts it in the same league as other unions—notably the Auto Workers, The News Guild and the Teamsters—who’ve organized campuses.
And it also points up, since the RAs, TAs and graduate assistants survive on too-low stipends, how they’ve become part of the underpaid, exploited class of workers who have had it up to here with bosses’ greed and turned to unions as a solution.
“Asking nicely wasn’t going to get us the things that we desperately need,” union organizer Lilly Webster told The Minnesota Reformer. Webster said the minimum pay for the grad student workers at The U is $16,000. Webster, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in math at the main Twin Cities campus, earns $22,000. The U’s maximum stipend is $25,000 and the yearly cost of living in Hennepin County (Minneapolis), is $37,025 for a single adult.
“There are too many people who are struggling to make rent, too many people who are struggling to put food on the table, too many people who are struggling for child care,” she added.
The St. Paul Union Advocate reported the organizing drive, fueled by the students, took only a few months. And in a letter posted on its website, two top administrators—the Human Resources chief and the dean of grad students–at The U welcomed the unionization decision and agreed to “collaborate with GLU-UE to determine the timing and next steps in the bargaining process.”
Conservation Sciences graduate worker David Wolfson told the Union Advocate the election’s outcome, after two-thirds of eligible workers signed union election authorization cards leading to the vote, “demonstrates the widespread support for collective bargaining.” Bargaining “gives us a seat at the table in determining whether we can make a living wage and be fairly compensated for the work we do…to make the university system function.”
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