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UConn graduate assistants unionize

By Sten Spinella
On April 27, 2014

Last week, University of Connecticut officially recognized the graduates students unanimous vote to unionize. 

There are 2,135 graduate assistants at UConn. The decision to unionize means that graduate assistants form the largest union. Now, 85 percent of university employees belong to a union out of all UConn employee groups. The faculty union sports 1,700 members while staff has 1,600. 

The move was made by the graduate assistants, in agreement with UConn's governing board, in order to have the ability to negotiate issues such as the work environment, hours, and wages. This agreement (which can be read in full online) stipulates that graduate assistants, who currently work 20 hours per week and make between $20,159 and $23,583 a year, are still not allowed to negotiate "academic decisions" with regards to who teaches what, what they teach, tuition and supplemental fees. 

After the decision, University Spokesperson Stephanie Reitz released a public statement. 

"The University has been, and will continue to be, neutral with regard to this effort," Reitz said. "Individual graduate students are free to make their own decisions. The University and its senior administrators will not seek to influence the decision of any GA."

Graduate assistants at UConn organized to construct petitions, which were sent to the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations on Apr. 17. The Board verified the petitions, and the United Auto Workers Union are to represent the now unionized employees.

It was resolved that the UConn Board of Trustees will handle negotiations with the graduate assistants. At this point in time, there are graduate assistant unions at 60 other schools throughout the United States.

A study conducted last year and published by Cornell University examined eight separate academic institutions of higher learning - four unionized, four non-unionized. As is stated in the paper: "These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees." Not surprisingly, the study also showed that graduate assistants who hold membership in unions are paid more than those who do not. The study - conducted by Sean E. Rogers, assistant professor of management at New Mexico State University; Adrienne E. Eaton, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University; and Paula B. Voos, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers - disproved the hypothesis put forth by graduate assistant unions: that unionizing would harm relationships between graduate assistants and professors. In fact, on average, work relationships between assistant and professor were seen to be happier and more fulfilling at schools with had graduate assistant unions.

Controversy has plagued many attempts at university employee unions. In 2013, New York University graduate assistants voted 620 to 10 to unionize, and they too are represented by the United Automobile Workers. Christy Thornton, a PhD candidate in history at NYU, wrote for Al Jazeera that the triumph of NYU graduate assistants was over a prevailing collegiate system.

"This restructuring has brought about many important changes - an enormous expansion in the number of highly paid executive administrators; a greater focus on revenue generation, with some colleges deciding to cut departments like history and English, which are deemed unprofitable; an increasing reliance on part-time adjunct faculty, whose meager pay and lack of benefits have driven some to public assistance; and most important for students and their families, massive increases in tuition and student debt...This victory offers a decisive rebuke to the corporate vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion."

Northwestern University football players voted last Friday on whether or not they want to unionize. Proponents of the move say that it could help to improve the conditions of the athletes, who could conceivably look for longterm healthcare, promised scholarships and possible future payment. But not all the players are looking to unionize. Trevor Siemian, quarterback for Northwestern, spoke to The Chicago Tribune about the issue just recently.

"We filed for employee cards, but that doesn't mean a union is the right avenue," Siemian said. "Especially at Northwestern, where most guys on the team agree we have been treated very, very well. I'm treated here far better than I deserve."

Furthermore, Northwestern University officials and administrators are actively against a players union. Said Northwestern's vice president for university relations, Alan Cubbage: "While we respect the NLRB (National Labor Review Board) process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes."

Before anything can happen, though, the NLRB has to decide upon the issue of whether the football players can be considered Northwestern employees. Still, after the vote, some players exhibited positivity. Kain Colter, a player for Northwestern, is widely recognized as the ringleader for this movement. Speaking to The Chicago Tribune, he was optimistic. 

"We're one step closer to a world where college athletes are not stuck with sports related medical bills, do not lose their scholarships when they are injured, are not subject to unnecessary brain trauma, and are given better opportunities to complete their degrees," Colter said.

There is also conflict within the state of Connecticut on the issue, although it is outside the confines of UConn. Since 2004, Yale University GAs have been attempting to unionize, but the University does not legally have to recognize them as a union, and they have chosen not to.

The concept of unionization is complex, and the process and final decision on the matter can have far reaching ramifications.

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