Graduate student workers are key to University of Minnesota’s success


With more than 65,000 students and 25,000 employees spread across five University of Minnesota campuses, it would be easy to overlook Scott Thaller, Sarah Nelson, Brandon Wu and their colleagues. But these graduate student workers, who conduct important research and teaching, are critical to the university’s success.

The contributions of the university’s graduate student workforce – 4,500 strong – are gaining greater visibility as these workers seek to organize a union. [See related story]. They say unionization would aid their efforts to improve teaching and research – and help the university maintain its role as a leader in higher education.

A diverse group

The graduate assistant corps – most of which is concentrated on the Twin Cities campus – runs the gamut of career paths. Some are in classrooms every day with students, while others are engaged in groundbreaking research. The nature of the work varies from department to department. As a result, job security, compensation and workload vary across departments, too. Despite the differences, however, graduate assistants find they have much to unite them.

One example: Reading. Lots and lots of reading. Regardless of work capacity, every graduate assistant is expected to maintain familiarity of the latest research and publishing within his or her field of expertise.

For Thaller, a research assistant in plasma physics working on his Ph.D. thesis, reading and writing make up the bulk of his 12-hour days. Previously, Thaller had a full load of instruction in addition to his own research, which he did after fulfilling his student-related interactions of lectures, grading and office hours.

“We graduate assistants are here working hard in research and in teaching. We deserve a voice in decisions that affect us,” he said.

“We are integral to the research and teaching of the U and it is important we have a say. A union would put us on equal legal footing for both parties to meet and negotiate. It’s a democratic apparatus. We care and want to help in the success of teaching and research making this a premiere research university. We can do that if we have a say in the terms and conditions of our own employment.”

Teaching is a top focus

Nelson, a Ph.D. student in geography, is equally enthusiastic about collective bargaining for graduate assistants. She, too, knows the work involved in making the university a premiere teaching facility.

“The content of my days varies significantly depending on the course and the point in the semester,” she noted. “Generally, my tasks include attending lectures and becoming familiar with all assigned course materials; editing or redesigning course assignments; holding weekly office hours to meet with students about coursework and progress; responding to student emails and questions; grading all course assignments and leading weekly lab sessions.”

In addition to these responsibilities, many of the graduate student workers have their own coursework to do. And of course, many have families of their own. While one could argue they each made the decision to embark upon this journey, others point out that most employers outside the academic setting have predictable ways of dealing with employees. When it comes to graduate assistants, the University of Minnesota administration does not.

“Graduate assistant experience varies significantly across the university, as compensation, workload, and job security vary across departments,” said Nelson. She noted several examples:

  • Sudden changes to health insurance with no prior notice and requiring no feedback or input from graduate assistants;
  • Lack of vacation policy for graduate assistants with year-round appointments (many of whom are international, making it very difficult for them to visit family);
  • Lack of a clear policy regarding maternity leave;
  • Lack of clear grievance procedures for graduate assistants who are fired or experience harassment or unreasonable expectations;
  • Lack of job security in many departments, as employees may not know whether they have a job until very close to the start of a given semester;
  • No official mechanism for graduate assistants to negotiate over workload, meaning they often spend many hours in the laboratory or working on course material without pay.

Often, the graduate student worker’s supervisor is also a faculty mentor or advisor, making for a complicated labor-management relationship, Nelson said. “Again, experiences vary a lot from department to department.”

‘This is about voice’

Wu’s days are yet another variation of graduate assistant work-life. The second-year student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs has spent time instructing and will likely add a lab to his list of responsibilities, though he has yet to hear from the university about his expected responsibilities this upcoming semester.

Wu, who worked at a unionized non-profit organization prior to coming to the university, cites that experience as underscoring his commitment to the collective bargaining efforts of the graduate assistants.

“You don’t have to be working in a factory for your voice to be important,” he said. “I saw the benefits of the union not in wages or in benefits, but in non-wage benefits. I saw that a formal grievance process made the relationships between worker and boss more honest. It brought people together. It made more dialog possible and made us stronger.”

Wu concluded, “I believe the union not only improves the work but makes us happier and then we do better work. I honestly think if we do this we’ll be happier. I’m super excited.”