More than 800 vote during first day of graduate student union election

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Monday saw heated tempers between graduate student employees as the first day of voting to form a union kicked off.

About 840 graduate workers voted in the election Monday, according to Jan Johnson, labor mediation manager for the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.

While some graduate students were excited to voice their opinion about unionization, opponents of the Graduate Student Workers United/United Auto Workers said organizers made allegedly unethical decisions, including defacing their sidewalk chalk near Coffman Union on Sunday night.

Andrew Wagner said he caught GSWU/UAW organizers “red-handed” as they altered the chalk messages he had left on the ground. Where he wrote “Vote,” they added “no to democracy.” Other messages were changed from “Vote no” to “Vote now.” He said the people who altered the messages apologized after they were discovered — a picture on the group’s Facebook page claimed to show a GSWU/UAW organizer changing the chalk message.

Scott Thaller, a GSWU/UAW spokesman and graduate student at the University of Minnesota, said the alterations were not an officially-sanctioned activity of the group. The person who did it was an organizer, but he said she made a “silly choice” and apologized for it.

But Wagner said that wasn’t an isolated incident.

In an incident prior to this week’s voting, while organizers were collecting signatures to file for a union election, Josh Halverson said he was interrupted mid-lecture during a lab. He said organizers would get in his way when he tried to continue teaching, refusing to sign.

“They wouldn’t let me do what I needed to do,” Halverson said.

In both October and December 2011, the University sent a letter to GSWU/UAW alleging that the organizers harassed other graduate student assistants to sign the cards. It asked that they cease soliciting “in University workplaces during work time.”

Thaller said there was no intent to harass other graduate students. Organizers don’t want employees to have a negative experience with the organization.

“It’s not an efficient use of time to go around bothering people who don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Both Wagner and Halverson are members of Graduate Students Against GSWU, which formed about two months ago in response to allegations of unethical behavior on the part of GSWU/UAW organizers. Many of its members oppose the union for different reasons.

Almost 100 graduate student employees, many of whom are in a science, engineering or the economics department at the University, have signed a letter on the organization’s website declaring opposition to the formation of a union.

Some, like Wagner, believe the UAW cannot effectively represent them because of alleged pervasive unethical behavior by its organizers to suppress opposition.

Rajan Vatassery, a chemistry graduate student, said many graduate student employees think they already have a good deal by being able to earn a doctorate without incurring debt and deferring payments for previous loans.

Wagner said while the intentions of a union are noble, the execution of those issues is in doubt. The UAW is a very liberal organization, he said, and with the polarized political climate, he’s unsure that it could achieve its goals.

Others believe a union under UAW could benefit them.

Jolene Johnson said she experienced health issues in the past. Although she improved, she said if she had continued to be in poor health, she would have wished for a negotiated policy for sick students.

Although she found out she was ineligible to vote Monday afternoon because she’s currently a doctoral dissertation fellow, she said she would probably be a research assistant again this summer and wanted to vote ‘yes’ to a union.

Kate Petersen, an English graduate student employee, is one of the 4,400 graduate students who are eligible. Petersen voted in support of a union, saying she and her coworkers should have a voice in the changing University workplace amid budget constraints.

“I think it’s really important for graduate students to have a place at the table.”