University of Minnesota graduate student workers advance union drive


University of Minnesota graduate student workers took two keys steps in their union-building drive Tuesday, simultaneously asking the administration to recognize their union and filing to schedule a union election.

The two-pronged approach was necessary, said Scott Thaller, a research assistant in the Physics Department, “…because we are realists. We know that a joint petition is a more democratic and inclusive way to form our union and we are hopeful that the university will agree to file joint petition. But we are preparing for other outcomes by also asking the BMS to call a union election.”

On the university’s Minneapolis campus, graduate assistants delivered a letter to the office of University President Eric Kaler, inviting the university to join with a majority of its 4,500 graduate research and teaching assistants to file a petition for union recognition with the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

Across the Mississippi River at the Bureau of Mediation Services office in St. Paul, a second group of graduate assistants asked the bureau to schedule a union election. The Bureau oversees Minnesota’s collective bargaining law for public employees.

University opposition to a graduate assistants’ union has blocked three previous organizing efforts since 1991, Thaller noted. However, he continued, “This time, so many grad assistants are involved and support the way that a union will finally give us the right and power to advocate for ourselves, that we believe we will succeed.”

“Having a union will give us the collective power, as graduate workers, to negotiate the terms and conditions of our jobs with the university,” said Elita Poplavska, a graduate assistant in the Department of Pharmaceutical Care and Health Systems. “When we form a union, the university must meet and negotiate with the graduate student workers.”

Graduate Assistants are organizing their union under the United Auto Workers umbrella. The UAW is one of the nation’s most diverse labor unions, representing more than 45,000 workers in higher education, including teaching assistants, research assistants, academic administrators, full-time and adjunct faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and clerical, technical and professional employees.

Ron McInroy, director of UAW Region 4, applauded the graduate assistants, saying, “It is rewarding to see graduate assistants from almost all academic disciplines at the university working together to achieve their shared goals. By democratically forming a union they will have a much-needed voice in the terms and conditions of their work.”

Graduate research assistants engage in a wide range of endeavors, from solar energy and nanotechnology to treatments for cancer and AIDS and work that shapes global and economic policy. Graduate instructors design their own courses and are the primary instructors of record for a significant portion of undergraduate students.

For more information

Visit the GSWU-UAW website