Graduate students move to unionize nationwide

Last week, UConn agreed to recognize its graduate students' union.

Yale graduate students have tried to gain recognition from their university for two decades.

Student-athletes aren’t the only college attendees attempting to unionize these days.

Graduate students in the Nutmeg State are mobilizing and demanding their schools give them collective bargaining rights. Just last week, the University of Connecticut (UConn) agreed to recognize the UConn Graduate Employee Union/United Auto Workers union (GEU-UAW).

UConn’s graduate students union garnered support from more than 50 percent of the graduate student body, solidifying the administration-recognized union as the first in the state. But more than just being the first, a UAW spokesperson told Campus Reform that the swiftness and “constructive nature” the university showed towards the students’ initiative was “unprecedented” after the graduate students reached out to UAW last fall for support.

Wasting no time, Yale University’s graduate students protested Wednesday in favor of a student union. The Connecticut Ivy League school’s graduate students have pushed futilely for the university to recognize them as a union for the past two decades.

While UConn’s union victory seemed to add fuel to Yale’s students’ protest, a spokesperson for the university told Campus Reform that their decision “doesn’t legally” affect how Yale sees graduate student unions—which is not at all.

“Yale University and the Graduate School have worked and will continue to work productively with faculty and students, including the Graduate Student Assembly, on the issues identified by the petition,” the university said in a statement emailed to Campus Reform. “We are committed to the best possible academic outcomes for our students.”

But that doesn't seem to be enough for the Bulldogs; Wednesday’s protest in New Haven was organized by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the student organization not recognized by Yale.

“We have to make sure that those who do the research and the teaching get to have a say in how the research and teaching gets done,” Antoine Lentacker, a doctoral student in the history department, said.

Yale graduate students’ desire to unionize isn’t completely far-fetched; 60 other institutions across the United States view their graduate students as university employees and recognize the unions that they form.

About 300 miles south of New Haven, the University of Maryland (UMD) is also toying with the idea of unionization among its graduate students. Currently the school has what it calls a “meet-and-confer” system which includes a Graduate Assistant Advisory Council comprised of 12 elected graduate assistants. Those on the council meet with the graduate school dean and other members of Maryland’s administration every semester in order to voice concerns among the graduate student population.

However, with UMD’s move to the Big Ten athletic conference in a few months, some graduate students don’t think the “meet-and-confer” system is enough.

“Right now, [with meet-and-confer], we can advocate, but that is all we can do. It’s mediation, not an outlet,” Graduate Student Government David Colon-Cabrera told The Diamondback, Maryland’s student newspaper, last month.

A UAW spokesperson told Campus Reform that UConn’s successful and speedy unionization was due in part to the high level of political support the graduate students gathered from Democratic lawmakers from across the state. Still, while UConn’s administration officially recognizes the union, they wish to remain neutral on the subject.

UConn “would not seek to influence the decisions of any [graduate student] on the issue, but would recognize the UAW as their bargaining entity if a majority voted to seek representation,” Stephanie Reitz, a university spokesperson told Campus Reform. “It’s a procedural thing, mostly.”

Reitz said that recognition by the university doesn’t give the unionized graduate students any additional benefits; it simply “streamlines the process.”

A UAW spokesperson said that while the university may remain neutral on the on the issue, they expect to see the “same constructive spirit” in the bargaining process that is to come.

“But bargaining is bargaining. I’m sure there will be some disagreements,” the spokesperson said.

According to UConn’s student newspaper, The Daily Campus, graduate students are paid between $20,159 and $23,583 with health insurance options available for purchase between $200 and $1,622.

Madelynn von Baeyer, a graduate student studying anthropology at UConn, told Campus Reform that it was easy to get graduate students on board.

“We saw noticeable changes in our health benefits and fee increases over the past year,” she said. “There was a drastic decrease in our health benefits over the past two years.”

Von Baeyer says she hopes that with the newly recognized union, graduate students at the Storrs, Conn. university will be able to lobby for health benefit increase, student fee waivers and wage increases.

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