I am 100 percent in favor of graduate student research assistants having a voice on campus and standing up to the University if they need to, but where is there open debate about the value, the cost or the alternatives to unionization? All I hear are two sides, one loudly shouting principally about the downsides while ignoring the benefits, the other proclaiming the benefits while never addressing the costs.
The situation, for me, comes down to this: Some students are in a good advising situation, but what are we willing to do to provide for students who aren’t? Meanwhile, the conversation has divided students into two groups: those worried about cost and those worried about protecting our collective interests. There are two questions being discussed. First, are GSRA employees — and does this distinction matter? — and second, who do GSRAs want to protect them?
Regarding the first question, if we “win” this fight to call graduate students graduate employees then no one really wins. As employees first and students second, it becomes all too clear we are actually the University’s GEARs (Graduate Employee Assistant Researchers). Let’s face it. The University couldn’t operate without GSRAs. Talk of “employee” status really takes the focus away from whether GSRAs need protection. If we do need protection, and we can’t get it, we would need to be employees to force the University to allow it. So, whom do we need protection from and who should do the protecting?
Well, we need protection when other groups decide what’s best for us. For example, the will of all students to unionize shouldn’t have been assumed by Gradate Employees’ Organization when it attempted to accrete GSRAs without a vote, and the Senate and SAGU should likewise stop their attempts to prevent a vote from happening.
So, if you want effective, efficient support and protection for students, it probably seems like the only options so far are either to be anti-union (let the University decide what’s best) or pro-employee union (hire a negotiator to fight for us). I reject this false dichotomy in favor of a student run ‘union’ that already exists. It’s called the Rackham Student Government.
Right now do we just let the University decide what’s best? When was the last time the University made students really worry? Remember continuous enrollment? Through it all, it was collaboration between RSG, GEO and the University that enacted the Continuous Enrollment Dispute Resolution Board and the Continuous Enrollment Working Group to resolve student concerns. So far as I know, the roll out process has gone more smoothly than predicted. So, GEO, what’s changed? Is the University suddenly deaf to the concerns of GSRAs and RSG?
I thank GEO and the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan for the work they have done to bring to light the issues in the current system. In particular, their campaign has demonstrated that students benefit from direct classroom or lab outreach. Moreover, it’s clear we need a system to protect students from academic disputes just as we did during the continuous enrollment. I hope that GEO and RSG will work with departments around the University to adopt fair and transparent procedures for students who must dispute being let go for academic reasons. Such a policy should come from collaboration — there is no academic distinction between GSIs and GSRAs.
As students, we should all stand in support of each other. If you know, or you are, a GSRA that needs support please speak up. Don’t keep it to yourself. RSG and GEO only work for you if you talk to them first. We all understand that things break occasionally and require work to maintain.
Just how much does it cost to negotiate with the University? GSRAs could start paying $400 a year for professionals to come and make contract adjustments every three years. But if we don’t demand a guarantee, if we just want to be heard, we could continue paying $3 a year to RSG. And even though we’re not spending our own money — the university ultimately pays these fees either way — doesn’t it make sense to use the $3 fix ‘til it stops working?
W. Ethan Eagle is a PhD candidate and GSRA in the Aerospace Engineering Department and former Rackham Student Government Division II representative.