Grad students organize a union
A group of University of Alaska graduate student workers trying to form a union marched on the UAF campus Friday. They’re following a nationwide trend of student workers organizing.
The Alaska Labor Relations Agency received a petition from the Alaska Graduate Workers Association February 22. The group proposes to represent 530 UA system graduate student workers who are paid a stipend or teaching assistant wage, making them part of the unit that is organizing.
Derek Arnold is on the Association’s steering committee member Derek Arnold says they recently sent cards to all prospective union members to gauge their interest.
“We recently got our card count, so that was the first step was to get our card count, a showing of interest. We got the showing of interest done. It's been certified by the ALRA, the Alaska Labor Relations Agency, and the university has now notified everyone who is in that unit, which was anyone who's both a graduate student and a university employee.”
Katya Berghaus is also on the steering committee.
“There's a lot of student support. Everybody really wants us to move to the voting stage right now. Showing physical presence now that we are kind of out of the whole COVID times as a way of doing that, getting everybody excited and showing the university system that we are still committed to this.”
Compensation, healthcare and working conditions are important issues for the union. Victor Devaux-Chupin says he views unionization as a way to attract more talent, especially to the mother campus.
”UAF, it has an international renown for the science it does. It's literally in the interest of everybody for this to happen, because (if) you have happy grad students, you have good publicity. It's hard to convince grad students who come here because Fairbanks is already a harsh place. What makes the core is the people and the relationship that we have. Otherwise, the place it's pretty, but it's a harsh environment.”
Many grad students are paid out of research grants, but Berghaus says, the UA system extracts overhead fees to help administer the grants.
“The university makes a big win with us. Having more students means more money for the university. The more attractive the university is, the more students that come here, the more money the university will have.”
The unit would be part of the UAW – the United Auto Workers Union. They now represent about 19,000 student workers across the country,
and about a quarter of their 400,000 members work for universities. Arnold says this local unit is part of that nationwide trend.
“We're actually the only, um, R1, R2 research institution on the West coast that doesn't have a graduate student union. So I think in that regard, we're, we're quite, quite a ways behind.”
Arnold says one of the issues is participation in policy.
“We want to be part of the process. You know, we want to have a voice in decisions that are made. And currently we can — people can get worked up, they -- we can have a lot of people put in a lot of effort to try to get a problem addressed, but number one, it's optional. You know, they don't have to listen to us. And number two, that's a lot of responsibility to put on grad students. And this makes it so we are iteratively part of the process all the time.”
The next step is a two-week period where the university can object to the unionization. If there is no objection from the UA administration, the Association will hold a vote to unionize. If a union is certified, it can begin negotiations with the university for a contract.