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Graduate Students eyeing union drive
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - March 7, 1997
A group of graduate students known as the Graduate Employees Organization on February 27 announced a campaign to form a union in a statement timed to coincide with a national Day of Action for graduate employee unions.
The drive is led by Steve Gensemer, a fourth-year student in the doctoral program in physics. He said the initiative was spurred by worries about the impact of budget cuts on graduate students.
"A lot of us see the University downsizing, cutting programs," Gensemer said. "Graduate students have no way of planning out the rest of their careers. They don't know whether they will have assistantships and they have no recourse for anything the administration chooses to do. It has a lot of people scared.
"Unionization is the next logical step," he said.
The Graduate Student Senate began discussing the possibility of organizing a union in February 1996, Gensemer said. The Graduate Employees Organization was formed in the fall as a subcommittee of the senate and has the support of that organization, according to Julie Cyr, its president.
Jim Henkel, associate dean of the Graduate School, who first heard about the initiative last week, said he is waiting for more information.
"I don't think it's good or bad, it's just a development," he said. "We don't know enough at this point about what the issues are." Gensemer has been invited to present his case at a meeting of the Graduate Student Liaison Committee on March 13.
Henkel said the administration recognizes that graduate students play a critical role at the University. "They do a lot of the teaching and perform a lot of the research," he said. "They're an integral part of the University. A Research I university is nothing without good graduate students."
Graduate assistants up
Data supplied by the Office of Institutional Research show that of the 4,405 graduate students at Storrs in 1995 - the latest year for which statistics are available - 1,710 were employed as graduate assistants. The number of graduate assistants has grown over the years, in part because there has been a shift toward a larger proportion of half-time assistantships. In 1995, there were 778 full and 932 half-time assistants. In 1985, there were 949 graduate assistants, of whom 499 held full assistantships and 450 hed half-time positions.
In return for their teaching or research responsibilities, graduate assistants receive health care, a tuition waiver and a stipend, and are considered state employees. A full graduate assistantship involves 20 hours of work a week and an annual stipend of $13,000. The stipend for a half assistantship, involving 10 hours of work, is $6,700.
As budgets have been cut, universities have increasingly turned to graduate students instead of permanent faculty for teaching, and with fewer permanent posts to apply for, graduate students are staying longer in temporary positions, Gensemer said. "Most of what they are doing is teaching for very low pay," he said.
According to Gensemer, the primary aim of the union is collective bargaining. "We hope with collective bargaining we will eventually get a contract that establishes conditions - not just wages but fees, tuition waivers, hiring and firing procedures, housing issues, teaching load, TA training, visa issues for foreign students, and advisor/advisee relations," he said.
In the fall, the GEO will seek affiliation with one of the country's large unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers, or the National Education Association. "It helps to have resources on your side," Gensemer said.
To form a collective bargaining unit recognized by the state, an organization needs 30 percent of eligible members to demonstrate interest by signing a petition or holding cards, said Ken Hampton of the state Board of Labor Relations. The organization can then file a formal petition with the board. If there are no objections, the board will schedule an election on campus. Formal recognition requires a majority of those present and voting to vote in favor of the union.
If recognized by the state, a graduate student employee union would then have the right to bargain collectively for a contract with the University - a contract that would be legally binding.
According to a Web page maintained by Gensemer, this is the first time at a public institution in Connecticut that graduate student employees have declared their intention to form a union. In the only other example in the state to date, graduate student employees at Yale University were recently recognized as employees by the National Labor Relations Board, the body responsible for recognizing a union at a private institution. The Yale administration has appealed the decision.
The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, which organized last week's Day of Action, lists 22 unions nationwide, at 19 state universities and three private universities, including schools such as Yale, where students are still seeking recognition.
Two schools - the City University of New York and Rutgers University - include graduate student employees in their faculty union.