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New U of M Graduate Labor Union Could Unionize 4,000 Jobs

The union drive went public Monday.

12:03 PM CST on February 20, 2023

Instagram: @umntwincities|

Is Goldy pro-union? Is he cold? Impossible to say.

Anya Auerbach doesn't hesitate when asked about her brand-new union's top grievance.

“No. 1 at the top of most people’s list is pay; we’re dramatically underpaid," the third-year PhD candidate says. "I’m in the college of Biological Science, so we’re not at the lowest end of the pay spectrum, and I’m still making $10,000 less than the living wage for a single adult in the Twin Cities.”

That cost of living figure is $37,025 inside Hennepin County, per the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The UMN Graduate Labor Union, which went public Monday, hopes to boost worker pay, along with several other goals for grad workers at the U.

This campaign to unionize the U of M's grad workers began in 2020, catalyzed, in part, by the university's reaction to the pandemic. There have been past attempts to unionize those 4,000-ish jobs, though Auerbach says the current UMN Graduate Labor Union is by far the best organized push. (Similar union efforts have been defeated five times at the U since 1974, Minnesota Reformer reports.) This time the union is backed by United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), which has helped graduate workers win unions in recent years at MIT, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern. Grad assistant unions exist around the Big 10 at Iowa, Michigan, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Michigan State. The recent national surge of unionizing grad students "may become a wave," Forbes reports.

If successful, the UMN Graduate Labor Union would represent a vast swath of jobs across the U.

“Graduate workers are employees of the university who are training, typically, to become PhDs, master's, some other degree programs," says Auerbach, who works as a curatorial assistant at the Bell Museum. "We are in some senses still students, but we’re also doing an incredible amount of essential work for the university—T.A.s, running labs, research.” 

The UMN Graduate Labor Union is currently collecting union card signatures across the Twin Cities campus. The next step, as with any union drive, is seeking voluntary recognition from their employer, the University of Minnesota. Failing that, the workers will hold an election overseen by the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services. A simple majority vote would mean a freshly unionized sector of U employees.

“I would love for them to voluntarily recognize, and realize that working with their employees is in their own best interest," Auerbach says. "Given the history at other universities that does seem unlikely. But they could change the pattern."

The U of M could use some good PR right about now. President Joan Gabel's brief, egregiously conflict-y side hustle with Securian Financial embarrassed the university from December through late last month. Last fall, Board of Regents member Steve Sviggum spurred a week of negative headlines when he wondered aloud if U of M Morris had become "too diverse"; the alleged quid pro quo arrangement to name David McMillan the interim chancellor of UMD served as yet another Gabel-related scandal last summer.

The U's PR department didn't immediately respond to Racket's questions about the reveal of UMN GLU and whether the university will voluntarily recognize it.

“I can’t emphasize how incredibly excited I am, I’ve been working on this for over a year now," Auerbach says. "So to have it be public, and something I can talk about, is amazing… it still doesn’t feel real. Unionizing has built an incredible feeling of solidarity and community.”

You can watch UMN GLU's first-ever rally live at noon:

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