As you may know, GAU is not the only Graduate Assistant union in Illinois: GAs at all three University of Illinois campuses also enjoy union protection for their employment rights. And now GAs in other states are looking to get protections as well.
Shortly before the start of this semester, Mizzou’s GAs received an email from the administration telling them that Mizzou would no longer be providing health insurance for GAs – and their insurance would end in THIRTEEN hours leaving GAs to scramble to find coverage. As a result, GAs quickly organized and rallied against the administration and University President Tim Wolfe (who was later forced out following student protests against his failure to respond to increasing incidents of racial harassment on campus), demanding that the university reinstate their health care. Under the pressure of the united GAs, Mizzou quickly backed down.
The success of this united front of GAs against the administration led to a realization of the strength of collective action by the GAs to improve their working conditions. As a result, graduate students have formed the Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) to create a GA union for Mizzou grads.
To broaden their understanding of the benefits of unionization GAU President John Flowers, Grievance Officer Joon Kang and IEA staff member Bret Seferian were invited to Columbia Missouri to talk with Mizzou grads about their experiences with GA unions as the grads at Mizzou begin the process of forming their own union. Joining them on the panel was the Vice-President of GAU at Florida State Martin Breme.
Roughly thirty curious GAs came out Thursday evening to attend the panel
which covered the legal authority of unions, the ability for unions to represent graduate students through the grievance process, and the way in which unions allow graduate students to engage the administration on a variety of issues without fear of intimidation. Other topics included the way in which GAU’s contract guarantees GA representation on the hiring committees for administrators and GAU’s work in obtaining our new ACA compliant health insurance.
More specifically, the GAU panelists spoke on the ability to press the administration to give contracts to GAs during the current state budget crisis, especially for international GAs who might otherwise lose their visa status. Further, we explained how we are currently bargaining for increased vacation time for GAs on 12 month contracts, which would enable many international students to travel home. Of particular interest to the grads at was GAU’s success in slowing down increases in fees – which would cost us over $1,000 a year, or higher, without the contract
GAU’s representatives were not the only ones doing all the talking: the other panelists described some of the protections their unions offered them. For example, before Florida State’s union existed, GAs could apply for a LOTTERY to get a $500 per year subsidy for health insurance – a lottery where unlucky GAs received NO FUNDING.
While the benefits provided by GAU may all be familiar to you, they were eye opening to Mizzou grads, all of whom do not experience the same kinds of protections we enjoy. When the panel opened for questions, one student asked whether having a union would give the administration cause to fire all GAs and replace them with adjuncts or prevent GAs from being instructor of record. Neither of these are the case, as GAs provide the overwhelming majority of in-class instruction on our campus and campuses around the world.
We also engaged questions concerning the confusion that comes with trying to organize with multiple groups working at cross purposes and GAs feeling that they did not have a voice in the direction of events. We explained that the presence of a GA union would not cause any of these issues, and that the direction of a union was determined by its member body.
As the graduate students at Mizzou continue to push forwards their campaign for unionization, and demand the protections and rights that they deserve, GAU has agreed to remain in contact with them, and to stand in solidarity with the graduate students at Mizzou when they successfully form their union.