GSRA Unionization Effort: Response to Concerned Faculty Member

As some readers may know, the union which represents graduate student instructors (GSIs) at the University of Michigan, GEO, is moving to allow research assistants to vote to join, as well. Presently, graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) do not have formal representation through the union, despite being employed under similar terms as GSI’s.

Recently, a faculty member at the UM left a comment in response to my post on the Michigan State Attorney general’s involvement in trying to block the effort. Caren Winehouse, a GSRA and a member of the group fighting to allow GSRA’s to vote to become part of the union, crafted the following response to answer what are likely common concerns among UM faculty. I have included an abbreviated version of the faculty members comment at the head.

As a faculty member, who has to work very very hard to bring in funding to support GSRAs (and for those in this business you know how abysmal the success rate is), I fail to see the prevailing argument for *this particular union*. If the wages and benefits go up (as the union presumably will fight for) faster than my ability to obtain funding (which is very likely; there is only so much I can do as an individual), then I will be forced to reduce the number of GSRAs I support or hire, meaning some of them will lose financial support all together. Is that considered a desirable outcome for the GSRAs? Certainly not for me, but the union is supposed to protect them, and will/can they be protected against loss of external funding??

What I see is that (the inclusion of GSRAs into the union) will eventually force me, an individual faculty member who cares about his/her students, to simply hire fewer number of GSRAs. It’s pure, simply math; there is only so much I can do. Or I will have to spend so much more time in writing grants that I will have no time left to actually work with my GSRAs. Is that considered added benefit for the GSRA? The university is not going to chip in in any significant way in this regard, which is universally viewed as a matter of personal and academic competence.

Dear Dr. Anonymous:

Firstly, thank you for your thoughtful question. The point that you raise is a very important one; I’d like to take a shot at it.

I am a GSRA in Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. I’ve attended GEO meetings as interim steward for my department since approximately February 2011 and have officially been involved in the GSRA campaign since September. I have a GSRA appointment that is funded through one of my advisor’s grants; she is a wonderful, caring mentor and I am glad to work hard under her supervision. If I thought that forming a union would make her very hard job harder or would decrease the number of GSRAs hired, I would not be working to help form one.

Speaking for myself, I recognize that my advisor has a tough time funding students, and I try not to take for granted what I am offered and to do my part in bringing in funding. I have successfully applied for internal funding to allow my advisor to redirect my summer funds to other students, and plan to apply for external funding to make available the remainder of my GSRAship to other students.

Generally, it sounds like your concerns are that GSRAs will bargain for unreasonable wages and benefits packages that will either make grants more difficult for faculty to secure or make each grant stretch to cover fewer GSRAs, thus making faculty lives harder and GSRA jobs more scarce.

I do not believe that is a likely scenario. As my own situation illustrates–and I am by no means rare, as I’ve found in talking to others through GEO–GSRAs recognize how expensive GSRA positions are and do not want to make faculty lives harder; also, we do not want to price ourselves out of a job or out of the market. GEO, GSRAs, and the university each have vested interests in keeping GSRA positions affordable for the faculty who bring in the grants. While GEO has a history of bargaining for pay and benefits that keep graduate education accessible, it also has a bargaining partner–the UM administration, which always includes faculty on its bargaining team–that would provide a structural check if GEO’s bargaining positions were out of line with what would keep UM competitive.

GSRA wages and benefits have, for the most part, increased in sync with GEO-negotiated increases for GSIs/GSSAs every three years, when the contract is re-negotiated. Therefore, advisors, such as yourself, have had to slightly increase the wages and benefits packages on GSRA appointments on your grants, even without a union. Have you found these small cost-of-living increases to be onerous? If so, let’s chat. If not, there is no reason to believe that this will change much. On a personal note, I am happy with my current wages and benefits and would NOT vote to bargain for more of an increase than GEO has historically bargained for, in line with cost of living/inflation; anonymous survey data of the GSRA unit don’t suggest that pumping up wages and benefits are a major priority for most GSRAs.

A union contract would legally protect what we already have in terms of wages and benefits, such as zero-premium GradCare, as well as providing a bargaining platform for other benefits that are provided directly by the university, such as the childcare subsidy, Importantly, it would also provide a third-party arbitration/confidential third-party guidance for students in tough relationships with advisors. [I don’t think this would be used frequently, but the existence of a mechanism helps keep everyone behaving well; unlike you, not all faculty members treat students fairly.] For the most part, I envision very little changing for GSRAs with a union; it will be business as usual, except with a legally-binding contract.

In summary, a union provides a platform for GSRAs to potentially ask for and secure much higher wages and benefits than they currently have, but I strongly doubt that they will, because GSRAs care about you as much as you care about them and do not wish to screw you, because GSRAs do not want to bargain themselves out of a job, because the university wants to remain competitive in securing research grants and in maintaining GSRA employment, and because GEO has not negotiated for unreasonable increases in wages and benefits in the past.

I hope that this response has been useful in some way, and I invite you to continue the conversation. If you would like to talk off-line, my email address is cweinhouse (at) gmail. I would be glad to provide you with a phone number via email or to meet in person, if either is your preference.

Thanks for listening.

Caren Weinhouse

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

2 responses to “GSRA Unionization Effort: Response to Concerned Faculty Member”

  1. GSRA says :

    This response was pretty accurate. But it also highlights why many GSRAs are opposed to unionizing:

    “For the most part, I envision very little changing for GSRAs with a union; it will be business as usual, except with a legally-binding contract.”

    If nothing significant is changing other than you now have a piece of paper, why should GSRAs pay dues? Even the claim of “securing what you have” is not fully justified, since GSRAs have never had their benefits reduced compared to GSIs. I don’t want to pay union insurance. Over the course of a graduate residency this will amount to nearly $2500 for “just in case everything changes.” This is bogus.

    The union (and parent union) on the other hand will gain ~$1million per year. Sure $440 is small potatoes for the university and Mackinac center to care about. But I’m pretty sure some people are unhappy about that million sum…

    Overall, having a contract does not justify such a huge amount of money.

  2. Caren Weinhouse says :

    I respect your position, although I disagree.

    GSRAs have not had their benefits reduced in the past, but UM has attempted to charge premia for healthcare from non-tenured faculty in the past (COSH-B). Ultimately, COSH-B was not enacted, because of significant push-back. To me, this highlights the fallacy of believing one’s salary and benefits to be secure without a contract and the importance of having collective power with which to push back. A union is one way to organize graduate students to provide that collective power.

    Further, I think that third-party arbitration/guidance is a tangible benefit. Students in difficult advisor-advisee relationships on campus currently cannot seek help from anyone not employed by the university. I have spoken directly to students in these difficult situations and while they are not in the majority, they are not rare.

    If you do not think that these benefits are important, that is your decision and you should vote no. If you think that these benefits are important but not worth the dues, then you can do one of two things. You can vote no, or you can seek ways to reduce the dues payout. The latter would require coming to union meetings and actively working with the group.

    I think the benefits of a union outweigh the costs, but I will not try to persuade you to see things my way – I find that to be disrespectful. If you’d like to talk more for information-gathering purposes, I’d be happy to do so. My contact information can be found in the original post above.


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