University of Rhode Island Graduate Assistants United

By Kelly Hand

University of Rhode Island Graduate Assistants United (GAU) is an AAUP collective bargaining chapter first certified in 2002. The AAUP advocates for the collective bargaining rights of graduate student employees and also has collective bargaining chapters repre­senting graduate student employees at Rutgers University and Portland State University. In October, gradu­ate student employees at the Uni­versity of Chicago voted to form a union affiliated with the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

GAU currently represents nearly six hundred graduate teach­ing, research, and administrative assistants. As the union prepares to negotiate a new contract in 2018, it celebrates past achievements that include salary increases, improved benefits, academic freedom provi­sions, and well-defined grievance procedures.

Chapter leadership draws heav­ily from the sciences and includes officers from oceanography, marine affairs, chemistry, geosciences, biological and environmental sci­ences, and electrical engineering as well as from the English depart­ment. Because its members are graduate students—many of them in master’s degree programs—the union has a high turnover rate that necessitates a constant focus on organizing, which has resulted in a membership rate exceeding 80 percent in most years.

Since the 2016 election, GAU members have mobilized around not only issues affecting them on campus but also national issues affecting scientists and international scholars. They participated in the March for Science, protested against proposed budget cuts that would have eliminated or reduced federal funds for research, and took actions in support of international students to counteract the Trump adminis­tration’s attacks on immigrants.

GAU maintains strong relation­ships with two AAUP-affiliated unions representing URI faculty, one for full-time faculty and another for part-time faculty. Leaders also participate actively in the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. The early experience of these graduate employee union members with col­lective bargaining has the potential to make a significant impact on the academic profession.

We asked URI GAU officers and staff about the chapter and received collaborative contri­butions from members of the 2017–18 GAU executive board, including Kaytee Canfield, vice president; Michaela Cashman, grievance chair; Danielle Dirocco, executive director; Nilton Gomes, member at large; Melissa Hoff­man, member at large; and Victoria Treadaway, secretary.

GAU has a relatively long history as a collective bargaining chapter for graduate student employees. How do you build on that history to recruit and engage members?

This year is GAU’s fifteenth anni­versary. Our longevity is a credit to our organizing strength. We work indefatigably to bring members together, keeping in mind how far we have come and the work we have yet to do. To continue to grow, we concentrate on educat­ing our members about our past successes while working toward future ones. Thus, we point out that we have won raises for our union each time we have gone to the negotiating table and that we have secured retroactive pay for qualifying members while we have also guaranteed full coverage for health insurance, eliminated park­ing fees, and achieved numerous other successes. We do all of this in order to demonstrate our legacy of progress. In an era when gradu­ate student unions are often in the headlines, we feel lucky to have been and continue to be pioneers.

What are your most effective strategies for maintaining continu­ity for the union in spite of high turnover rates?

Because our union is made up exclusively of contingent laborers, we decided that having an executive director is essential for continuity. We hired our first executive direc­tor in 2013, and she has helped to ensure a consistent voice and direc­tion for our union. What has been particularly a boon for us is that our current executive director is a former member and president of our own URI GAU chapter.

In addition to having strong leadership, developing long relation­ships with our graduate students is an important factor in maintaining continuity. We have found that it is essential to establish connections with graduate students early in their careers so that we can foster those relationships as long as possible. We rely heavily on those members who work with the executive board over multiple years or who are part of the general membership. In order to reach out as soon as possible to our members, each year we make it a goal to visit every graduate assis­tant within the first two weeks of the semester. Our strategies include attending every graduate orienta­tion, making office visits, following up with new students, and making ourselves highly visible and acces­sible to our members. Our members are from various departments, which can mean extensive work, but having representation across depart­ments strengthens our reach. While our executive board travels around campus, we also utilize multiple communication platforms to make sure that all graduate students know how to get in touch with us.

What are some of the unique strengths graduate students bring to organizing?

Graduate students occupy a curious position in academia. While they are still students who deal with the pressures of classes and labs, they are also professionals in training and often have to meet similar demands as faculty. However, many graduate students carry significant amounts of student debt, a burden that has a direct impact on their future prospects, and job opportu­nities in academia are dwindling. This means that the financial stakes are far higher for graduate students today than they were in the past. Labor unions must win and secure good, fair working conditions.

The position that graduate students occupy allows them to view the preprofessional as well as the professional field, while also creating a space for their personal and collective intervention. One of the strongest forms of intervention is union work. We must continue to show that labor organizing is essential.

As you approach a new contract negotiation phase in 2018, what will GAU’s priorities be?

As always, our greatest strength is our membership. We will continue to work to increase membership as much as possible. But we must also be sensitive to our members’ needs, and, to that end, we are crafting a membership survey to identify the issues our members care about most so that we can better represent their needs when we negotiate the next contract. We are currently focused on the out-of-pocket expenses that our members are forced to pay. For example, our union members do not have an affordable option for dental or vision insurance, so we must negotiate for that coverage. And, in addition to having a low salary that often does not meet their basic needs, our graduate students are forced to pay high student fees. This issue must be brought to the fore in our upcoming negotiations. Finally, our current contract covers only nine months. Our members do not benefit from union protection during the summer months, a gap that has led to numerous complications.

In the current political climate, there are significant challenges ahead for collective bargaining. How is GAU preparing for such challenges?

This year we are initiating a strategic membership education campaign. We need our members to know that we are here and that we are active. One of the reasons that we do not have even higher membership involvement is that many graduate students are simply unaware of our presence and our services. So we are trying to get our members to understand what we have done for graduate assis­tants at URI in the past and what we can do for them going forward with greater collective power. To achieve this, we are focusing on one-on-one visits with departments across campus. We especially want to target and engage those student groups that historically do not have high union involvement.

What kind of support do gradu­ate student employee unions need most from faculty and from the national AAUP?

We need to be heard and to have a seat at the table. Graduate assis­tants are at the heart of research and teaching at institutions world­wide, but we are often overlooked when it comes to institutional decision-making processes. Faculty need to include us in university politics, and they need to start holding one another accountable for doing so. What we need from the national AAUP is stronger representation that addresses the unique circumstances and needs of graduate students.

New members would also greatly benefit from an understand­ing of US labor history. For many of us, this is our first experience being in a union, and as a result, many of our members come into the union without sufficient histori­cal appreciation of what unions have done in this country. We are the future of academia, and estab­lishing union roots now will only help ensure the health and longev­ity of the AAUP.

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