Thursday, April 14, 2005

On Heavy-Handedness

Today, the teaching and research assistants working on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus began voting for a proposed TA/RA student union. For the past couple of weeks, the university, through the Office of Human Resources, has been sending out emails to all of us TAs and RAs, telling us about the university's take on the issues and reminding us how important voting was, since only the folks voting would decide whether or not the union would exist. In other words, as the university is fond of putting it: If only 500 graduate students vote, and if bare majority of them support the union, then all 4500 graduate students will be spoken for by this small group of students.

Now, I understand that it might not be in the University administration's interests to have to deal with another union, especially during times of funding-uncertainty, but I didn't think that the university would be so heavy-handed and cloddish in their campaign against the union. Though there haven't been roving gangs of thugs beating up union supporters, the emails TAs and RAs have been receiving are as transparant as they are unsophisticated.

Look at part of an email they sent last week, warning us about union dues:
While the union is eager to proclaim what they will do for you, here is a sample of the approximate annual dues for other unions on campus:

AFSCME (Clerical) $415
LELS (Police) $444
AFSCME (Technical) $445
UEA (Duluth Faculty) $1100

If the United Electrical, Radio, Machine Workers of America were to charge the average of these amounts, the total revenue the union would generate from graduate assistants exceeds $2.7 million dollars a year. By law, the union can require all graduate assistants to pay a fair share fee, which can be up to 85 percent of the regular dues.

What will the Union do with your money? How much of this money will go to their state and national offices? How much will be spent on lobbying on behalf of electrical, radio, and machine workers? These are questions that all graduate assistants have a right to ask before casting a ballot, especially when this union is already meeting to plan your future, but refusing to let you participate unless you are a union supporter.
Though the union-that-might-be has expressed a set of goals that would involve negotiating salary increases and healthcare benefits, I think proclaim is a little much, in how it conjures up images of dirty socialists standing atop wooden crates with voice-trumpets excreting calls for anarchy. No, by and large, this has been a quiet campaign, one almost bereft of public debate (an aspect I naturally find unsettling since the union would ostensibly be speaking for all TAs and RAs on campus). And even if there is a literal sense in which the union has proclaimed--letting known in public what its goals are--the word seems rather charged, relative to the typically bland and technical language university letters and emails generally employ.

What's even sillier, though, is the "sample" the university offers in order to warn students of out-of-control union dues. This might be a demonstration of "how numbers lie."

Look at the comparison: clerical workers, police, technicians, and faculty members on Duluth's campus. Are graduate students roughly analogous to any of these groups? I don't think so. Not in respect to either duties or income, at least. From what I've been told, union dues are a percentage of our incomes. And, since most of us make, on average (oh, how tricky these are!) around $10,500 annually, it seems highly improbably that we would be paying the same amount of dues as folks earning three to six times as much as we do. Also, from what I understand, the graduate student union expects to charge $15 a month for dues. Multiplied by 12 months, graduate union members would be paying about $180 annually. Naturally, I have no way of confirming these claims, except to repeat what the union reps told me. But, regardless of my own uncertainty about these facts, the university could have done the reasonable thing and compared our future dues with those of comparable unions--perhaps student unions at other public universities?

And look at the averaging move they made! Even I know, with my paltry math background, that the problem with averaging is that it tends to skew data if there is a significant disparity between the items being sampled. So, if there were 100 people in the sample, and one person made a million dollars annually while the other 99 made $10000 annually, then, on average, everyone would make $19900 annually (or twice what 99% of the people were actually making)! Given that the university has included faculty members of Duluth and their $1100 dues in its calculations, the graduate student union might expect to pay $601 annually--about $200 more than three-out-of-the-four unions sampled. Unions that, to begin with, are arguably not representative of graduate students anyway!

How frustrating that the university has decided to use such strained numbers! If the university doesn't think we'll take these numbers seriously, then they are just silly and churlish in their use of useless statistics. But, if the university actually thinks that some of us will be swayed by these figures, how little does that mean they think of us?

Update: Welcome, Carnival of Education Readers! Just to let you all know, the election results are in, and the union proposal was defeated. I just hope it wasn't because of those emails.


Anonymous jason said...

you're such a leftist. you pretend to be good and fair but you're really not.

4/15/2005 2:00 AM  
Blogger KimJ said...

At Penn State the school also sends out e-mails against unionization. However, I think the way the school eventually killed the unionization effort was really clever. The union kept rallying about our health insurance, which was the same as undergrads had and was pretty pitiful. The university acknowledged their position and improved our health insurance immensely a few years ago. This meant that students who had supported the union out of a desire for better health care (especially for spouses and dependents) now had what they wanted without having to pay dues. With the wind taken out of their sails, the union couldn't even be bothered to renew registration on their website. So the university won with a carrot instead of a stick. (And thanks for the welcome from we Carnival readers!)

4/20/2005 4:57 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Kim, thanks for the comment. Your school's union drive seemed to have produced a similiar type of response as Minnesota's. Here at Minn, the big concern was largely about pay. As soon as the union-campaign began, the university offered a 10% pay increase for the lowest paid TAs/RAs. My own department, perhaps unrelatedly, perhaps not, reduced our teaching loads.
Unlike at Penn State, however, I don't know whether these moves on the part of the University had that great an effect on reducing union support. From the sound of it, it seems most of the opposition to the union came from the science wing of the school, the folks who get a pretty nice paycheck and might have good reason to think that the union couldn't do too much for them, pay wise, and that it might actually hurt them for a union to be rattling around about how much computer science folks made compared with what political science folks made. So with all the fuss about pay, and a good portion of students not all that worried about pay, and the university's ominous warnings about union dues and negiotiating with a "third party," I guess there was enough opposition to defeat the union.

4/20/2005 6:58 PM  
Blogger quadrupole said...

I hope unionization works out for you. I didn't find it very satisfactory when I was in grad school. As a result of unionization I had the privilige of being paid about 2/3 of the national average for graduate students in my field, in a place where the cost of living was about 130% of the national average. Because the union imposed one uniform wage for all TAs in all departments graduates students in technical fields like physics, mathematics, computer science, etc were dramatically underpaid while graduate students in non-technical fields like English, History, Sociology, etc were making much more than the national average for those fields. The net result was a shortage of TAs in the technical fields.

There's nothing quite so special as seeing a contract proposal from your university that would have raise your pay from abysmal to almost competetive and seeing the formal letter of rejection from your union denying you that pay raise. It was also quite infuriating that there was no room for merit pay. At the university I did my undergrad, TAs who received better student reviews received better subsequent pay. No such system was permitted by the union where I did my grad work.

I learned my lesson. If you have valuable skills and do your job well, flee unionization. I just wish I could have learned it in a less personal way...

4/20/2005 10:56 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Quadrupole, I think that was one of the fears that many grad students in the sciences and engineering departments at Minnesota had. The union supporters maintained that that sort of thing wouldn't happen--no reduction in pay for anyone, just pay increases for people. But, I think alot of folks didn't think that made sense, and the union got defeated. Maybe in 5 or 6 years it will succeed, but by then, I'll be gone!

4/21/2005 12:49 AM  
Blogger quadrupole said...

Tim, nobodies pay has to be reduced to get to the situation I described, it just has to not grow appropriately. The bottom line though is that if raising pay for 200 or so science TAs to match the market requires also raising pay for 1000 non-science TAs who are making far better than the market due to union rules, guess who's pay isn't going to keep up with the going rate? The real problem is that 'TAs' isn't really a single class of workers. There is almost no relationship between a physics TA and an english TA. Their skill sets are completely different, they're opportunity cost for grad school is completely different, the supply and demand for them is completely different. They don't compete in the same labor market, and one cannot be substitued for the other. They should never be part of the same union bargaining unit. But somehow, they are.

4/21/2005 12:27 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Quadrupole, what you say makes sense--even if, at first, it went over this humanities-student's head! Understanding the university and union relationship from this perspective, it seems like a union could limit the potential of certain TA groups to negotiate a pay increase befitting their market worth. Coming from the low rung of the pay scale, of course, the thought never occurred to me!

For what it's worth, though, I recall some union reps declaring that the union wouldn't prevent individual department's from negotiating their own terms, especially given that it seems like some of their pay comes from outside and independant sources--various big grants and stuff like that, I guess. But, I know about their funding as much as I know what their labs look like.

Your claim, however, about various TAs being different and not well represented by the same union is something I can agree with easily, regardless of the market reasoning.

I was telling a grad student the other day that, regardless of how "persuasive" pro-union types might be, there seemed little likelihood that the scientists and engineers would accept a union, just as it was unlikely that humanities folks would oppossed it. Sure, this must partially have to do with our relative stations--humanities folks, regardless of their market value, feel the sting of small wages, after all--but it also seems to have a lot to do with culture. To buy into a union seems to require a willingness to buy into something almost like an ideology, an atiitude on both sides that might make it harder for either side to abandon their attitudes enough to fully and openly consider the proposal.

Given how hard it might be to convince folks who are convinced it's not in their best interest to join a union, why don't the humanities folks just make their own union?

4/22/2005 12:03 AM  

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