Contract gains, solidarity bring hundreds into UF
Graduate Assistants United union
Dues-paying membership in University of Florida's graduate employee union rose by more than 100% during the 1998/99 academic year, making UF's Graduate Assistants United the largest academic union chapter in the state. Since the beginning of the fall term, another 140 graduate assistants (GAs) have signed on. Volunteer recruiters overcame oppressive "right-to-work" laws and low employee awareness of the union contract to organize GAs from a variety of disciplines-from Geology and Fine Arts to Physics and Business Management.
GAU Co-President James Thompson, a Ph.D. candidate and course instructor in the History Department, attributed the rise to brilliant stewardship at the department level and to the organizational talents of outgoing officers. "In some ways what we did was elementary-creating a campus-wide steward program, actually using our grievance procedure, and refusing to back down in contract negotiations." Thompson referred to the long arbitration between the Board of Regents and GAU following impasse at negotiations. The fight was especially invigorating for members who had never bargained before. After arguing their case before a neutral party, GAU saw its greatest gains in years-a 3% across-the-board raise and a 4.5% raise for those at the bottom of the pay scale, an increase in the minimum stipend, and a commitment by the Board of Regents to fund GA health care. "Top that off with bold recruiting, a member discount program at local businesses, and the biggest academic labor socials in Gainesville-we made it hard to turn us down."
Campus organizers at UF are in the forefront of a nation-wide graduate employee movement that has seen unionization across the nation, including several of the larger campuses in California. In May of this year UF-GAU hosted the Congress of Graduate Employee Unions in Gainesville. "It was a sign of the times that a right-to-work state hosted the national congress this year," says Co-Chief Steward Erika Gubrium (Botany), "and we got to trade tactics with some of the powerhouses in academic organizing, people like the Yale strikers, Minnesota organizers, and established unions like UW-Madison." The Congress drafted a resolution to educate the public about the "casualization" of academic labor, meaning the use of part-time, adjunct, and non-tenure track positions to replace the secure, high-benefit, and well-paying jobs that academics used to expect upon finishing their degrees. This practice mimics "outsourcing," "downsizing," and heavy part-time and low-benefit employment practices in corporate America.
The casualization of labor, among other issues affecting the general U. S. working population, has kept GAU linked to the larger world of organized labor outside the university. During an internal reorganization last year, for example, the "Secretary" position was revamped from record-keeper to liason-diplomat-this to account for the increasing roles GAU activists are playing in external organizations. "We had a GAU Co-President [Marcus Harvey] chairing the Gainesville Living Wage Coalition last year," said Co-President Aline Gubrium (Anthropology), "and we're there for AFCSME or anyone else when our time or talents meet a need. Trade unions and professional organizations have their time and place, but above and beyond we need everyone-service workers, academics, and especially the high-paying professions-to see themselves as labor first and foremost."
Union officers agreed the greatest obstacles to overcome in organizing all 2,800 GAs at UF, and in the nation, are political and institutional. On the one hand, says Co-President Thompson, the residual effects of corporate propaganda and poor media strategies mean that academic and other labor organizers are often seen as either whining radicals or oddballs operating outside the two-party system. At the same time, say many stewards, department chairs and graduate coordinators face budget cuts and other financing scare tactics by the unversity's "bank" model, which effectively increases spending in rich departments while punishing traditionally money-poor disciplines and colleges.
The task is two-fold. Officers have to convince committed GA leftists that praxis and theory have to meet in the middle, and that it is acceptable, in some situations, to bill the union as a social organization with discount benefits and other perks. At the institutional level, grievance officers and employees upset about pay and workplace violations often deal with department chairs and others who don't even know they are under contractual obligations, or who cower at the slightest threat from administration. The situation that emerges is one in which GAs are at odds with their advisors, scholarship committees, and un-organized peers. Well-meaning advisors often suggest staying out of campus politics and simply moving on through one's career, but for those that see the university as the site for educating a generation of activated citizens and for performing progressive research, leaving these risks behind or dropping out of the union is not an option.
Graduate Assistants United welcomes visitors to its Thursday night happy hour at Market St. Pub, from 6-9 p. m. The general public may visit our web site at http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/GAU or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about our organization. Graduate employees, of course, are welcome to join.
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