GEU hopes unionization will help wounds scab over

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GEU members hold a banner in the urban plaza. On Feb. 1, organizers marched to President Wiewel's office to declare their plans to unionize. Ellie Bradley/PSU Vanguard

Graduate employees of Portland State announced plans to form a union early this month. GEU, along with student allies and PSU union representatives, made their announcement on February 1 by delivering a letter to PSU President Wim Wiewel.

The Graduate Employees Union formed with support from the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. Once GEU is recognized as a union by the state of Oregon, they will become affiliated with AAUP and AFT. Both groups have assisted GEU’s organization efforts by answering questions about legal processes, providing places for PSU graduate employees to meet and offering a substantive support staff.

Ted Cooper, a graduate research assistant and spokesperson for the GEU campaign, cites income disparity among graduate employees and a lack of resources as reasons for unionization.

“If we don’t have compensation, affordable healthcare and workloads that make our [jobs] possible, then we can’t do them well,” Cooper said.

Ryan Wisnor is a master’s student in public history and works as a graduate teaching assistant and peer mentor for the University Studies Program.

“What organizing means to me is that we finally have a community to advocate for,” Wisnor said. “Having a voice within the administration is really important in our lives as students, as workers, and as members of families and communities.”

Wisnor has past experience as a union member and hopes to use what he learned to help unionization on PSU’s campus. He said that listening to people and taking their concerns seriously are two of the most important lessons he learned for successful organizing.

GEU organizers want all 807 PSU graduate employees to have a voice when the bargaining unit starts addressing their needs and demanding changes. Wisnor pointed to contacting graduate students and hearing their stories as one challenge faced by GEU.

“It takes time,” Wisnor said.

Organizers held a forum on PSU’s campus on Feb. 16; Cooper counted 69 PSU graduate employees in attendance, as well as graduate employee representatives from Oregon State University and University of Oregon. Organizers from UO and OSU gave short presentations on how graduate students at these schools have benefited from unionization. They also shared secondary benefits, like the community that has been created for grad employees. Three graduate employees who aren’t yet organizers also discussed their experiences on PSU’s campus.

“The function of the forum was to have a conversation with as many members of the bargaining units as we could get to come,” Cooper said. “At the end of the forum those who were interested in doing so were offered an opportunity to sign authorization cards.”

According to Cooper, GEU has more than 50 percent of graduate employees affiliated with the union. GEU unionizers are now contacting people who have signed the GEU mission statements and are asking them to sign authorization cards.

“We will submit these to the Oregon Employment Relations board, and once we have all the submitted cards from a majority of members of the bargaining unit, we will obtain legal recognition,” Cooper said.

GEU members will continue to reach out to other graduate employees through ongoing conversations with people on and off campus, series of forums, talking about the student unionizers’ experiences and maintaining open lines of communication.

Delegating financial burden

Josè Padín, president of AAUP-Oregon and associate sociology professor at PSU, said that one reason graduate students are used on college campuses like PSU is purely for financial purposes.

“Our university can get them on the real cheap, they are using graduate employees to save money,” Padín said. “There is no reason to have a master[s] student in their first year fully teaching a course, except for the fact that it’s financially convenient.”

Graduate employees at PSU receive tuition assistance and stipends. According to the PSU Office of University Communications, hourly wages may range from $13.38 to $16.38 and minimum pay range is determined by length of appointment and full time equivalents; graduate assistants are also eligible for student health insurance coverage.

“In addition to remissions, graduate assistants receive pay based on hours worked, position, type of graduate or doctoral program and other factors,” UComm said in a statement.

“Any employee who is overworked or underpaid is unable to pay sufficient attention to everything they have to do,” Pardín said. “A lot of the graduate employees have to neglect their family life and neglect their graduate education.”

GEU and its assorted allies presented a letter to Wiewel, requesting the university administration stay neutral throughout this process, among other requests. During the presentation, Wisnor gave a testament to how the lack of pay as a graduate teaching assistant and the high healthcare costs affect his life.

“In two weeks my partner will be having a baby, and I will be a father,” Wisnor said during the announcement. “I am here to tell you today, to remind you, we are not just students. We are workers, we are parents, we are caregivers and we are the providers to the ones that we love. No longer will decisions be made about us without us.”

Strengthening the picket line

“We [graduate employees] love our jobs and we fully anticipate that the university will do the right thing and respect the legal right for us to talk and organize a union,” Wisnor said.

The PSU Faculty Association represents adjuncts at PSU and is affiliated with AFT. Kelly Cowan, PSUFA president and member of AFT’s executive council, explained that getting serious about organizing efforts means pulling in part-time, full-time and other faculty unions to pool experience and knowledge.

“One of our priorities is to make sure we continue to get university employees, including graduate students, unionized,” Cowan said. “We have unionized graduate students on other campuses, and for a while we have been really hoping that PSU would be the next campus where unionizing for graduate students could happen.”

AFT has assisted GEU in writing a mission statement, which stresses the desires of the PSU graduate assistants and illustrates the issues of concern.

“To a large extent the [GEU] organizing committee has to work in the ways that it wants,” Cowan said. “Our job is really just to make sure they have the tools to support themselves, like meeting spaces and assistance, and help in whatever they need.”

Timeline for implementation is unknown, although organizing conversations are ongoing. The next step for GEU is to petition the Employment Relations Board for recognition.

“We [graduate employees] love our jobs and we fully anticipate that the university will do the right thing and respect the legal right for us to talk and organize a union,” Wisnor said.

To learn more about ongoing GEU efforts, visit pdxgeu.org/allies.

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