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Unions may offer improved conditions for graduate students

For most graduate students, hard work does not necessarily equal great pay, and as a result, a number of graduates at the University are concerned. They said a solution may lie in the unionization of graduate student workers.

But while University graduate students may benefit from forming a traditional union, Virginia right-to-work laws create an unusual barrier for these students.

Derek Nystrom, a graduate student teaching assistant in the English department, said he and many of his friends are not satisfied with their wages.

"Within my circle of acquaintances I don't know of anybody who is happy with the amount of money we get," Nystrom said.

He said the University essentially is getting a bargain by having graduate students teach so many classes.

"Imagine if they had to pay faculty salaries for all of those courses," he added.

Many graduate students at the University and at other well-known university graduate programs believe in organized unions to protect their interests as student employees.

The Graduate Employee Organization in Amherst, Mass., represents 2,500 graduate employees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. GEO President James Shaw said the University of Massachusetts has been unionized since 1991, and in recent years the GEO has gotten healthcare, health insurance, tuition waivers and fee waivers for students.

There are 13 other GEO unions around the country.

Some schools, like the University of California-Berkeley, have other organizations like the Association of Graduate Student Employees. These groups unionize in much the same way as the GEO.

"It's a full-time job. Students try to put together a living, and it's difficult on a small stipend," Shaw said. "Graduate students are doing work for the University and should be fairly paid."

Although creating a union might seem ideal for graduate students at the University, there are several difficulties associated with unionizing in the Commonwealth.

Asst. Provost for Management Katherine Reed said Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning employees cannot be required to join a union and that "employees are prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining."

Because the option of collective bargaining "is primarily why you join a union in the first place," this defeats the purpose of unionizing, Nystrom said.

Instead of collective bargaining directly with the employer, employees must lobby in the state government.

Having a non-unionized workforce benefits employers because workers cannot engage in strikes which would effect most of the changes, Nystrom said.

Bill Albertini, another graduate teacher in the English department, said he would love to see University graduate students form a union, but many students do not understand the complicated legal aspects of doing so.

"People often have the misconception that unions are illegal in Virginia because of the right-to-work laws, but that's not the case," Albertini said. "The Constitution of the United States protects the rights of workers to join and be members of unions, and no organization has the ability to infringe upon that right."

He said most graduate students would be willing to get involved with unions once they became more educated about them.

"Most students don't understand what a union is. They just don't have the background - maybe their parents weren't in unions, for example," he added. "When they get over the educational hurdle, though, it's a downhill run from there to get graduates involved."

A major concern that could propel graduate students toward unionizing is the lack of affordable health insurance.

The University does not subsidize graduate students' health insurance, which frustrates those who pay for it out of their own pockets.

"The fact that grad student instructors at U.Va. don't get health insurance is a travesty," Albertini said.

Reed said the University has been looking into health insurance options for graduate students, but has not come to a solution yet because of state law.

"The state is not permitted to extend healthcare under state coverage to temporary employees," she said.

Graduate Student Council President Chris Palma said the Council has been discussing with Graduate Arts and Sciences deans the possibility of subsidizing graduate student health insurance.

The Council submitted a proposal last year, and they also have spoken to representatives from QualChoice, the University's health insurance provider, about improving rates for graduate students, Palma said.

"After last year's meeting, the QualChoice representatives promised to look into potentially adopting a monthly payment plan and potentially adding a cheaper plan with fewer benefits," he said. "Neither of these two things was implemented for this year, so we're hoping to meet with QualChoice again this year to find out why our requests were not acted upon."

Although Nystrom said he is happy with his job, it is not easy to forget everyday worries like paying the bills.

"Frankly, it is the best low-paying job I've ever had - I love it, in fact. But I can't quite pay my landlord with my enthusiasm for teaching," he said.

He added that he believes every working person should unionize in order to voice concerns about the conditions of their employment.

"At a certain point, apprenticeship slips into exploitation. A university begins using grad student labor to carry the bulk of their instructional work because it is fiscally beneficial for the university, not because they are interested in producing good teachers," Nystrom said.


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