Union shrink-wrap?

Wayne State University grad students have accused the administration of stepping up its "attack on the rights of all university graduate employees to union representation" with a proposal they say will shrink union ranks.

Graduate employees say the university’s recent proposal could leave them with fewer than 100 union members out of approximately 900 graduate employees. Administrators dispute the grad students’ claims.

According to J.P. Faletta, interim president of the Graduate Employees Organizing Committee (GEOC) at WSU, the union’s bargaining team initially responded to the proposal by walking out of a bargaining session March 22. Faletta says the team told administrators the following Tuesday, "We’re prepared to talk about this when you come back with a serious proposal."

Meanwhile, he says, the team has continued to meet with administrators to discuss other issues. The grad students have planned a rally outside WSU’s Faculty Administration Building at noon April 19, timed to coincide with that day’s bargaining session with the administration.

"It’s basically to show that the union membership is larger than the bargaining team and that we’re not going away," Faletta says. "They’re going to have to see us and walk through us in order to get into the room."

Louis Lessem, WSU’s general counsel, argues the university’s proposal won’t diminish union ranks, but merely addresses inconsistencies in the way union membership is determined.

Under the proposal, he says, graduate assistants would qualify to be in the union based on how many hours they work with students in the classroom.

"We thought we were making a rather substantive proposal that would address many of their concerns, and I have to admit I’m surprised that things are apparently worse than they were before," he says.

The size of the bargaining unit has been the most hotly disputed item since the graduate employees at Wayne began negotiating their first contract with the university in October.

The events at Wayne mirror a phenomenon that has pitted graduate employees against administrators at academic institutions across the country. Over the past 20 years, graduate students have absorbed an increasing portion of the teaching workload. In response, graduate employees have unionized at 18 public-school campuses nationwide, including the University of Michigan.

Grad students at Wayne unionized last April, prompted by the university’s plan to cut their health benefits. Although administrators did not follow through with the proposed cuts, graduate employees say they hope to use collective bargaining to hold onto their benefits in the future.

The university’s recent proposal came after five months of contract negotiations, during which Faletta says administrators clung to a consent agreement signed last February by both parties and the Michigan Employee Relations Commission. Faletta says the university’s interpretation of the agreement would exclude roughly 700 graduate employees from the union, including all research assistants and some teaching assistants.

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