University of Minnesota graduate students unionize after decades-long push

By: - April 28, 2023 4:45 pm

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Courtesy photo.

Graduate students at the University of Minnesota voted by a wide margin to unionize, seeking higher wages, better benefits and lower student fees.

The new union will represent roughly 4,100 graduate students at the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses. They work as teaching and research assistants alongside their studies. The successful vote comes amid a surge in labor organizing on college campuses across the country, including at Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

“Asking nicely wasn’t going to get us the things that we desperately need,” said Lilly Webster, a union organizer and sixth-year Ph.D. student in math. “There are too many people who are struggling to make rent, too many people who are struggling to put food on the table, too many people who are struggling for child care.”

While graduate students often pay no tuition, they earn meager wages too low to cover basic living expenses and often have to take on thousands of dollars of debt.

Webster said she earns $22,000 as a teaching assistant, which is above the minimum $16,000 stipend for nine-month appointments. The maximum stipend last year was about $25,000, according to the university. The cost of living is $37,025 per year for a single adult in Hennepin County, where most graduate student workers live, according to state data.

About two-thirds of eligible graduate workers voted in the election to unionize with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union, with 2,487 voting in favor and 70 against.

In a public letter posted to the university’s website, two senior officials said they will work collaboratively with the union to begin the bargaining process.

“Your voices have been heard and those who voted in the election have chosen to form a union and be represented by the Graduate Labor Union-United Electrical (GLU-UE),” the letter says.

The vote was the sixth union election by graduate students at the university since 1974. In 2012, graduate students at the U voted against unionizing, with 62% voting “no,” according to the Minnesota Daily. In 2005, graduate students voted against unionizing by a similar margin.

Webster said they learned from the failures of the past campaigns, focusing on reaching students across all disciplines, especially those in science, technology, engineering and math.

“One of the biggest weaknesses of the (previous) campaign was that they didn’t have strong support, and they didn’t have a lot of organizers in engineering and computer science,” Webster said. “We committed to making sure that we had a wide base of support before we went forward with an election.”

Union organizers say the effort is three years in the making, although they only began collecting union cards in February in order to hold an election.

In persuading students to vote to unionize, union leaders pointed to the recent successes of other graduate students: Temple University workers won a 23% raise in 2023; graduate students at the University of California won a child care reimbursement of $1,350 per quarter; and University of Washington academic workers won more paid time off.

Webster said she believed the university remained neutral through the unionization campaign and didn’t try to dissuade students from voting in favor.

The university is facing a multi-million shortfall in tuition revenue but is poised to receive a significant funding boost at the Legislature. The Minnesota House passed a bill that would send $1.57 billion to the University of Minnesota system over the next two years.


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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.