By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ More than 2,100 graduate assistants working for the University of Connecticut have been recognized as part of a new union and will soon begin negotiating a labor contract with the administration.
The State Board of Labor Relations on Thursday determined that more than 50 percent of the graduate students at UConn’s campuses had signed a petition seeking to unionize. That prompted UConn, which remained neutral throughout the process, to officially recognize the union.
“I’m excited that UConn is recognizing graduate employees as employees with jobs on campus, since we teach thousands of students and bring in $150 million through grants and contracts a year,” said Madelynn von Baeyer, a research assistant in anthropology at UConn’s main Storrs campus.á“I’m really excited to enter into a new and mature relationship with the administration.”
Julie Kushner, director of the United Auto Workers Region 9A, said the union organization process was unusually smooth and fast. She said the students began signing up co-workers in February, calling the group well-organized. She also credited UConn with taking a neutral position toward the unionization effort.
“Typically, there’s been more protracted and antagonistic types of reactions by the (other) university administration. And here, I think UConn is a highly organized workplace and the administration and board of trustees took a very good step and said, `We’re not going to fight this.”’
The UConn Board of Trustees on April 10 voted to remain neutral in the union organizing effort.
“Individual graduate students are free to make their own decisions. The University and its senior administrators will not seek to influence the decision of any GA,” UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in a written statement.
Under an agreement between the students and the university, collective bargaining will focus on wages and workplace issues. It will not include negotiations on the academic process, grading decisions and similar matters under the university’s purview. Also, representatives of the graduate assistants will negotiate directly with representatives of the UConn Board of Trustees, not the Office of Policy and Management like other state employee unions.
Kushner said she expects UAW will begin contract negotiations with UConn soon.
As of April 7, UConn employed 2,135 graduate students as assistants across all campuses except UConn Health Center. Their jobs include teaching and research, said von Baeyer, who is working on her PhD in anthropology and is working as a research assistant.
She said students were mostly prompted to unionize because of concerns about their health benefits package, as well as rising university fees, which she said total about $1,000.
“When I entered four years ago, the benefits package that was offered was a very competitive benefits package,” von Baeyer said. “Over the past two years, the competitiveness of the benefits package has declined rapidly.”
Tuition for research assistants at UConn is covered by a grant or a contract funding agency, while UConn covers tuition costs for teaching assistants. Graduate assistants are considered full-time if they work 20 hours per week for the academic year. Their stipends range from $20,159 to $23,583 for the academic year, depending on their academic level.