Debating to unionize: University of Alaska and graduate workers exchange arguments

University of Alaska graduate workers are looking to unionize for increased pay and better benefits, but the University of Alaska has pushed back saying that a union would be ‘one-size-fits-all.’

Graduate students marching to Pat Pitney's office. Photo courtesy of the AGWA-UAW Facebook.

Graduate student employees across the University of Alaska system are currently voting on whether or not to form a union. The vote will end on Oct. 26 at 4 p.m.

If the vote passes, this would be the first graduate student union in Alaska. If a union is formed, the University of Alaska would have to negotiate with the union to create their contracts.

Graduate student employee jobs at the University of Alaska  encompass many duties. Teaching assistants work in the classroom, research assistants work on research projects, while others work in administrative positions related to their area of academic interest.

According to UAA and UAF websites – like other student employees – graduate student employees cannot work more than 20 hours a week during the school year. Unlike undergraduate workers, graduate student positions receive healthcare and are offered tuition remission.

Organization of the proposed union — known as the Alaska Graduate Workers Association or AGWA-UAW — began in 2020 and 2021 when students across departments at UAF started to “have conversations about graduate worker issues,” according to the AGWA-UAW website.

The AGWA-UAW site highlights four issues that graduate student organizers are looking to improve. The Alaska Graduate Workers Association is looking for increased wages and regular pay increases, better healthcare, the inclusion of university fees in tuition remission and the ability to negotiate rights and working conditions.

Digital poster at the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. Photo by Matthew Schmitz.

According to the site, the Alaska Graduate Workers Association began a card drive on Sept. 20, 2022. AGWA-UAW organizers filed a petition for recognition with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency on December 9th, 2022.

There was significant back and forth between the Alaska Graduate Workers Association and the University of Alaska on what the bargaining unit – or group of employees who are eligible to be a part of the union – would be. Both had to agree on who was a part of the unit in order to move forward.  

In August 2023, the University of Alaska and the Alaska Graduate Workers Association reached an agreement on the bargaining unit, allowing an election to take place on Oct. 13 through Oct 26.

The final bargaining unit includes research assistants, teaching assistants, student assistants and fellows – encompassing about 330 or so students. It excludes undergraduates and full-time university employees who may be taking graduate level classes.

The University of Alaska recently released a webpage with information on unionization. At UAA, digital posters appeared on televisions in the Conoco-Phillips Integrated Science Building and the Social Sciences Building, informing students of the upcoming vote.

“A graduate student employee union would be a ‘one-size-fits-all' unit and may cost students more,” one digital poster read, directing students to the University of Alaska’s website.

The university site says that students do not need a union, and that “The University already works closely with graduate students and graduate student organizations to maintain direct, two-way communication with deans of the Graduate Schools and the Provosts at UAA, UAF, and UAS on a variety of topics.”

Graduate students also received an email from the university detailing similar information to the site.

According to the email, “The outcome of the negotiating process is not known yet, so graduate student employees could end up with less, more, or the same benefits – it is simply impossible to guess at this point. Anyone who tells you that things ‘definitely’ will improve with a union is not being honest with you.”

UAA-based graduate employees and union organizers Sofia Sytniak and Allex Mahanna said they expected this response from the university, and said that many points on the university’s page are “blatantly false” or “partial truths.”

The Alaska Graduate Workers Association responded with a “report card” of UA’s site. They gave it a failing grade.

The full text of claims made by both the University of Alaska and the Alaska Graduate Workers Association can be found online at their respective sites.

“I do think it's interesting that the only kind of conversations around like, the grad student experience and all the benefits that UA provides, came out like in direct response to the union effort,” said Mahanna.

Changes to graduate student wages at UAA, UAF and UAS are currently decided independently by each school. UAA and UAF have raised the minimum rates that graduate students are paid in recent years.

According to the AGWA-UAW website, UAA raised its minimum rate to $21 an hour beginning in fall 2022. UAF raised its minimum rate from a little over $15 an hour to $21 an hour beginning spring 2023.

“There's no way to prove this, but it's really interesting that that [UAF’s] pay raise came about once the union started gaining a lot of traction, and there was a lot of talk about unionizing,” said Mahanna.

The AGWA-UAW site says, “Although substantial, this increase does not fully rectify the decrease in wages graduate student-workers have experienced due to rising costs of housing, groceries, and other essentials. Further, this increase occurred only after the UAF Graduate School was made aware that graduate assistants intended to unionize.”

The AGWA-UAW site also compares UA graduate student minimum pay to other unionized campuses, claiming, “Unionized Campuses Have it Better.” The site draws comparisons to UAF “research peer” institutions, identified in a 2017 UA document.

Jonathon Taylor – the director of public affairs for the University of Alaska system – spoke with The Northern Light in an interview about these issues.

When asked how University of Alaska graduate employee wages stack up to comparable universities, he said that it’s challenging to compare Alaska’s graduate schools to other universities.

“Drawing comparisons to other schools can be a little bit challenging, just because of the uniqueness of Alaska, but also because of the different types of programs and research opportunities that we can provide folks, so I tend to hesitate to draw direct comparisons with other institutions,” said Taylor, “There are so many nuances.”

Taylor said that he wouldn’t speculate on what would happen if a graduate student union formed, but said that “There has been, in some cases, a little bit of a loss of nuance and the ability to address hyper specific needs. Because it is a unit that represents … all folks at the University of Alaska.”

According to the UA page, “The differences that make our schools, colleges, degree programs, and departments unique make it impossible for all of them to be accounted for under one, umbrella agreement.”

Mahanna doesn’t agree. “We, as the union, get to decide what we want for our bargaining unit. We can make specific choices … for the different schools,” she said, “There are specifications that are allowed to be made within the different universities.”

Sytniak added to that, saying that there are also many similarities between graduate students across the UA system. “I think it's not trusting us and our decisions as graduate students, like, we've come together across campuses, have been having conversations for years, and know that we have common interests,” said Sytniak.

Despite not being in agreement on many unionization issues, both the University of Alaska and the Alaska Graduate Workers Association sites encourage eligible graduate employees to vote.

Taylor said, “While our opinion might be that a bargaining unit might not provide the benefits that are being claimed to the graduate student employees, every graduate student employee absolutely has the right to make their voices heard and we want folks to participate.”

The vote on whether or not to unionize is based on the proportion  of yes or no votes among the total number of people who actually vote, and not the actual size of the bargaining unit. If only three graduate workers voted and two of those votes were in favor, the union would still be formed.

Sytniak said, “But that's, of course, not what we want to happen.”

“We want to have as many people vote yes as possible to show the university that we're together on this, and are in agreement that this is what we think is best for us as graduate students.”

The vote ends on Thursday, Oct. 26th, at 4 p.m. Eligible graduate student employees should have received an email and pin that allows them to vote online or over the phone.

The Alaska Graduate Workers Association expects the results of the vote to be certified on November 2nd.

No items found.