Our campaign began in the aftermath of the University of Minnesota campus shutting down with the beginning of the pandemic. Grad workers were suddenly saddled with transitioning classes online and maintaining and reopening in-person lab spaces. This sudden shift in our workload contrasted with wages well below the cost of living, lackluster benefits, and no real protections for on-the-job grievances. Grad workers were clearly essential to the University of Minnesota, but beyond platitudes, administrative actions did not reflect that.
When we began organizing, we were told that the previous grad unionization campaigns at UMN were killed by a lack of deep support among STEM workers. Some Minnesota labor pundits told us that the best way to overcome that would be to lobby the state legislature to split our bargaining unit down the middle, separating research assistants (who were perceived to be anti-union and were predominantly employed in STEM departments) from teaching assistants (who are perceived to be pro-union and are predominantly employed in the humanities and social sciences). We rejected this dichotomy and instead focused intensely on organizing STEM departments and other departments that had low support in the 2012 UAW campaign (the most recent grad unionization campaign) such as the business school and the economics departments.
In May of 2021, just over a year after our first few meetings, we chose to affiliate with UE. UE’s success in organizing grad workers just one state south in Iowa (UE Local 896-COGS) gave us hope. Before we affiliated, we heard from grad workers at Iowa who discussed how they appreciated both their autonomy as a worker-led local and the support and wisdom the national union provided regarding organizing, especially in the face of anti-union state laws limiting the coverage of collective bargaining and banning automatic dues deduction. It was also exciting to affiliate with UE alongside our peers at several other universities. Because of that, we’ve been part of a movement of workers across the country exchanging organizing insights and strategies and working toward common goals.
Issue campaigns were one tactic we learned from our peers at other institutions. During the 2021-2022 school year, we ran several issue campaigns. Starting off with an open letter around COVID safety as the U prepared to fully reopen in the fall, we continued to build our presence on campus with a campaign demanding transportation accessibility and affordability. After a daylong email blast action, university administrators announced that they were going to provide grad workers guaranteed parking, placing us in the employee parking system as opposed to the undergrad lottery system. Following the success of the transportation campaign, we launched the “Raise and Reduce” Campaign. It was clear that pay was the most widely felt issue across our bargaining unit. In March 2022, we launched a petition to increase the minimum grad worker stipend, provide yearly cost of living adjustments, and remove burdensome student fees, which are levied disproportionately on international students.
We went public and began our card drive on February 20, 2023. Within 12 hours of our public launch, over 1,700 grad workers had signed their union card. The success of our card drive and election relied heavily on our area committees. With about 220 organizers spread out across 14 colleges containing about 110 graduate programs, we needed to think carefully about structure. Our area structure clusters departments together not necessarily based on the divisions of the university, but based on the ease of organizing. Put simply, departments that already have existing social, academic, and geographic “cross-pollination” meet together weekly. This structure allowed organizers to work together to focus efforts in less organized areas.
After submitting union cards from about two-thirds of our bargaining unit to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, we launched our Vote Yes Petition. After about three weeks, a majority of our bargaining unit had publicly pledged to vote yes, and we announced this milestone the moment the BMS issued our formal election order, telling our coworkers that a majority were planning on voting yes hours before university administration sent their email. Two weeks later, on April 29, 2023, we won our union.
At all stages of our campaign, one-on-one conversations were crucial. We went public with thousands of grad workers already committing to vote yes from years of organizing. We built our committee to over 220 workers — about five percent of our bargaining unit — through constant one-on-ones, with workers typically committing to an organizing task before even attending their first meeting. Typically, we first asked new potential committee members to talk to a coworker and report back, do a “two-on-one” conversation with another organizer, or go on a lab or office walkthrough. Our committee organized in this spirit up until the very last hour of the election and is continuing to organize as we prepare for negotiations. Before we elect a bargaining committee, we are inviting our coworkers to a series of pre-bargaining town halls to talk about what we want to see changed about our work and prepare to fight for a contract that guarantees us the pay and protections we deserve.
University of Minnesota Graduate Labor Union members were assisted by Field Organizer Valentina Luketa and Project Staff Townsend Nelson, Royce Brown, and Katie Shy.