The fighting black bear statue at the University of Maine at Orono. | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 15, 2023
Graduate students at the University of Maine are hoping the higher education system may voluntarily recognize their proposed union, allowing student-workers to avoid having to undergo an election process that could prove time-consuming, particularly if the administration were to attempt to push back against the bargaining unit.
Vaclava Hazukova, a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program at UMaine, said the effort to form a union of graduate students began about three years ago in response to low wages, insufficient health care benefits and an overload of work. That movement culminated in a unionization “card drive” that began at the end of February and represents the continuation of a national trend of graduate students seeking to organize.
Hazukova said the proposed UMaine union would encompass all graduate students at the institution, including research assistants, teaching assistants and graduate assistants. All told, that would include about a thousand people, she said.
Under National Labor Relations Board regulations, at least 30% of workers must sign a card to trigger a union election. However, union organizers are looking to build even more support to put pressure on the university to voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit, which would allow students to move directly to bargaining with the administration. UMaine graduate students are seeking to join the United Auto Workers (UAW), which has assisted over 40,000 workers in higher education in forming unions in the past eight years.
While student organizers declined to give a specific number of signatures they have gathered in favor of the union so far, Amanda Gavin, another PhD student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program, said those involved in the campaign are confident they have “supermajority support for the union” among those eligible.
“It’s about having a seat at the table,” Gavin said of the reasoning behind forming a union. “Because right now, the university, the administrators, unilaterally make decisions about our health care, about our wages, about our benefits, about our working conditions, and we’re not consulted in any of that. And so we need to have a recognized seat at the table.”
Hazukova echoed that sentiment.
“We just need a voice,” she said. “We just need an entity and a platform that would allow us to negotiate with the administration on some more equal footing.”
A primary issue graduate students hope to address by creating a union is low wages. Hazukova said that the minimum stipend for master’s students at UMaine is $17,000 a year while PhD students earn a minimum stipend of $20,000 annually. Some graduate students may make more than that because their particular department might give them more pay or due to grant funding, Hazukova noted. But for many, the current pay level has led to significant financial insecurity.
“We’re really far from a living wage in the state of Maine,” Hazukova said.
Another issue graduate students want to address through a union contract is the skimpy health benefits provided by the university. Hazukova said grad students’ health care doesn’t include vision or dental and that they split premium costs at a 50-50 level with the university, which is below the contribution amount many employers across the country pay.
Overall, Gavin said graduate students in the UMaine system receive the lowest pay of any such students at public universities in New England and also have the worst health plan in terms of how much they have to contribute. She said the low pay is doubly concerning given that some students — including Gavin — are explicitly barred through their position with the university from working another job outside the institution. And Gavin added that even those who are permitted to seek other jobs often can’t because the work of being a graduate student is so time consuming.
“We have inconsistent pay, we have a lack of affordable housing, we have bad health care benefits, we are not making a living wage,” she said. “And I believe that all workers deserve those things, including graduate workers.”
Discussions with university leaders about the union are ongoing and Gavin said the tenor of the conversations has been positive so far. She said the administration has expressed “that they don’t want to fight with us” and that they want to work with graduate students in good faith. Gavin expressed optimism that a graduate students’ union could have a productive relationship with university leaders.
Hazukova also said conversations have gone well so far, and noted that organizers are “hopeful for voluntary recognition [of the union], but we don’t have confirmation of that and nothing is set in stone.”
Tory Ryden, a spokesperson for the University system, told Beacon that there are conversations taking place with UAW and students about potentially voluntarily recognizing the union but said no final decision had been made as of Friday.
“At this point, we are in active discussions with the United Auto Workers Union which represents the graduate students during their organizing efforts,” Ryden said in an email. “We are working together to outline the process surrounding union card count and voluntary recognition.”
The UMaine graduate students’ unionizing effort is not happening in a vacuum but comes as other student-workers across the country have formed collective bargaining units, including those at the University of California System and Boston University.
That movement is part of an overall national reckoning with labor conditions at institutions of higher education, as many professors are also seeking to organize and unions and advocates are raising concerns about the low pay provided to adjunct teachers.
The trend toward seeking the protections afforded by unionization has occurred at other institutions in Maine, such as Bates College. However, a unionization campaign there ultimately failed earlier this year after an anti-union campaign by the administration.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at email@example.com.