There several ways the union will be and already has been disruptive to our academic experience. Here are just two examples.
- Intrusive organizing and conflict of interest: They approach you at your offices, classrooms, dining halls, dorm rooms, libraries, apartments, and labs. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are performing a delicate experiment, chatting with your colleague, answering a student’s question during office hours, or working on a term paper or a problem set. It will just take a few minutes. What they have to share with you is important.Many graduate students are familiar with above scenarios. HGSU-UAW student organizers are trained and instructed to approach individual students in order to educate them about the union and gain their support. (New organizers attend training sessions where they practice conversations in simulated environments like the ones above with the aim of persuading target students to sign the authorization card.) Many of them are paid UAW part-time organizers ($25 per hour and a minimum of 20 hours per week). If some organizers are particularly insistent on speaking with you about the union, this might be a reason.The fact that some organizers are paid by the UAW presents a clear conflict of interest. How would you know that these organizers have the best interest of other students in mind when they have personal financial interest? If it turned out the UAW has acted against the interest of students, would they quit their jobs? Some people argue that the organizers are simply being compensated for the service that they provide to their community. This is a weak argument. A student is not doing any service to fellow students if he is using them as a means to serve his own interest, especially if his action does more harm than good to them.
What I find frustrating about the HGSU-UAW’s organizing approach is that it is often intrusive, paternalistic, and misleading. The organizers often don’t respect their fellow students’ time and space. Rather than engaging in a genuine discourse about the merits of a union, they often present simplistic arguments and talk as if they already know what is best for you and the University. If you ask them detailed questions or share personal concerns, they often give you answers that are too simplistic, leaving you confused.
If the union forms, intrusive organizing activities will continue. They will come back again and again whenever there is an election, a vote, a survey, a contract renewal, a protest, a strike, and so on. Even if the union does not form, they might come back next year to try to unionize the student body again. The best we can hope for is to vote down the unionization in the upcoming election and make the graduate student union idea socially unpopular enough to discourage students from becoming organizers.
- Strike: If the union goes on strike, you will be expected to participate unless you opted not to be a member. If you ignore the strike and report to work, the union can penalize you for “crossing the picket line”. (I have heard that some HUDS workers were fined hundreds to thousands of dollars for crossing the picket line during their recent strike.) While on strike, you will not be allowed to teach, work in labs, or do any task that would be considered part of your job. It may not matter whether you are in a foreign country doing your fieldwork or working in lab on a time-sensitive experiment. Penalizing members for crossing the picket line is union’s measure to ensure that strike is effective and damaging to the University. If you are a student taking a class, then strike means your homework, papers, and exams will not be graded. There will also be no sections and office hours unless the University hires substitute workers to do the work. In the case of a long strike, students may not receive their final grades for a long time, which may lead to delayed graduation and lost opportunities. You can imagine other potentially disastrous consequences for you and your fellow students.
The effects of strike on workers are different for graduate students and other types of workers. When workers who historically joined a union such as factory assembly line workers, public school teachers, and dining service workers go on strike, they hurt their employer economically while taking some hit on their pay and benefits. For these workers, strike might make sense if the expected economic payoff is greater than the costs. In the University context, however, economic factors are not the only variables for consideration. Strike may do a damage to a student’s academic career if he or she is not allowed to teach or do research. No union supporter can guarantee that this will not happen to some students.
The HGSU-UAW organizers and supporters may argue that you don’t have to participate in the strike if you are not a member. But if the majority of people did not want to be part of the union for this reason, why should there be one in the first place? They could also argue that the local union could write its by-laws so that it prescribes only small penalty for crossing the picket line and provides for many exceptions. Or the union may choose to keep the heavy penalty rule but not enforce it to remain popular among members. This might lead to a situation where only a small fraction of graduate students go on strike, undermining the efficacy of strike as a weapon of negotiation. It may also lead to a situation where you have to do an extra load of work because your fellow Teaching Fellows or Research Assistants decided to participate in the strike. In any case, the parent UAW organization is not likely to approve such by-laws and practices because of their overall ineffectiveness.