This past March, the Maine Campus first reported on calls for a student union at the University of Maine after more than 100 students and faculty members gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza.
Their objective was to peacefully draw attention to what they view as unfair compensation and unethical treatment of graduate student workers. Now, after facing pressure from locally-organized labor unions, as well as over 70 state legislators, the University of Maine System (UMS) is seeking an agreement that will allow the recognition of a union presence on campus for workers pursuing master’s or Ph.D. degrees.
An announcement from the UMaine Graduate Workers Union in early August stated, “Grad workers have spoken, and the message is clear: we have an incredibly strong mandate to pursue collective bargaining, and fight for a better deal for every grad worker in the UMaine System.”
As noted back in March, UMaine is the only university within the New England region that covers less than 95% of insurance for postgraduate employees, with the coverage it does offer being as low as 50%. Rates of pay are also much less than ideal, with many workers hardly earning enough to cover the increasing costs of rent and other basic expenses.
Many voiced their frustrations of being overworked and under-supported during last spring’s event, as well as feeling that they could not work with dignity in these ongoing conditions. Additional grievances were expressed at the Board of Trustees meeting towards the end of March, with graduate representatives describing their difficulties in finding affordable childcare, proper medical attention and purchasing enough groceries. One attendee, Graduate Student Worker Lauren Woods, described this circumstance as “living each day in survival mode.”
The union is expected to include approximately 1,000 graduate student employees. Although, the specific details of an actual agreement between union representatives and UMS administrators and the way in which the terms will be negotiated will not be released to the public.
One aspect that has been publicly shared is that UMS is willing to voluntarily recognize the proposed union. Without voluntary recognition, a union election must occur with the National Labor Relations Board, which would likely result in a lengthy process to reach the contracting stage.
Additional information released in August confirmed that the union intended to work with UMS to bring in a third party that would confirm whether a majority (more than 50%) of graduate workers had signed on to be a member.
A clear majority would, according to UMS spokesperson Tory Ryden, result in the system being “happy to officially recognize the Graduate Student Union and begin the process of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.” With this agreement now established concerning the verification process, union representatives are looking forward to the next crucial phase: winning their first official contact.
To learn more about the UMaine graduate student union or to get involved in the cause, visit https://umaine-gradworkers.org/about/.