University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

Graduate Assistant Frequently Asked Questions

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Facts about graduate assistants at the University

Who/what is a graduate assistant?
  • Graduate assistants are students attending the University to pursue advanced degrees.
  • Graduate assistants are also employed by the University to teach and conduct research.
  • All graduate assistants currently have individual contracts, which are their appointment documents.
  • Graduate assistant terms and conditions of appointment are currently set forth in an individual’s appointment letter and on the web at Graduate Assistant Employment. In addition, many campuses, colleges, and departments have developed handbooks for Graduate Assistants.
  • Graduate assistants cannot be terminated during the term of their appointment, except for just cause.
  • Graduate assistants have a voice in student governance: COGS is the graduate student governance organization; many departments include graduate students on committees; graduate students serve on every University-wide committee relating to graduate education, including the Graduate Education Council, the Enrollment Management Committee, and the Budget Model Advisory Group.
What job titles and job codes apply to graduate assistants?

Graduate assistant job titles and job codes (pdf)


Understanding the University's position

What is the University’s position on unionization?

Because we value the tremendous contributions of our graduate assistants, the University would prefer to work directly with each graduate assistant, providing you with competitive wages and benefits, obtaining your input on committees, and supporting your advanced learning, teaching, and research.

The University has a unique and critically important relationship with our graduate assistants. You are not only attending the University to pursue an advanced degree, but the teaching and important research you do directly impacts the reputation of the University.

The University feels an obligation to present its position and discuss unionization with its employees. Providing graduate assistants with information about unionization will help them understand what a union will mean to each individual and help them make an informed decision if there is an election.

How does the University recognize the work of graduate assistants?

The multiple purposes served by graduate assistantships make graduate assistants a singularly unique employee group – all graduate assistants are both students and employees, and the University relationship is as both an employer and educator. We recognize that graduate assistantships:

  • meet critical teaching and research needs;
  • provide financial assistance to graduate students while they pursue their degree; and
  • provide teaching and research experience for graduate students.

The University is committed to ensuring that graduate assistants have competitive benefits and wages and appropriate academic and financial support as they pursue advanced degrees. The result is benefits that are unavailable to other University employees. For example, graduate assistants are the only employee group at the University that was exempted from the hiring pause that began in FY09, the wage freezes in FY09 and FY11, and the furlough and temporary reduction in pay imposed University-wide in FY10. Union represented employees were subject to these budget reduction efforts.

Are other University employee groups represented by unions?

Yes. Currently there are 11 unions representing various employee groups at the University of Minnesota. Two-thirds (2/3) of the University’s employees, including faculty and academic professionals, are groups with whom the University works directly and successfully without a union as intermediary.


Understanding the union's position

Why would a union, especially the United Auto Workers Union, want to represent University of Minnesota graduate assistants?

This is a good question, and one to which graduate assistants must heavily weigh the answer. The work of the University of Minnesota is fundamentally different from the work of auto manufacturing and aircraft manufacturing. Graduate assistants are students attending the University to pursue advanced degrees and have little in common with those typically represented by this union, such as welders, sheet metal workers, and auto mechanics.

Unions have an interest in increasing membership because members generate revenue for the union. Unions charge dues, and a portion of those dues is used to lobby for the interests of the union. Would this relationship benefit graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota? That is the question all graduate assistants will need to answer if there is an election.


Process of unionization

What right do graduate assistants have to unionize?

The law (PELRA) provides graduate assistants the right to determine whether they want to be represented by a union, in this case, the United Auto Workers.

I was approached and asked to sign a piece of paper or a card about a union. What does this mean?

You have been approached to consider signing an authorization card asking for a union election. The United Auto Workers, referring to themselves as Graduate Student Workers United, is trying to form a union for graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota.

What is the process to have a union represent University of Minnesota graduate assistants?

The United Auto Workers must have signatures or signed authorization cards from at least thirty percent (30%) of the graduate assistants in order to hold an election. If the union receives the required number of signed authorization cards, they will file the cards with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), the agency that oversees collective bargaining issues for the University and other public employers. BMS will then hold a conference to determine which employees are eligible to vote, what type of election (mail ballot or on-site) will be held, and when voting will occur.

How is the outcome of the election determined?

A majority of the graduate assistants who vote will determine the outcome of the election for everyone. Currently, there are 5,000 graduate assistants at the University of Minnesota. If only 2,000 graduate assistants actually vote in the election, 1001 votes could determine the outcome of the election for all 5,000 graduate assistants. Those who do not vote allow other graduate assistants to decide the question of union representation for them.

Do I have to sign an authorization card?

No. People from the United Auto Workers will ask you to sign a card in order to have an election. However, you do not have to sign a card if you do not want to.

If I have signed an authorization card, am I required to vote for the United Auto Workers?

No. You are free to vote for the United Auto Workers or for no representation regardless of whether you have signed or not signed an authorization card. The election will be conducted by secret ballot and the confidentiality of your vote is protected by the Bureau of Mediation Services.

If I have already signed an authorization card, can I ask to have my card back so that it is not counted in the signatures required for an election?

Yes. According to the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), an individual can ask the union for his or her card back, provided the cards have not yet been filed.

If the United Auto Workers union is elected, am I required to be part of the union?

Yes. If a union is approved, you will have to be part of the United Auto Workers whether you want to or not. Therefore, it is very important that you make an informed decision on whether you want to be represented by the United Auto Workers and that you vote your choice if there is an election.


Union requirements

Are union members required to pay dues?

Yes. If United Auto Workers representation is chosen, all graduate assistants will have two choices:

  1. pay full dues, or
  2. pay a fair share fee.

By law, the fair share fee can be up to 85 percent of the regular dues. It is important to note that fair share union members may not have voting rights. State law also requires that dues and fair share fees be deducted from members' paychecks and forwarded to the union.

How much are the dues and fair share fees?

According to the UAW website, "members pay monthly dues equal to two hours pay or, for salaried workers, 1.15% of their monthly salary." According to our research, the typical union dues that the United Auto Workers charge graduate assistants on other campuses are 1.5% of gross wages. For the average graduate assistant, that comes to $226 per year in dues – more than you pay for your health insurance. If a union is approved, the United Auto Workers would collect approximately $1,130,000 per year in dues from University of Minnesota graduate assistants.

Keep in mind that the union has a responsibility to disclose information about dues if requested by eligible voters. If asked, they must provide the exact cost and not just an estimated cost, which can be substantially inaccurate. You also have the right to find out what portion of your dues or fair share fee would be forwarded to the union's state and national organizations.


Union restrictions

What restrictions do union representatives have in interacting with graduate assistants?

Union representatives attempting to organize public employees are governed by certain restrictions. Union organizing representatives may only enter public spaces of the employer and employee break areas. No union organizer or employee may enter a work area and interrupt the work of any employee for the purposes of oral solicitation or the distribution of literature. Union representatives may only interact with employees during the employees’ non-work time. Non-work time is defined as mealtime, breaks, and the hours before and after the shift. Solicitation includes oral discussion and distribution of union literature.

What kind of information can union representatives or union supporters share and where can they share it?

Union literature may only be posted under the same policies that apply to all other non-employer organizations. Information may be posted only on bulletin boards and only in accordance with the University’s existing policy. Union organizers, non-employees and off-duty employees may solicit and distribute union literature in areas that are open to the public. Employees may wear buttons, pins, or the like for or against the union as long as they do not interfere with the safety of the workplace.

What can you do if you feel harassed by a union worker?

Neither an employee nor a union representative may coerce or restrain employees in the exercise of their legal right not to join a labor union. If you have any questions or feel that you have been harassed by a union representative, please contact your college Human Resources manager/director, your HR consultant in the Office of Human Resources, or send an email to


Impact on international students

Can the union increase the maximum allowable hours for international graduate assistants?

No. Hours of work are controlled by a student's visa status. The regulations are governed by USCIS administrative rules and regulations as well as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System run by the Department of Homeland Security. These regulations cannot be changed by the University or the union.

Will my Immigration Status be impacted if I sign or don't sign a union card?

No. People from the union may ask you to sign a union card in order to hold an election, however you do not have to sign a card if you don't want to. The regulations governing your F-1 or J-1 non-immigrant status do not require you to join a union and do not prohibit you from joining a union.

Will my immigration status be impacted if I join the union?

No. If a union is elected, union membership has no effect positive or negative on immigration status.

Can the union help me with my visa?

No, you are still subject to the same regulations governing your F-1 or J-1 non-immigrant visa status whether you join a union or not. The advisers in International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) are made up of Designated School Officials (F-1) and Alternate Responsible Officers (J-1); these are individuals who are appointed by the University and approved by the U.S. government. The DSO and ARO's are the ones who represent the University in all F-1 and J-1 matters, and are responsible for providing service and advice to students.

Can a union negotiate or resolve visa regulations and other financial aid issues for me?

No. The United Auto Workers cannot negotiate or resolve Visa regulations, financial aid issues, or any items related to your status as a student.

Will joining a union result in a waiver of the international student fee?

No. This is a student fee charged to all international students, whether they are employed as graduate assistants or not. It is used to support the costs of visa and counseling services, and is not a matter that the union and the University must negotiate. The fee is set by the Board of Regents and is collected by the Bursars Office.

Can a labor union protect my right to stay in this country and to continue my education at the University of Minnesota?

No. A labor union, if elected, will be limited to representing only your rights as an employee in the collective bargaining process at the University. A labor union has no authority over protecting your visa status or your status as a student. You are still subject to the rules and regulations governing your F-1 or J-1 non-immigrant visa. You are still subject to the University of Minnesota Student Code of Conduct.

Will joining the union result in the University being bound to supplying only the minimum student information required under U.S. law?

The University currently supplies only the minimum student information about international students required under U.S. law.

Do international graduate assistants have a voice in the University system without having union representation?

Yes. Without a union, international graduate assistants have individual voices and a collective voice through such organizations as COGS and GAPSA.


Weighing the pros and cons of unionization

How would graduate assistants benefit if union representation is elected?

Neither the University nor the United Auto Workers can answer this question because, under union representation, terms and conditions of employment must be negotiated, and the answers simply do not yet exist. Any promises or threats about the future made by union representatives are a violation of fair labor practices.

What items would need to be negotiated?

If the United Auto Workers is elected, the University and the United Auto Workers are obligated to negotiate in good faith on "terms and conditions of employment." However, the law does not require the University "to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession" or to negotiate on matters of "inherent managerial policy." In other words, issues such as the creation or closure of academic programs, overall budget, utilization of technology, organizational structure, class size, the percentage appointments used, selection, direction, and number of employees are not subject to negotiation.

Can the union help me get an assistantship or any campus job?

No. The union can only act on your behalf once you become a graduate assistant.

Can a union improve my health care?

No, the United Auto Workers cannot promise changes to health care. Health care is subject to negotiation. Both the union and the University must agree to any changes to terms and conditions of employment, including health care. University of Minnesota graduate assistants already have an outstanding health care plan providing the widest network in the state with the lowest employee contribution at the University.

Can a union increase my rate of pay?

No, the United Auto Workers cannot promise changes to pay. Compensation is subject to negotiation. Both the union and the University must agree to any changes to terms and conditions of employment, including pay. There are no guarantees, and unionizing would not add financial resources that do not currently exist. The union would have to negotiate terms and conditions of employment with the University, working within current financial constraints.

Can a union increase my job security?

No, the United Auto Workers cannot guarantee employment; that is a decision of "inherent managerial policy," and is not subject to negotiation.

Can a union decrease my teaching workload?

No, the United Auto Workers cannot promise changes to workload. Workload is subject to negotiation. This is a term of employment that must be agreed upon by both the union and the University.

How would unionizing affect student governance?

The future role of our traditional graduate student governance system is not clear if a union is elected. Right now, graduate assistants have representation on many campus, college, and departmental committees (such as COGS and GAPSA) many of which discuss issues relevant to the terms and conditions of employment. Participation on these committees may no longer be lawful if the union is elected. This means that instead of a broad base of input, in many different venues, graduate assistants might be limited to input primarily through union negotiators. The interests of those present at negotiations may or may not coincide with your interests. In other words, the union cannot guarantee that your needs and interests will become part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Consistent with experiences reported on other unionized campuses, the role of graduate student governance is likely to diminish or disappear altogether, and the role of union leaders will likely increase. The current focus on individual ability and initiative probably would receive less emphasis, and matters such as seniority and uniform treatment probably would receive more emphasis based on positions that unions have historically taken at the bargaining table. For example, the union likely will press for the more senior graduate assistants to be given priority for teaching and research positions, and more salary, regardless of merit. Unions tend to equalize salary, regardless of ability or performance.

What do graduate assistants give up by unionizing?

With a union, terms and conditions of employment are determined on a University-wide basis; however, your work with your advisors/mentors happens at the departmental level. If a union is elected, the University would be required by law to negotiate only with the United Auto Workers about wages, hours, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

This means that the University would not be able to communicate directly with an individual graduate assistant regarding his or her compensation, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. The University would be required to communicate directly with the United Auto Workers, fundamentally altering the working relationship between graduate assistants and faculty and other colleagues.


Charge of unfair election practices

Is it true that United Auto Workers of America/GSWU has accused the University of unfair election practices?

Yes. On April 5, 2012, United Auto Workers/GSWU filed a Charge of Unfair Election Practices against the University of Minnesota. The union claims that the University's activities prior to the March election affected the election outcome, where graduate assistants voted to remain in a non-union status.

How does this impact the election results?

The Bureau of Mediation Services has stayed the election results pending an investigation of and ruling on the charges.

What does this mean for terms and conditions of employment?

The Bureau of Mediation Services reinstated the Maintenance of Status Quo Order. This means that the University cannot make changes to “wages, hours and all existing conditions of employment” until the Maintenance of Status Quo order is lifted.

What is an unfair election practice?

Unfair election practices are actions taken by an employer or a union that violate the Public Employee Labor Relations Act (PELRA) or other related laws. If an unfair election practice is established and appears to have materially affected the election results, the election may be voided and a new election may be ordered.

What is the specific charge?

UAW’s charge states that “The University promulgated a discriminatory and overbroad rule, specifically targeting and restricting graduate assistant union organizing.”

What is the University’s response to the charge?

The University is disappointed in the United Auto Workers of America/GSWU decision to file a Charge of Unfair Election Practices. Throughout the election, the university followed the legal process and made every effort to ensure a fair and accurate vote, and our graduate assistants voted against union representation by a large margin. In the coming weeks, we will work with the Bureau of Mediation Services as they investigate this new charge, taking into consideration information from both the university and the union. Despite this new development, our focus has been and continues to be moving forward in a collaborative way to ensure the best possible program for our graduate assistants.

What happens next?

The Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) has issued a Procedural Order regarding the Unfair Election Charge brought by United Auto Workers of America/GSWU. The procedure and timeline are as follows:

  • The union will provide information and evidence regarding their charge by April 23
  • The University will provide a written response by May 3
  • The BMS will determine if a hearing is required
  • If required, a hearing will be scheduled during the month of May