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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Unionism and solidarity: The importance of undergraduate support for GAU

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Two UF students speak on the importance of undergraduates understanding and supporting college unions.

Ronin Lupien: So what? I'm an undergrad: Unionism, GAU, and the bigger picture

Unionism is on the rise among the most disenfranchised in America. Nearly a third of public sector employees are in a union as of 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While many non-union jobs are being created to keep pace with unionization, there is a fervor for union activity.

In Hollywood, we saw month-long strikes from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) lead to historic wins. SAG-AFTRA members are still beating the pavement. I could go on, pointing to Starbucks, Amazon and even Medieval Times.

Here at UF, a subsection of our students also has a labor union — Graduate Assistants United. In a state as hostile to organized labor as Florida, our unions are under attack.

Florida’s hostility is pioneering among states in the U.S. Florida was among the first right-to-work states. 

For those who do not know, “right-to-work laws” refer to anti-union laws that say non-union members do not need to pay dues. This may sound good, but those same employees benefit from union collective bargaining agreements or representation. In reality, it is a way to knee-cap unions. 

They do this to essentially turn union membership into a sort of subscription service. A service, however, that potentially results in an inability to be represented in a grievance (contract violation) if you are not subscribed.

In Florida, GAU is prohibited from strike actions due to their status as state employees. New state legislation has further knee-capped the union. They now need to reach a minimum 60% membership among the bargaining unit, graduate teaching assistants and research assistants, to ensure continued certification. Without that, the collective bargaining agreement may be nullified. The recent wage gains, the graduate health care and many other benefits will be lost.

Why do I care about unions? Because I come from a family with union members. My mother was a steward for her grocery store as a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

She served as a voice for her fellow workers, a role model for what a united labor front could do. Thanks to her union, workers had well-paying jobs and protection against their bosses' potential abuse.

My mother organized workers in her workplace. In that, she formed a sense of community. As undergraduate students, we must foster a similar sort of unity with the graduate students who help provide us with a quality education.

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Those graduate students help define our UF community. Though I may not be a member of the union, my solidarity is part of what invigorates the union.

Cassie Urbenz: The importance of undergraduate solidarity

As exemplified by me admittedly writing my portion of this column while traveling — graduate school is busy. When we have exams and deadlines that could make or break the degree we've been working so hard for, it can be difficult to delegate the tedious yet vital 'boots-on-the-ground' work. 

Having undergraduate support can help this in a lot of cases, especially with our current ongoing card drive and maintaining a strong narrative against the (relentless) anti-union activities the Florida legislature is engaging in. 

There are so many ways to show support, whether it be canvassing with us, talking about us or flaunting any merch that found its way into your hands. 

What I'm talking about in these articles may make zero sense to some of you — but sitting down with a graduate assistant to get our perspective opens your eyes up to an entirely new ecosystem on campus, one that most undergrads have no clue about. 

Did you know that there are well over 4,000 GAs? Did you know that your graduate student teaching assistants (and even sometimes instructors of record) are in our bargaining unit?

The main squeeze: graduate assistants are constantly graduating and coming in and moving around, so the consistency of a large on-campus presence is invaluable. 

Please keep talking about us. 

The support that a strong reputation can give us could potentially help us reach a student who needs our help with a grievance. 

The support that a strong reputation can give us the leverage to maintain 65% membership with incoming students already knowing who we are. The support that a strong reputation gives us could save our union.

Ronin Lupien is a UF biomedical engineering senior.

Cassie Urbenz is the Communications Co-Chair of UF Graduate Assistants United (GAU) and a first-year Design & Visual Communications (MFA/MxD) graduate student.

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