Alaska Graduate Workers Association members with signs on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Katja Berghaus)
A group of University of Alaska graduate student employees took a step to form the state’s first student worker union on Wednesday. The Alaska Graduate Student Workers Association signed an agreement with the university system that defines who is eligible to vote on becoming a union, certifies them as a bargaining unit and triggers a union election in the fall.
The students want to see a vote as soon as possible, said Abigail Schiffmiller, an organizing committee member of the association and a Ph.D. student in the biology department at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“We’re confident that with broad accessibility and inclusivity in the vote, that the vote would show that we have overwhelming support from the graduate student community for this union,” she said. “The reason we want to unionize is to be able to bring our issues to the university and have a way to have some power to get the issues addressed, which is currently not something we have.”
The students have been working towards a union since last December, when they petitioned to organize. The group’s main goals are to secure better pay, health care and working conditions for graduate workers.
Unionization is a crucial step towards achieving bargaining power over their own worker contracts, Schiffmiller said.
University spokesperson Jonathon Taylor said the system has been working in “good faith” with the student association and the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to determine who should be eligible to be in a union, called a bargaining unit.
“Our focus has really been on trying to make sure that, whatever the unit looked like, it was functional, it was able to be administered effectively and also compliant with Alaska law,” he said.
The agreement is that graduate student researchers, teachers, assistants and fellows will be able to vote to unionize and later — were a union to form — on union matters, such as priorities, contracts and potential strikes.
Undergraduate student workers, firefighters, faculty in other unions, and other staff are not included.
The student workers in the association are affiliated with the United Auto Workers, a large North American union that already counts thousands of students from other state university systems among its members.
Schiffmiller estimated that roughly 425 student workers would be eligible to vote in the election. Once the state’s labor relations agency counts and certifies the votes, the group becomes a union. She said a best case scenario would be to start negotiations in the spring and have a new contract by the summer of next year.
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