Column: Unions: Relics of the past, taxpayer frustration

By John Bambenek

It’s the time of year when the annual contracts for University employees are renewed and the unions are out in force complaining that workers are on the verge of starvation and poverty because of big, bad University administrators. The reality is that this is far from the truth.

Take the perennial attempts to unionize the non-visiting academic professionals as an example. The Association of Academic Professionals have complaints such as “unfair or nonexistent policies”, an inability to present grievances to employers and job protection rights. As for policies, one could say the University has too many policies. Grievances can be presented to the Council of Academic Professionals, or people can do it the old fashioned way: talk to your boss directly. As for job protection, most academic professionals in all but the most extreme cases need to be given a full year’s notice when they are fired. For instance, a campus parking employee who was charged with stealing from the University was put on paid leave for eleven months before he was finally terminated (The charges were eventually dropped). Academic professionals are also given ten weeks paid leave per year. These are far from the dangerous factory jobs of last century.

While there is a small and vocal minority of instigators trying to start a union, most people see past the absurdity of the AAP’s claims of harsh working conditions. Some surely object to having part of their paycheck sent to the National Educator’s Association to exclusively support the election of liberal democrats. After all, less than 10 of the NEA’s 95 action items actually had to do with education. So low is the support that only about 18 percent of visiting academic professionals voted to unionize.

Then, there are the ubiquitous complaints of the Graduate Employees Organization. The billboards around town are a great example stating only 40 percent of graduate students can afford health care for their children. First off, 40 percent doesn’t pass the smell test because I highly doubt 40 percent of graduate students even have children. However, even if the number is accurate, there is a buffet of programs to provide health care for children. There is Medicaid, Kid Care and Rod Blagojevich’s new All Kids plan. There are also the free medical clinics Frances Nelson and the Champaign County Christian Healthcare Center. If the government-run programs simply do not meet the needs of poor graduate students, and by extension poor people, I’d be more than happy to have that money returned to my paycheck.

The idea that part-time, limited-term, and transient employees need to be provided a living wage in return for getting an acceptance letter is specious at best. If the threshold for a living wage is only 10 hours a week, we would be working even less than the French. For reference, 25 percent of graduate assistants in the University Library make about $14/hr. In Physics, 25 percent of teaching assistants make $18. This is not a bad wage for a part-time employee. However, when you add into this the lucrative tuition and fee waivers they receive, library assistants get paid $36/hr and in Physics they get $40/hr. How much does the GEO want this increased? $100/hr? Health insurance for one or more children for graduate students runs $114/month. Insurance for full-time employees for 2 or more dependents runs $114/month. Do we really need to be giving better benefits to students than we give to faculty and staff? This also does not include the $100/semester credit for health insurance that graduate students get.

Being a student is hard and you have to get by on a small amount of money; however, the primary beneficiary of an advanced degree is the person getting that degree. While supporting a family on part-time employment is impossible almost anywhere else, at least it is only difficult at the University.

The fact is, unions on this campus are nothing more than an added expense placed on taxpayers and students. University unions, and public-sector unions in general, have largely hijacked the legacy of the unions from the days when they were necessary. You, dear readers, are picking up the tab.