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News, University News

Graduate students raise concerns over union transparency, communication

Management, union dues, fair share fees questioned

By
Metro Editor
Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Graduate Labor Organization ratified its first contract with the University and appointed its first executive board last year.

When Igor Cerasa GS joined the Graduate Labor Organization, a student employee union that advocates for graduate workers’ needs and protections, he was optimistic. But his feelings about the union, which ratified its first contract with the University and appointed its first executive board last year, had changed by the summer, when he ended his membership. Prompting this decision were concerns about GLO’s transparency, communication and handling of both dues paid by union members and fair share fees paid by non-member graduate students.

Union dues and fair share fees

The issue with dues and fair share fees started in October when GLO deducted monies from graduate students’ end-of-the-month payroll. The deduction was made prior to the distribution of a Beck notice, a letter given to members of a bargaining unit before the collection of dues and fees to inform them of their rights, such as the right to object to fair share fees and the right to be members or non-members as part of the bargaining unit. GLO’s bargaining unit consists of all graduate students working more than 20 hours per week, according to GLO President Rithika Ramamurthy GS. Unions must distribute a Beck notice before it may collect funds from employees.

Cerasa, along with other bargaining unit members, raised questions about whether the funds were properly collected in email correspondences to GLO and the Graduate School. 

GLO acknowledged the mistake in a Dec. 2 communication reviewed by The Herald sent to members of the bargaining unit that included links to a Beck notice and the ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement. Specifically referencing the absence of a completely circulated Beck notice before the deduction of funds, GLO Treasurer Keenan Wilder GS wrote in an email to unit members, “GLO regrets these errors and omissions and commits to return deductions that were made or credit the prior payment to any dues or fair share fees that are payable in the future. To that end, dues were not deducted from the most recent (November) paycheck, nor will they be deducted from the December 30 paycheck.” 

Wilder told The Herald that while the October incident was an error on behalf of the union, the dues are essential to the union’s operations. “We collect funds because we are a union, that is how the organization supports itself,” Wilder said. “Doing so before the Beck notices were circulated was obviously a mistake.”

Meg Wilson GS, a non-member, was among those in the unit who had read Wilder’s Dec. 2 email and desired a refund. Although Wilson is not a member of the union, she still pays dues as a member of the bargaining unit. When she inquired about the refund, she said, GLO told her that the October dues were being credited to the month of December and that if she wanted a refund in addition, she had to send a request to the union email. 

The response surprised Wilson, who believed the refund would be given automatically. She said the requirement that an official request be sent in order to get a refund was “not made apparent” in the Dec. 2 email.

Both Wilder and Ramamurthy stood by the clarity of the Dec. 2 notice. “We’ve tried to communicate to the best of our ability what we know about the Beck notice … we know that (the October miscommunication was) screwed up,” Ramamurthy said. “People can talk to us if they have further issues,” 

The refunds, for those who have requested them, are set to go out early in the new year according to Wilder, although he did not provide a specific date. 

Ramamurthy estimated that around six people requested refunds. For the rest of the bargaining group who did not request a refund, the union is keeping the October dues and fair share fees in an account that is not earning interest, Wilder said.

The union decided to refund the dues and fees based on request rather than a blanket refund as a matter of efficiency, Wilder said. Providing all bargaining unit members a refund “would have been more work for us and for all of our members. … This seemed easier,” he said.

Wilder stressed the nascence of the union contract as a reason behind the error with the Beck notice and deductions. “This is our first year with a contract, so this is our first Beck notice,” Wilder said. “Next year we will have everything together.”

According to Ramamurthy, the misstep was caused in part by the fact that the union is relatively new. She pointed to the difficulty of launching “an administrative and governance structure in the middle of the semester rather than the beginning of the semester” as one reason behind the mistake. 

Ramamurthy maintains that dues are essential to the GLO’s operation and objectives. “The payoff for dues … heavily outweigh(s), in my opinion, what dues actually cost,” she said. “To fight any administration, especially an incredibly rich one like Brown, we have to have resources going from basic office supplies and printers to having our own lawyers,” Ramamurthy said. 

Concerns over the budget

Bargaining unit members like Wilson have also raised questions about how the fair share fees were calculated. When Wilson reached out to GLO about her concerns, specifically requesting to see the budget that was used to calculate the fees, she was sent a budget of a union in Oregon. 

As a recently formed union, GLO does not yet have a budget upon which to base its share fees, according to Wilder. “We calculated what we expected chargeable expenses and fair share fees to be from another (graduate union chapter) in Oregon,” Wilder said.

Wilson cited concerns about typos in the distributed budget and questioned the inclusion of items such as “rent, utilities, and telephone costs” and “travel and related expenses.” The Oregon budget allocates $37,626 and $3,854 for these costs, respectively. Wilson believes these costs were excessive and potentially unnecessary during the pandemic.

While it “is very unlikely” that GLO will use office space or put money toward travel expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilder said, there are other “start-up” expenses that these funds will cover in the meantime, though he did not define these specifically. 

Transparency and communication

Wilson argues that her specific concerns with the union, the Beck notice and budget line items, are encompassed in a larger “issue of transparency.”

GLO’s insistence that certain matters be discussed in one-on-one Zoom meetings or phone calls rather than written communications has concerned her most.

One-on-one meetings, she argued, are less convenient for graduate students who face busy schedules and shifting responsibilities during the pandemic. 

To Ramamurthy and Wilder, the prioritization of one-on-one talks is intentional. “For us it is about building ties,” Ramamurthy said. Individual conversations allow for “relationship building” in a way that emails and other forms of mass communication do not, Wilder said.

The union’s preference for one-on-one meetings is an inefficient formality that is connected to a larger issue of communication between the union and graduate students, Cerasa said. “My feeling … is that it is very difficult to get information from the union unless you force them to provide (such information) through formal steps,” he said.

Wilson said she faced additional obstacles in obtaining information on union decisions as a non-member. “It is really hard to get an understanding of what is going on as a non-member, … but (we) still have to pay dues,” Wilson said. “I am finding out through friends that certain emails are being sent out with information that is important in how the union is representing us, but I am not aware of that.”

Wilder said he was not aware of any union policy on communicating with non-members of the bargaining group. “Obviously the Beck notice contained information … that is important for non-members, so we sent that around. But it’s really case by case,” Wilder said. “If people want to participate in union decision-making, I would strongly encourage them to join the union.”

Ramamurthy reiterated the union’s stance on communicating with non-members. “Frankly we don’t answer to non-members,” she said. “For people who are non-members and feel like they are missing out on (union communications and decisions), they should join the union.”

The greater amount of involvement and communication offered to members over non-members is understandable, according to Wilson, but she argues the union should keep non-members updated nonetheless so that they can advocate for themselves.

Wilson hopes that the union will make efforts to inform non-members about union decisions, at least until GLO is more established. “At the very beginning of the union, it is extremely important that members and non-members are getting information, especially if (GLO) wants to have more people become members,” she said.

In the meantime, Wilson said she is left concerned about the union’s direction. “As a non-member, I just feel confused and frustrated and very worried that the people who are in charge aren’t communicating with me,” she said. “That makes me less likely to want to become a member, because I don’t see the leadership that I need right now.”

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  1. Reynolds Woodcock '13 says:

    In the immortal words of Tom Kiefer – “You don’t know what you got til its gone….”

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