A new, grassroots union with the aim of bringing collective bargaining for UM graduate and resident assistants has been making progress toward official actions while flying under the radar since its formation in Spring 2022.
If you haven’t heard of the grad student union, you’re not alone. The group has stayed silent until recently, when several members signed a letter that called to organize better compensation and benefits from employers like UM Housing and those working for professors.
“We need collective bargaining to force the university to change policy to protect students,” Shelby Cole, a member of the group, said on the grad student union Instagram story in June.
The group made their first Instagram post on May 31. Since then, according to their Instagram page, they’ve been holding socials and organizer trainings.
The group is not related to the Graduate Student Association, an ASUM-recognized student group that advocates on behalf of graduate and professional students. The existing UM Graduate and Professional Student Association had no information about the new union except for a contact email.
The only place with widely available information about the grad student union is its Instagram page. Instagram does not have full names or contacts of any organizers.
The grad union Instagram bio states that the union is for UM TAs and RAs. Their posters, strewn through buildings across campus, feature a QR code leading to a Google form for people to show interest in the union, provide personal information and be added to a mailing list.
“Help unionize,” the posters declared, advertising that a graduate student union of TAs and RAs could negotiate for higher pay, health benefits and more.
Some might have noticed these posters seem to pop up and disappear. It’s because the union group is not recognized by the University. Emily Ferguson-Steger, UM director of student engagement, said that the grad student union didn’t get proper approval from ShipEx before putting up the posters.
She does a sweep each morning to remove unauthorized posters, which has included the grad student union flyers.
Perhaps it’s due to the disappearing posters that UM administrators are not aware of the grad student union — including Dave Kuntz, UM’s director of strategic communications.
“I connected with a handful of folks across campus today and haven’t learned a thing about the ‘Grad Student Union,’” Kuntz said in an email last week.
Students can sign up for the union by scanning a QR code on the posters. The form has a question asking for the applicant’s mailing address to mail union materials. There is no information about who exactly the group is giving this information to, beyond a promise that addresses won’t be used for non-union things.
An Instagram post made on Sept. 1 featured a photo of untagged union members at The Union Club Bar for a meeting that they advertised on Aug. 30. The caption said that the union has 223 supporters, and that they want to gather 300 supporters before signing union cards.
The Kaimin attended this meeting to gather more information on the grad student union. Organizers present stated that they wanted to be more organized and draw up a constitution before talking to the press or identifying leadership by name.
On Sept. 5, the grad student union posted a work in progress mission statement as an Instagram reel.
“Our mission is to advocate for and defend the interests of graduate student employees through collective bargaining, as well as foster solidarity between all graduate students on our campus,” the statement said. “Education at UM is made possible through the labor of graduate student workers…However, the university has neglected to provide a living wage or affordable benefits for its graduate student employees.”
The UM FLAT, the Environmental Studies living and learning community, will be hosting a concert in solidarity with the graduate student union and Missoula tenant’s union featuring the Pettifoggers on Sept. 17.
The Montana Kaimin will continue reporting on the grad student union as the group develops a concrete plan of action.