Graduate Student Government representatives were set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee last Thursday in favor of a bill that would finally allow them to collectively bargain — a right graduate students at this university have been working toward for years. Their testimonies were prepared; they were ready to tell state legislators exactly how difficult it is to negotiate with administrators on critical issues such as wages, parental leave and grievance-filing procedures.
Unfortunately, at the last moment, graduate students were denied the opportunity to testify. It seems University System of Maryland officials became nervous these truthful testimonies would embarrass the university, so they struck a deal with Gov. Martin O’Malley: If the state pulled the Senate bill — effectively killing the legislation for a year and ensuring pesky things like the truth would be squelched from public hearings — the system would agree to offer graduate assistants and adjunct professors a watered-down form of collective bargaining known as meet and confer.
Establishing a meet and confer process is only a step in the right direction for these constituents looking to unionize. Under the new protocol, both graduate assistants and adjunct faculty can create independent bodies represented by a union. Although university administrators still aren’t obligated to negotiate with these bodies, the process at least gives graduate assistants and adjunct faculty members’ concerns more credence and representation. Administrators don’t have to agree to their terms, but they at least have to listen to them.
This editorial board supports giving these constituents a meet and confer process — it’s the least the university can do for the employees who serve as the institution’s integral academic support structure. However, we have serious concerns over how the meet and confer-agreement was made: Instead of asking graduate students for their input, the system and O’Malley chose to negotiate with the American Federation of Teachers, the union that will presumably represent graduate students.
From what this editorial board gathers, this is how it went down: Wanting to kill the collective bargaining legislation, system officials approached O’Malley’s offer with a meet and confer-proposal. After discussions between the two offices, O’Malley then brought in AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who has a long-standing professional relationship with the Governor. Johnson then went back and forth with state officials on the document’s language — such as whether or not to include tenured-track faculty members in the agreement, which it eventually excluded — until all three parties agreed on the current meet and confer agreement.
Meanwhile, graduate students and adjuncts — the ones who will be the most affected by these decisions — were nowhere at the negotiating table, prompting GSG President Anna Bedford to cry foul.
According to AFT–Maryland Organizer John Monroe, the union has been actively working toward securing collective bargaining rights for graduate students at this university since 2008. In an interview with the editorial board yesterday, Monroe said he sympathizes with Bedford’s concerns about being left out of the process, noting that AFT’s commitment has always been ensuring graduate assistants “have a seat at the table for how decisions are being made that eventually affect students.”
While it does seem like AFT representatives were trying to act in graduate assistants’ best interest by negotiating for them, AFT was also negotiating in its own best interest. Because the union has such a long-standing history on the campus, its role in last week’s negotiations all but solidified this university as AFT’s territory.
If that is truly the case, then AFT representatives should have paused for a moment during negotiations to run the proposals by graduate students. Yes, the union helped secure these long-sought rights, but they did so by going behind graduate students’ backs. AFT’s sentiment seems to largely be, “Don’t worry, we know what’s best. We’ll take care of it.” They might have helped negotiate a meet and confer agreement, but AFT shouldn’t be surprised if it gets treated with the same cold shoulder it gave to graduate students.