University of Alaska graduate students vote to unionize

University of Alaska Anchorage graduates pose for photos outside the Alaska Airlines Center on May 1, 2022. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

The University of Alaska’s graduate students have organized into a union, after votes counted on Friday overwhelmingly approved the formation of a local unit. Graduate students across the state – mostly at UAF in Fairbanks – are joining Alaska Graduate Workers Association-United Auto Workers.

Sophia Sytniak, a graduate teaching assistant in clinical-community psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the union will represent about 450 fellows and graduate, research, student and teaching assistants. The next step is to survey members on what they want their union leadership to address with UA leaders.

 “Some of the things that we’ve heard are things like health care, wages, those are some of the primary concerns,” Sytniak said. “Also, a lot of our contracts prohibit external positions. That’s a concern because with our wages, us not being able to make like living wages that we’re able to live off of, we’re also not able to seek other employment positions. And so that’s something that can be challenging.”

The union vote took place online from Oct. 13-26, with ballots counted last week by the Alaska Labor Relations Agency. Votes in favor of unionization prevailed 314-11. 

Memry Dahl, the university system’s chief human resources officer, sent a system-wide e-mail message on Friday saying the outcome will be certified Thursday.

“After certification, university leadership looks forward to bargaining with the new unit in the future,” Dahl wrote.

Sytniak said the union will soon elect a bargaining team.

The UA students first started their organizing movement last winter, and are following a nationwide trend of student workers organizing with the United Auto Workers. Roughly 100,000 of the union’s 383,000 members work in higher education – although not all of those are student workers.

At its peak from the late 1960s through the 1970s, the United Auto Workers union was 1.5 million members strong. Today it’s barely a quarter that, and only about half of its members work in the auto industry.

The new unit of graduate students is the first UAW presence in Alaska.

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