OPINION: We’re graduate students at the University of Alaska. This is why we’re unionizing.

Last month, we as Academic Student Employees (graduate and undergraduate teaching, research and service assistants) at the University of Alaska filed a petition with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to form a union with supermajority support.

As university employees, we provide the critical labor that helps make the University of Alaska a world-class institution. We teach courses to undergraduate students, conduct important research, and manage vital programs and centers across the campuses.

Beyond the university, the work we do helps grow the economy, support local industries and improve sustainability in our state. Many of us will go on to work in mining and resource extraction industries, wildlife biology, fisheries, environmental and mechanical engineering, tech and computer science, disaster security and prevention, education, counseling and more. We are part of the economic future of this state. We will take our degrees from the University of Alaska to build this state and make it a better place to live for future generations.

Despite the importance of our labor, we have no representation, and we find that what little support we receive from the university doesn’t match the immense value of our contributions. By organizing a union in our workplace, we are seeking to negotiate as equals with the University of Alaska administration over wages, benefits and workplace conditions.

The University of Alaska has proven that, without being held accountable through collective bargaining, it will not proactively improve our conditions. The university raised our minimum pay rate for the first time in 15 years at the start of 2023 -- after union organization was well underway – but this raise is insufficient (with inflation, we still make less than we did 15 years ago) and did not include any improvements to health care or workplace issues that graduate employees are currently dealing with.

Currently, the poverty line is $18,210 for a one-person household in Alaska. Even after the 2023 raise, a full-time graduate assistant can be paid as little as $15,120 at UAF and $13,330 at UAA while simultaneously being contractually restricted from taking on outside work to supplement these low wages. Individuals cannot support themselves on this salary, let alone support a family. This is a significant barrier for graduate students to attend school in Alaska -- and forces many to leave our state and attend universities in the Lower 48 with adequate pay and benefits, taking their skill sets with them. Many of these students do not return to our state

Graduate students systemwide also face exorbitantly high health care costs. The out-of-pocket maximum is far too high -- up to $13,000 in Fairbanks where in-network options are limited if available at all. Those at UAA must pay more than 20% of their yearly income to cover premiums. Additionally, the costs to include our families on this plan are outrageous; for a family of four, it could cost a graduate student 50-plus percent of their annual income. Unionized ASEs at other peer universities have negotiated much better coverage.


We deserve better. We are essential to the university, which is essential to our state. We are exercising our constitutional rights to negotiate with our employer as equals regarding the issues that affect us and our families. As a proud union state, we ask our fellow students and community members to stand with us.

We believe that as a collective we have far more power than as individuals. Together, we would be able to finally improve our working conditions and make the University of Alaska the strongest institution it can be.

Derek Arnold is a graduate student in Statistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Katja Berghaus is a graduate student in Fisheries at UAF.

KJ Janeschek is a graduate student in English at UAF.

D. Skye Kushner is a graduate student in Geosciences at UAF.

Allex Mahanna is a graduate student in Public Health at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Patrick Pragman is a graduate student in Engineering at UAA.

Abigail Schiffmiller is a graduate student in Biology and Wildlife at UAF.

Sofia Sytniak is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at UAA.

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