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November 15, 2017

Justice Gorsuch can save the UMass GEO

Jong Man Kim/Collegian

The Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) at the University of Massachusetts claims to be a democratic union that organizes and represents all graduate employees at UMass Amherst. That does not, however, appear to be the case.

One might expect that an organization which represents all graduate employees would boast a leadership that is representative of the employees that it represents. The reality does not meet the expectations. Of the 17 people in positions of power within GEO, 12 of them, 70.6 percent, come from the Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS). A further three are from Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA), and the two final members come from the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) and the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS). This is not representative of the graduate employees that it claims to represent. Public Health and Health Sciences (PH), Management (MGT), Nursing (NUR), Engineering (ENG) and other academic colleges are completely unrepresented among those in power.

Unsurprisingly for an unrepresentative system, participation in the GEO is extremely low, although it is impossible to confirm numbers. The GEO does not publicly release voter tallies as part of a broader non-transparent system in which the minutes of public meetings can only be accessed in the GEO office, most reminiscent of the secrecy in how the Trans-Pacific Partnership was negotiated.

But how does such a blatant lack of representation persist? This all goes back to 1977, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public unions were allowed to force employees to pay into their coffers as a requirement of employment. This means that regardless of an employee’s position on the union, they can still be forced to pay dues to a union that claims to represent them. This has created the problems we see today.

Guaranteed access to resources, regardless of performance, breeds corruption. For this reason, the U.S. has antitrust laws to prevent monopolies. When there is a monopoly, consumers have no choice when accessing a commodity, which allows the provider to take advantage of the consumers. When an organization, such as the GEO, can force its members to pay dues regardless of whether they want to be represented or agree with the content of the representation, that organization has no motivation to increase participation.

In theory, organizations draw their power from the people that willingly choose to join them. When a political party ceases to speak for enough people, they lose their power as members leave. Sports franchises that can no longer convince people to watch the sport fail. Businesses that can no longer convince consumers of their value go bankrupt. This drive to provide a service that people are willing to sacrifice for is what keeps organizations responsive.

And non-responsive unions can deal a lot of damage in pursuit of selfish aims. Selfish pension demands by public employee unions in California now cost taxpayers $5.4 billion dollars a year, which will only rise. That $5.4 billion outweighs the total that the state spends on environmental protections, drought prevention and wildfire fighting. Teachers’ unions also get in on the fun. In California, teachers can earn tenure after as little as two years, leaving students with little to no protection from ineffective teachers. And let us not forget police unions. They routinely use their clout to protect abusive and corrupt officers.

Shouldn’t employees have the right to decide whether they want their money to go to bankrupting their states and cities? Or harming their children? Or permitting police officers to get away with criminal abuses?

This is where Justice Gorsuch comes in. Public unions dodged a bullet with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, leading the court to a 4-4 tie on the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. But two new cases will likely soon come before the Supreme Court that may lead to forced union dues being declared unconstitutional.

And this will be a blessing in disguise for the GEO.

True democracy needs to be protected against perverse incentives. The GEO has no incentive to be more representative because everyone is required to pay into the system regardless. In this way, the union is run by a small group of people that do not represent those that they claim to represent: ideologically, academically and otherwise.

And democracy shouldn’t be this way. In 2016, the Hungarian government held a national referendum on whether or not Hungary should comply with European Union guidelines to welcome in refugees. In the days leading up to the referendum, almost all of the opposition parties, recognizing that they could not convince enough voters that Hungary should agree to take in refugees, called on their supporters to boycott the election. On the day of the referendum, nearly three and a half million Hungarians turned out to vote, with an overwhelming majority, 98.4 percent, voting to reject the EU’s refugee system that would have required Hungary to take in additional refugees.

Surprisingly, in the aftermath of referendum, European officials celebrated the decision that upheld the EU’s refugee system. In Hungary, referenda are only valid if they are able to turn out at least half of the electorate, and only about 44 percent of voters turned out, rendering the results invalid.

This was a victory for democracy, where the rules remove the perverse incentive to intimidate opposition voters into staying home by requiring the government to convince at least half of the voters to participate.

If the GEO wanted, they could also institute a democracy similar to that of Hungary. They could mandate transparency and easy access to records. They can remove perverse incentives by discounting any votes that cannot at least get a quarter of their membership to participate.

While the GEO is unlikely to take up these suggestions now, Justice Gorsuch may force their hand. Once the GEO is no longer permitted to take money from graduate employees without proving its worth, it may finally take real action to represent all graduate employees and not just the interests of a few.

Levi Adelman is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at

2 Responses to “Justice Gorsuch can save the UMass GEO”
  1. Owen Wiggins says:

    Well written. The GEO has had many wins for all graduate students though. For example, grad students get paid pretty well and have decent benefits. It seems like they represent all grad students in that regard. Are the representation stats symbolic of anything? These are the students that stepped up.

  2. Zac Bears says:

    Amazing. You’re so angry about BDS that you’re willing to sacrifice your own rights to representation and collective bargaining. Sad.

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