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UCLA Grad Employees Opt for Union

November 16, 1994|TY TAGAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They teach, grade papers and research like professors, but they don't get paid like them.

As budgets vaporize, UCLA's graduate student employees say they have been left to pick up the pieces, putting in extra unpaid hours to keep up with a growing workload.

They want a union to fight for better wages and job descriptions.

"Most undergrads will tell you most of what they learned was taught by (teaching assistants) rather than faculty," says Mike Miller, lead organizer for Student Association of Graduate Employees (SAGE).

He says graduate student employees deserve the right to bargain collectively.

But UCLA administrators say their students don't really want a union, don't really need a union and don't qualify for one anyway.

About 3,500 graduate students teach, grade papers, tutor or keep tabs on petri dishes. Together, they oil the academic machine. And, Miller says, many must choose between doing a good job and doing their own homework.

Taking a cue from UC Berkeley graduate student strikes in 1989 and 1992 and union organizing efforts on campuses across the country, SAGE--with financial and technical help from the United Auto Workers union--has collected enough signatures to qualify for union representation.

But UCLA so far has declined to recognize SAGE as a bargaining representative. Its position is that the teaching and research that students do under faculty supervision is education--not work.

"We think of these folks as students first and then as apprentice employees way on down the list," says Robin Fisher, an associate dean of the graduate division.

"Our major contention right now would be that because of the apprenticeship nature of these positions, they're not union job categories."

He says the university does its best to ensure that graduate student employees keep their hours down to 15 to 20 per week.

Some work more, he concedes, but "it's tough deciding how many of those outside hours are really necessary and how many are put in simply because somebody is really interested in what they're teaching."

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According to Kathleen Komar, another associate dean of the graduate division, students who feel exploited can take their grievances to the administration, but few have done so. She says most of the union noise is coming from a few students motivated by outside agitators.

"I don't think that all the students recognize that SAGE is really the UAW," she says. "I would just hate to see people drift into a process that they don't understand or haven't been informed about."

Miller, the SAGE organizer, says few graduates report exploitation for fear of reprisals. And, he adds, the students know what they're doing.

In March, the student organizers brought their case before the state Public Employment Relations Board, along with signed union membership cards.

The board counted the signatures and compared them to the university roster, determining that a majority of graduate students wanted the union. The university is challenging the finding.

A decision in the students' favor could force the university into negotiations, but, with appeals, the hearings could take years. Meanwhile, SAGE recently staged a sit-in in the chancellor's office.

If the members decide to strike, Miller believes the public will support their cause. "We're not the baseball players. We don't make a lot of money, so people aren't going to think that we don't deserve anything."

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