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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENT : Labor Movement Finds New Home--Universities

April 21, 1996|John Medearis | John Medearis, a member of SAGE, is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the political science department at UCLA

In these days of renewed vigor for U.S. labor, a new activism is spreading across campuses. Students who work as teachers, researchers and tutors are mobilizing to demand the right to bargain collectively with administrations.

The teaching assistants who recently held a "grade strike" at Yale were only a recent examples. At UCLA, 3,400 teaching assistants, research assistants, readers, tutors and others have joined the Student Association of Graduate Employees/United Auto Workers union, which is seeking collective bargaining rights. The University of Michigan reached an agreement last week with the Graduate Employees Organization, which represents 75% of the university's 1,700 graduate teaching assistants. On six UC campuses--Santa Cruz, Davis, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego--and on 15 others across the country, academic student employees either have collective-bargaining rights or are organizing to win them. The oldest of these movements, at the University of Wisconsin, dates back 30 years. It drew its first members from the antiwar movement. But about half the current organizing drives have been launched since the late 1980s.

Just who are these academic student employees? A typical example is a graduate student who teaches, tutors, does research or grades exams in order to support herself while earning a degree. The modern university depends on such highly trained but inexpensive labor.

A few trends in higher education have taught academic student employees that they face many problems in common with workers in corporate America. Universities have imitated the austerity programs and layoffs of U.S. big business to slash labor costs. And just as businesses have turned to temporary workers, universities, more and more, are filling teaching slots with temporary "adjunct" professors.

But a better explanation for the union movement among academic student employees lies in the goals they have consistently pursued for 30 years: democratizing their relationship with university administrations and protecting reasonable pay and working conditions.

SAGE at UCLA, like its counterpart union at Yale, has linked its quest for shared decision-making on employment to the more general goal of promoting democratic procedures in the university. Last year, a group of prominent scholars, including Cornel West and Catharine MacKinnon, recognized this link when they signed a petition urging Yale to bargain collectively with academic student employees "as a matter of democratic principle."

Of course, reasonable pay and benefits are important to most academic student employees. According to a recent survey, every one of the 12 academic student employee groups now seeking recognition, from Cornell to UC Santa Cruz, is mobilizing around at least some pay and benefit issues. They contend that the university, as a whole, will benefit when teachers and researchers have confidence in their future pay and benefits.

In the 1960s, a proposal to eliminate tuition-offsetting payments for out-of-state teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin sparked the first big push for unionization there. At Yale, academic student employees are rallying around the issue of a living wage. Their $9,660-a-year salaries are $2,000 below what the university estimates to be the cost of living in New Haven, Yale's home.

University administrations, whether at Yale or UCLA, make the same argument to counter unionization: Unless administrators retain unchallenged authority to make all decisions concerning academic student employment, the mentor relationship between graduate students and professors will be destroyed.

Since academic student employee unions are seeking to reconstitute their relationship with administrators, not with professors, this argument has always been a bit hard to understand. Fortunately, such arguments have withered in the light of experience and evidence.

A former dean at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which now bargains collectively with its academic student employees, told a newspaper that U-Mass officials once had similar concerns, but the problems the univeristy anticipated didn't occur.

After hearing 32 days of evidence, a California state administrative law judge decided last fall that UC San Diego must recognize the collective bargaining rights of readers and tutors. In his decision, he contended that many of the fears expressed by the university's administration were unfounded. Collective bargaining "will not only help develop a more harmonious and cooperative labor management relationship," the judge wrote; "it will affirmatively encourage excellence within the university."

The judge was right. The recalcitrance of university administrators will make the campaign for recognition more difficult, but academic student employees are convinced they will some day prove that collective bargaining can be good for them and their universities.*

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