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By Dick Meister

The highly exploited graduate students whose work as teaching assistants is essential to the running of America's colleges and universities finally are gaining the union rights they have long needed.

The TAs, as they're called, scored their most important victory last year when the National Labor Relations Board extended to TAs at private institutions the collective bargaining rights previously granted TAs at public colleges and universities.

The labor board rejected the school administrators' argument that TAs are primarily students rather than employees and thus do not have the legal right to unionization -- a position the board itself held until just a few years ago.

The ruling was sought by representatives of some 1,200 TAs at New York University, who followed the ruling by voting to unionize and thus become the first TAs at any private university or college to do so. Their union is an affiliate of the United Auto Workers, which has been organizing white-collar employees as its core of blue-collar workers has diminished. It represents more than 30,000 TAs nationwide. It took almost a year, but finally this March NYU recognized the TA's union and began negotiations for a contract.

Although most, if not all, administrators continue to oppose unionization, the labor board ruling, the NYU TAs' subsequent vote for unionization and the start of contract negotiations has triggered new organizing drives and contract demands at other private as well as public colleges and universities across the country.

TAs already have won contracts at 19 public institutions and are already pursuing them at dozens of others. The contracts include one covering the 10,000 TAs on the eight campuses of the University of California, the country's largest university system.

The UC agreement, ratified last year, called for a 9.5 percent pay raise over the next three years, full tuition rebates by the end of the contract period, health care benefits and, among other key provisions, a system for settling unresolved grievances through neutral arbitrators. UC TAs had sought union rights for nearly 17 years, waging several strikes to press their demand. Even after they finally won union rights, UC officials balked at agreeing to a contract until the union threatened to call another strike, that during midterm exams last Spring.

TAs obviously need and deserve what they're after. They typically work 20 or more hours a week, carrying out more than half of their schools' teaching and research and conducting many -- if not most -- undergraduate classes. They lecture, grade papers and exams, lead discussion groups, tutor and counsel students whose only exposure to professors is almost solely in lecture halls, and act as major aides in the research that preoccupies regular faculty members.

All that while studying at least 20 hours a week for their own Ph.D.s, which no longer even guarantee them permanent fulltime positions, and in some cases while trying to start families.

"Graduate student instructors at many universities teach such a heavy load that they become underpaid instructors rather than students learning to teach," says Perry Robinson of the American Federation of Teachers' Higher Education Department. "They need union representation because they're on the bottom tier of what has become a two-tier profession."

Pay is generally at or below the poverty level, usually no more than $14,000 for the TA's nine-month stint. And TAs rarely have health insurance or any other fringe benefits. Without union rights, they have no effective way to seek better conditions. Without union rights, they can be hired, fired and disciplined solely at the whim of administrators and professors, who can unilaterally determine their wages, hours and working conditions as well as their graduate school grades.

Despite their invaluable work, many of the young teaching assistants still lack those rights that would give them a true voice in setting their terms of employment. But it's now evident hat many soon will win the basic right of collective bargaining that has been arbitrarily denied them for far too many years.

Dick Meister is a veteran labor writer who formerly taught at San Francisco State University. c 2001 Dick Meister.

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