ECONOMIC JUSTICE COMES TO THE CAMPUS
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
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
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
Dick Meister is a veteran labor writer who formerly taught at San
Francisco State University. c 2001 Dick Meister.