Grad-Student Tutors Demand to Unionize

Article excerpt

Graduate students at University of California campuses have voted for a systemwide strike this fall if UC administrators refuse to come to the bargaining table over the issue of student-instructor unions. It's a step that could affect everything from grade distribution this term to the formal status of graduate-student instructors.

UC negotiations would affect about 10,000 graduate-student instructors (GSI) on eight campuses. Student employees say they want better hours, health benefits, and class sizes. UC officials argue a union would jeopardize professor/student "mentoring relationships."

The outcome could influence decisions at universities around the United States wrestling with the question of whether graduate student instructors - readers, tutors, and teaching assistants (TAs) - are employees with a right to collective bargaining. According to school administrators, TAs instruct 77 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduate discussion sections and 10 percent of lectures. Graduate-student instructors teach 59 percent of all "teaching contact hours," according to the student groups. Both sides agree the strike would leave undergraduates short of instructors and possibly without grades. "We do not support collective bargaining for TAs on our campuses," says Brad Hayward, a UC Berkeley spokesman. "We believe these positions are not eligible under state law." A 1992 state ruling defined TAs as students, not employees. That definition may change if that state labor board supports a 1996 decision on UC Los Angeles teaching assistants. That case - which has been on appeal for two years - stated that the value of teaching assistants' service to the university outweighed the value of that service to their own studies. Graduate instructors won another vote last April when the Public Employment Relations Board granted collective bargaining rights to readers and tutors at UC San Diego. The school has still not decided if it will refuse to negotiate with the group. Unwelcome taxes? Some students and administrators are concerned that calling TA work "employment," rather than "student subsidies," would inspire legislators to revisit a 1996 federal proposal that would tax student-tuition waivers as income. But that hasn't happened at the University of WIsconsin, where GSIs have been recognized as employees for 30 years. "All the major research departments will fight that {taxation} tooth and nail because they can't afford for graduate students to cost any more than they do," says M.J. Curry, president of the University of Wisconsin's TAs association. …