Labor Pains: Graduate Assistant Unions Have Long Been a Presence at Public Institutions, but They May Soon Become Common at Private Schools. What Could This Trend Mean for Your School?

Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Labor Pains: Graduate Assistant Unions Have Long Been a Presence at Public Institutions, but They May Soon Become Common at Private Schools. What Could This Trend Mean for Your School?


This summer, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reached contract agreements with all its campus unions, except one. But while that one, covering graduate teaching students, may seem like a minor holdup, the dispute has resulted in summer school students not getting their grades on time.

Tensions reached a high point in July when a group of 45 graduate teaching assistants held up grade processing by failing to turn in grades for their summer classes. Instead, the grades were given to the union, the Graduate Employee Organization, to be delivered four hours past deadline. Grades that are not submitted in person can't be processed until they are verified.

The University of Washington, too, was the scene of a contentious, two-week strike in June by nearly 250 teaching assistants over contract disagreements that remained unresolved.

Public vs. Private

Graduate assistant unions have a long, and at times troubled, history in a number of public universities. At least 10 states have labor laws pertaining to public employees including those at public universities. Twenty-seven public institutions now recognize graduate unions, but until this year, private schools have refused to follow suit. Federal laws, such as those regulated by the National Labor Relations Board, don't pertain to private institutions.

Union organizers at Columbia University, where students petitioned for the right to organize last spring, say that teaching assistants amount to cheap labor, overworked and underpaid.

Not so, argue Columbia University administrators. The university's position is that teaching and research assistants are still students, whose work is an essential part of their education.

Teaching assistants typically earn between $11,000 and $16,000 per nine-month period. Moreover, these positions often include free tuition or partial tuition rebates. Still, many graduate assistants must work second jobs to support themselves and they claim health benefits are inadequate.

At Columbia, as at NYU, Yale, Temple, Brown and other schools currently struggling with the question of labor organizations, the root issue is the debate about whether graduate assistants are employees of the school, or students serving what amounts to an academic apprenticeship.

All Eyes On NYU

To date, although graduate assistants have won the right to organize at private institutions, no private school has settled on a contract between the university and its graduate employees.

That may soon change at New York University, which in March became the first private institution to recognize ant agree to bargain with a graduate assistant union.

The path to the bargaining table was found only after the university and the United Auto Workers, which represents the graduate students, agreed to remove academic considerations from the table. The agreement explained in a March 1 letter from the UAW to NYU, stipulated that "certain issues involving the academic mission of the university lie outside the scope of bargaining as defined by that National Labor Relations Act. The UAW recognizes that the university's bargaining obligation is limited by statute to `wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment' of graduate assistants."

That was a crucial point in the negotiations because, although state laws limit bargaining on academic issues, federal laws governing private institutions such as NYU have no such limits.

Bargaining sessions would exclude any discussions of curriculum content or how NYU structures, teaches and staffs the curriculum. Also, excluded are any discussions of admissions policies, degree requirements and decisions on academic progress for students, hiring and evaluation criteria for faculty and conditions of fellowships.

"I view that as a pre-bargaining agreement," says Robert Berne, vice president for academic and health affairs at NYU.

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