Graduate-Student Workers Make Gains in Unionization at Several Universities Moves Parallel Growth in Their Teaching, Research Roles. EDUCATION OR LABOR?

By Reese Erlich, | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1990 | Go to article overview

Graduate-Student Workers Make Gains in Unionization at Several Universities Moves Parallel Growth in Their Teaching, Research Roles. EDUCATION OR LABOR?


Reese Erlich,, The Christian Science Monitor


GRADUATE-STUDENT employees at several universities nationwide say they made important gains in organizing this spring, a sign of the growing clout of campus unions.

Analysts say the unions' accomplishments can be traced to students' economic hardship, a recent upsurge in student activism, and the changing nature of major United States universities. The latest gains are particularly important, activists say, because most universities categorically reject the right of graduate student employees to bargain collectively.

- On May 14 graduate-student teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst won the right to hold a representation election in which they will choose whether to be represented by a union.

- The graduate-student union at the University of California at Berkeley ratified agreements May 16 regarding health care, grievance procedures, and automatic deduction of union dues.

- On June 4 a state labor board recognized that the Graduate Student Employees Association at the University of California at Santa Cruz has "majority support" among TAs and RAs.

Other universities with unions or organizing campaigns include Temple University, Purdue University, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Since the 1950s, as universities have expanded and regular faculty has concentrated on academic research, graduate-student employees have played an increasingly important role. RAs provide valuable research for faculty projects. TAs lead discussion sections and are the primary instructors in many introductory courses.

"Universities couldn't function without graduate-student teachers," says Marty Morgenstern, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley.

New York-based District 65-United Auto Workers has spearheaded nationwide efforts to unionize graduate-student workers. Renee Heberle, an organizer for the Graduate Employee Organization-District 65-UAW (GEO) at UMass Amherst, says economic hardship has been the single biggest factor in spurring unionization. TAs and RAs on her campus received no pay raises for the past two years, even as academic fees rose. That increased interest in the union, which she says now represents the majority of the campus' 2,500 graduate student employees.

Mr. Morgenstern says graduate students feel exploited.

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