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STRIKE! Should Graduate Student Employees Have Collective Bargaining Rights?

Who are graduate student employees? We teach, tutor, do research, and grade exams in order to support ourselves while earning our degrees.
Lily Khadjavi

Issue #29, November 1996

The University of California at Berkeley takes pride in being a world class institution, attracting the best and the brightest. Unfortunately, when the best and brightest express their desire for collective bargaining rights, the University confronts them with years of costly legal delays. As a matter of democratic principle and in the interest of continuing to attract and retain strong graduate students, the University of California should grant collective bargaining rights wherever a majority of employees have indicated this as their choice. Elected officials, prominent scholars, undergraduates (the ASUC and UCSA), the Graduate Assembly and national figures including Jesse Jackson agree.

Who are graduate student employees? We teach, tutor, do research, and grade exams in order to support ourselves while earning our degrees. Berkeley depends heavily on our highly skilled but inexpensive labor. 60% of undergraduate teaching contact is spent with graduate students, not faculty. Graduate student workers are treated as employees by the University in every respect outside collective bargaining rights: we pay taxes, are covered by worker's compensation and are subject to the same personnel policies as other UC employees.

Life in these jobs can be very uncertain. A graduate student may not find out until the start of the semester if he or she even has a job that term. It may be difficult to find out which departments are hiring, since not all departments post their available jobs. Moreover, the quality of these jobs has been deteriorating in recent years: student-to-teaching assistant ratios are increasing; real wages have declined over 15% in the past five years while fees have increased 250%; and grievance procedures now prevent workload appeals. As section sizes increase, professors are forced to tell teaching assistants and graders to spend less time on office hours and commenting on student work. With collective bargaining, we can sit down with the University and negotiate pay, benefits, workload, hiring procedures and a grievance process, and put the results in a contract.

Collective bargaining works well at many public universities. For example, the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan have successful bargaining relationships with graduate student employees. These universities beat out Berkeley in the recent US News and World Report rankings of value-for-money and overall undergraduate program, respectively. So clearly collective bargaining hasn't had a negative impact. Every other employee on the Berkeley campus, including the tenured faculty, has the right to choose collective bargaining.

The University claims that the work we do is primarily for our own training and not necessary for the functioning of the University. However, on September 13th, a judge with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rejected this view of teaching assistants at UCLA. Judge Tamm found the training value of these jobs limited, while, "the evidence is clear that there are simply too many undergraduate students and too few faculty to provide a first class education without the services of teaching assistants." The University also argues collective bargaining would upset the mentor relationship between faculty and graduate students. However, Judge Tamm characterized such fears as "paternalistic", and noted that, "After 71 days of formal hearing, involving approximately 200 witnesses, there is simply no credible evidence in this record to support a finding that mentor relationships will deteriorate if the students in question are found to be employees."

The Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE/UAW Local 2165) first formed at Berkeley in 1983, and the graduate students chose to affiliate with the UAW in 1987. From 1989 to 1992, AGSE did negotiate with the University, with such positive results as health insurance coverage, partial fee remissions and resolution of workload problems. Today graduate student employee unions have organized on six UC campuses, each with a PERB certified majority.

The membership of AGSE authorized a strike for this fall to press our demand for collective bargaining rights. The legal case before PERB has presented an opportunity for settlement. While the judge found that graduate students who teach have collective bargaining rights under the law, he also ruled that the University is not legally mandated to bargain with researchers. Although we disagree with this part of the ruling, we have proposed that both sides abide by it, and recognition be granted to teaching assistants. The University can avert a strike and achieve labor peace with this obvious and sensible compromise. University appeals will cause further delays and add to the millions in legal fees-tax dollars that should be going to education-wasted on fighting our right to collective bargaining. If the University does not settle with us, we realize a strike disrupts teaching in the short run. But attacks on our wages, benefits and working conditions undermine the quality of education more seriously in the long run. AGSE seeks to safeguard quality teaching, learning and research at Berkeley.

(This article appeared in a slightly different version in The Cal Monthly.)

Lily Khadjavi is the President of the Association of Graduate Student Employees/UAW Local 2165. She has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University and is currently a doctoral student in algebraic number theory at Berkeley.

Copyright © 1996 by Lily Khadjavi. All rights reserved.