Graduate Assistants Take Fight for Collective Bargaining to Congress

Teaching and research assistants hope a new online petition and new political leadership will spur Congress to pass a collective bargaining law.

With rising unemployment on the horizon, those caught in the middle include graduate students trying to burnish their skills and employability. But the nation’s teaching and research assistants also are mounting a challenging drive: convincing Congress to ease rules on collective bargaining so they gain better pay and benefits.

“We’re trying to get in line when there is major political change next year,” says Rana Jaleel, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate at New York University. “In uncertain economic times, a union contract is an important protection for workers and their families — including academic workers.”

The issue is one of status — whether graduate and research assistants are employees of their college or university or are primarily students. The National Labor Relations Board in 2000 called them employees who could participate in collective bargaining. But the board reversed course in 2004, ruling that assistants are students and not employees.

Now the issue is before Congress, as House and Senate education committee chairmen — Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. — have proposed legislation restoring NLRB’s 2000 interpretation of graduate assistants as employees.

While Congress has taken no action yet this year, sponsors say that prospects may change in 2009 when a new Congress considers the legislation, called the Teaching and Research Collective Bargaining Rights Act. Nationwide, more than 2,000 teaching and research assistants have signed an online petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/TA_rights.

The bill’s champions include many graduate assistants at New York University, where teaching assistants affiliated with the United Auto Workers in 2002 became the first academic student employees to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with a private university. Supporters of the pact say it produced steady pay raises, employer-paid health care, grievance procedures and child care stipends.

However, after the NLRB reversed itself in a 3-2 decision on a similar case involving Brown University in 2004, NYU and the union could not reach agreement to expand the pact after it expired. Salaries for assistants increased by 40 percent under the contract, Jaleel says. Since its expiration, however, assistants have received fewer pay raises and lost sick leave and grievance benefits. The graduate and research assistants still receive health care, “but what’s covered can vary widely from year to year,” she tells Diverse. “Benefits are not handled in any systematic approach.”

NYU countered, however, that the unionagainst- management concept is counterproductive in the graduate student environment.

“The collective bargaining framework — with its oppositional positioning of labor and management —does not fit with graduate education’s true framework: that of graduate student and mentor,” says John Beckman, an NYU spokesman.

“Graduate assistants are students, not employees. They are admitted to a university based on their academic potential, not hired based on qualifications for a job.” The Kennedy-Miller bill “could do great harm to higher education,” Beckman says. “We think such legislation would be deeply regrettable.”

Aside from NYU, union activists say the 2004 Brown ruling hampered the development of efforts at other universities. Prior to the NLRB decision, similar collective bargaining efforts were underway at universities such as Columbia University, Tufts University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Brown, says Ariana Paulson of Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale University.

Kennedy described the issue as one of fairness. “Often, teaching and research assistants are now doing the same job as junior faculty members,” he said.

Nationwide, more than two dozen public colleges and universities have recognized graduate employee unions, according to the Congress of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU), a national group that supports collective bargaining efforts. Among the recognized unions are those at the City University of New York, the California State University system, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, Rutgers University, the University of California system and the University of Florida, CGEU says.

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