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Labor 101

[whitespace] Cynthia Gabriel
George Sakkestad

Union Due: Grad student Cynthia Gabriel helps lead a campaign for recognition of a teaching assistants union at UCSC.

After more than a decade of organizing, UCSC teaching assistants say a UC-wide strike is looming. What are University officials doing about it? Hoping it will go away.

By John Yewell

WHEN THE University of California at Santa Cruz first opened its doors in 1965, its emphasis was on undergraduate teaching. With no graduate program, there were no teaching assistants to come between students and professors. Along the way, UCSC gradually came to resemble every other campus in the UC system. Today there are about 1,000 graduate students among the almost 11,000 students on campus, and about half of those grad students are also teaching assistants, or TAs.

But along with the change in teaching emphasis, the university has also acquired the same kinds of labor problems that have beset other universities. Strikes in 1992 and 1996 by the Association of Student Employees (ASE), which represents UCSC TAs, gained headlines but did not cause the university to act on the ASE's main demand: recognition of the union. Sometime in the next couple of months, another strike is becoming more and more likely, only this time it would likely affect all eight UC campuses. The UC system has some 9,000 graduate student academic employees who could be affected by a strike.

On Thursday, Oct. 1, the ASE delivered a letter to UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood, calling on the university to recognize the union and enter into collective bargaining. Last spring, TA bargaining units at seven of the eight university campuses (the medical school at UC-San Francisco is not included in the total) voted to authorize a strike. About the same time, a Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) judge determined that graduate readers and tutors at UC-San Diego could form a union. A similar case at UCLA regarding TAs is pending. Meanwhile, TAs at UC-Davis will vote sometime in the next few weeks on whether to join the other seven campuses in authorizing a strike. Cynthia Gabriel, a cultural anthropology graduate student at UCSC and member of the ASE executive board, says that the most likely time for a strike is "towards the end of the fall quarter," and would not predict how long such a strike might last.

Teaching assistants lead section discussions in large lecture classes and sometimes are responsible for individual smaller classes. Other duties include putting together exams, grading exams and reading essays. UCSC policy is that TAs not work more than 20 hours a week, but some TAs say that up to 30 or 40 hours, especially at the end of a quarter, is not unusual. This is in addition to their own studies and work on dissertations. Typical remuneration is about $360 per week.

The issue for TAs is not so much money as workloads and job security, says Gabriel. For example, she says she was told last year that she would have no more than 40 students per class, but in reality she ended up with between 56 and 75 students per class. In 1974, according to Gabriel, only 10 percent of Ph.D. students nationwide interrupted their studies and dissertations to teach. Today, she says, that figure is 60 percent. Comparable figures for UCSC were not available. Meanwhile, TAs have little control over their class assignments.

Defining Work

GABRIEL SAYS THE UNION has been trying for years to get the attention of the university administration without success. In their Oct. 1 letter, the ASE executive board told Greenwood that "inaction" by her administration has forced the union "to prepare for stronger action."

UCSC Chancellor Greenwood was out of the country and unavailable for comment. A request for an interview with a representative from her office had not been granted by press time.

PERB recognized the ASE in 1990, but the union's right to represent UCSC TAs was dealt a setback in 1992. A state Court of Appeals sided with UC, saying that under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA), TAs' rights as university workers were subordinate to their roles as students. The court case bolstered the university's systemwide stance against recognizing the union.

"We believe they are first and foremost students," says Brad Hayward, a spokesperson for the UC Board of Regents.

Terry Lightfoot, spokesperson for UC President Richard Atkinson, declined to comment on whether the university planned to enter into discussions with the union any time soon. But he also stresses that the university views TAs as students, not employees, adding that its main concern is maintaining its flexibility.

"If a collegial relationship becomes one with a union rep, that will have a negative impact," Lightfoot says. "If you begin to codify how much time can be spent on grading papers or those kind of things, you begin to remove the essence of the TA/professor relationship. If you begin to make rules about academic involvement, that changes our ability to be flexible. "

UCSC lecturer and Santa Cruz Councilmember Michael Rotkin takes issue with this rationale.

"They argue [a union] would create a bureaucratic relationship," Rotkin says. "The problem is that the need for a union is the result of a breakdown in the collegial relationship."

Rotkin also disagrees with the university's interpretation of the 1992 legal opinion.

"The Appeals Court decision only says that they aren't required to recognize the union," Rotkin says. "These people (TAs) are clearly working. The idea that they shouldn't be recognized is ridiculous."

Despite the Appeals Court ruling, several PERB judges since 1992 have certified TA unions at UC campuses. As a result, TAs have gained the right to organize at the same time that the university insists it is under no obligation to recognize their efforts.

At UCSC, the ASE represents about 425 students, Gabriel claims, or over 80 percent of the TAs on campus. If the union does strike, she says, they will encourage what is known as a "porous picket line."

"We want the undergraduate students to continue to attend classes and demand services," Gabriel says. "That way the administration will realize how much we are needed." Gabriel says that although there are some professors ideologically opposed to a TA union, she claims that the faculty is generally supportive.

"Some professors think of us as just apprentices and not employees," she says. "But others realize that their jobs are being shifted to lower-paid temp workers--us--and that is a threat."

Rotkin agrees.

"The faculty is very supportive," says Rotkin. "I believe 90 to 95 percent support unionization." Rotkin says 80 faculty members signed a statement of support two years ago during the last TA strike.

Faculty Senate chair Helene Moglen is reluctant to quantify support among the faculty for the TAs' right to organize, but she did think that Rotkin's figure of 90 to 95 percent faculty support is "too high." Is it, perhaps, a majority?

"I don't know," Moglen replied. "There's enormous support for graduate students. How that translates into support for unionization is unclear."

Last spring, at the request of the union, Assemblymember Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) appealed to Chancellor Greenwood to recognize the union.

"They have gone through the process of being recognized. They are legally recognized as a bargaining unit," Keeley says.

"The university is trying to find distinctions that don't serve them or their employees," Keeley continues. "No one disputes the fact that the university could not function without the services of TAs. It's a fiction to claim that they aren't employees. I think the university is making a mistake by not dealing with them."

Keeley says he is convinced that Greenwood would like to resolve the conflict, but that Greenwood told him her hands were tied because it is a systemwide issue.

"I think the university is digging in for a long fight, and that they view these employees as people who come and go and they can wait them out," continues Keeley. "I think that's a cynical and unwise approach."

Gabriel agrees with that assessment, since organizing graduate students, like organizing other transient populations like renters, is a challenge.

"They're just dragging this thing out hoping we'll lose institutional memory," says Gabriel. "But I think it has had the opposite effect. It has given us more time to organize and the movement has grown."

Nationwide about a dozen universities have recognized graduate student unions, with another 20 or so considering doing so. Many schools are watching the mammoth UC system to see what happens here first before deciding.

As nervous as UC is about a TA union, the experience at other universities is instructive.

Cynthia Gabriel
George Sakkestad

Stall Tactics: "They're just dragging this thing out hoping we'll lose institutional memory," Gabriel says.

Balance of Power

UNIONIZATION EFFORTS for teaching assistants started at the University of Wisconsin 30 years ago. In the beginning, says Mike Rothstein, contract administrator for the University of Wisconsin chancellor, relations between grad students and the administration were every bit as rocky as they are now between UC and its TAs. There were numerous strikes in the 70s and a great deal of animosity. Then, in 1987, the Wisconsin Legislature authorized TAs to form a union. Since then, Rothstein says, things have gone fairly smoothly.

"The negotiations have matured over the last 10 years," he says.

Rothstein says that in his experience representing his university, the concerns of UC administrators about a negative impact on student/professor relations are misplaced.

"Some departments try to maintain mentoring relationships, while others have stepped back a little bit because of stewards and the grievance procedures," he says. "But the TA appointment process has been more formalized, which for TAs is a good thing. There is more uniformity of treatment." He says there are very few grievances overall.

Rothstein knows that a number of campuses around the country, in addition to UC, say they are concerned about the effect of a union on the relationships between faculty and students.

"They are sensitive to losing one-on-one relationships, but I'm not sure it's enough to override the legitimate concerns that most graduate students have," Rothstein says. "There doesn't seem to be much in the way of control to make sure TAs are treated fairly in how positions are given out. They need to have some kind of structure and protection."

One reason, he says, is that because grad students are so dependent on professors for recommendations when they start looking for a job, a union provides some insulation for them to be able to question working conditions without jeopardizing their careers.

"There really is a power differential, and universities in general aren't sensitive to this, or don't have mechanisms in place to ensure fairness," Rothstein says.

But some local union advocates don't see the University of California choosing to follow the University of Wisconsin any time soon.

"Among higher educational institutions, the University of California is recognized as the most anti-union in the country," Rotkin says. "The university needs to be hit with a two-by-four to realize that someone's talking to them."

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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