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WHEN graduate students at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., ended their grade strike Jan. 15, they did so out of concern that they would lose their teaching positions next semester. But their grievances remain. They want the university to recognize their union, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which would push for larger teaching stipends, smaller classes, less-expensive health insurance, and a written grievance procedure.

The battle, both at Yale and on other college campuses, is not new. But this was the first time graduate students took such dramatic action: Many withheld grades from undergraduate classes they had taught the previous semester. It was also the first time the university responded so forcefully: Administrators refused to negotiate, held disciplinary hearings for some of the strikers, and threatened to strip graduate students of their teaching positions.

The teaching assistants took an unfair tack in withholding their students' grades. Though some undergraduates voiced support for their teachers, most were concerned - with good reason - about the impact of an incomplete transcript. The university did the right thing by protecting the undergraduates, who deserved a timely evaluation of their work, and not succumbing to strong-arm labor tactics.

That's not to say graduate students at Yale and elsewhere don't have legitimate concerns. As budgets tighten, universities - particularly public ones - are forced to rely more on teaching assistants and part-time adjuncts. Not only do the grad students want to be fairly compensated for the work they do while still in school, they worry that their prospects for tenured teaching positions after graduation are increasingly slim.

But Yale's graduate students shouldn't lose sight of what they have and who they are. The purpose of labor unions is to bargain, on behalf of workers, with employers about the conditions of employment. Their role, traditionally, has been to protect exploited and ''forgotten'' workers. At Yale, most graduate students study tuition-free. Their stipends cover most of their living expenses. Teaching loads are not overly burdensome.

Nor is the university the only side that benefits from the relationship. Students leave Yale with a degree from a prestigious university. While there, they get hands-on experience in the profession of their choice and acquire the qualifications to teach. They are apprentices learning a trade and a skill. Discouraging job prospects don't change that.

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