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. ``They do much of the same work as faculty but are paid much less,'' he says.
Recent increases in progressive political activity among students in the late 1980s also ``gives impetus to unionization,'' Morgenstern notes. ``Students are more likely to support the union's efforts.''
However, the Massachusetts Labor Commission has ruled that TAs and RAs are not workers entitled to collective bargaining. The commission said such employment is really part of their academic training.
Susan Pearson, academic administration director at UMass Amherst, says the university will not violate state law by bargaining with graduate-student employees. ``The easiest way to resolve this would be for GEO to petition for a reconsideration'' by the commission, she says.
GEO, however, is proceeding with a campaign of direct action. It held a March 1 work stoppage to press for a representation election and later planned a nonviolent blockade of the administration building for April. The night before the blockade, the two sides reached an agreement to hold an election on Oct. 26.
If the union wins the election, the administration has agreed to ``enter into a negotiating relationship'' and is willing to sign an agreement, says Ms. Pearson. However, she maintains that the process will not be ``collective bargaining.''
The UAW and administrators are dancing a similar legal minuet at UC Berkeley. After the Association of Graduate Student Employees District 65-UAW (AGSE) held a widely-supported work stoppage in 1989, school administrators entered into ``discussions with the UAW to work out an amicable resolution of their concerns,'' says Debra Harrington, UC Berkeley's manager for Labor Relations. She hastens to add that such discussions are not ``negotiations,'' and the university will not hold a representation election or bargain collectively with AGSE.
Patricia Vattuone, lead organizer for AGSE, says the administration's position has forced her group to win union rights one at a time.
``We got them to sit down with us,'' she says, ``then we got them to allow a dues checkoff for union members and to pay for our health plan. We don't have a contract, but we're slowly winning important elements of what would go into one.''
Ms. Heberle sums up the feelings of many union members: ``We've won every battle, but we haven't quite won the war.''