Student Union at UCI Works for Recognition


Future engineers, anthropologists and other graduate students at UC Irvine are locked in a labor stalemate with the very university where they are receiving their education.

Though their studies may be esoteric, the graduate students’ dispute centers on the most mundane roots of labor strife: pay, workload and benefits.

Perhaps that is why in forming a union, they have aligned themselves with the mighty United Auto Workers. The students held their first organizing meeting a year ago. Today, a majority of the 1,070 graduate student employees at UC Irvine belong to the Student Workers Union.

But university officials refuse to recognize the union, arguing that teaching assistants and other academic student workers are not employees, but students whose jobs are part of the learning experience.


Union members at UC Irvine, UCLA and five other University of California campuses voted in May and June to authorize a strike to force the university to follow the collective-bargaining process. It could happen as early as the fall, when classes resume.

Graduate students enrolled in a doctoral program are frequently offered campus jobs as part of their scholarship. They receive a stipend for a variety of research, teaching and tutoring jobs in order to support themselves while they are writing a dissertation.

For example, Marty Otanez, a third-year graduate student in cultural anthropology, earns close to $300 a week as a teaching assistant in UCI’s anthropology department. For that, he says he works 16 to 20 hours each week preparing lessons, instructing a class or grading papers.

In addition to wanting more money, union members have a laundry list of issues. They say the number of students they must work with is expanding, cost-of-living raises have been reduced in the past few years and health benefits for a student employee’s spouse or children are too expensive for most to afford.


“What we want,” Otanez said, “is a voice in decision-making.”

That includes a contract outlining grievance procedures and clarification in job descriptions for all academic student employees, including teaching assistants, teaching associates, readers and tutors. Research assistants, whose jobs are more closely related to their graduate studies, are not included in the union.

A contract is unnecessary in the minds of university officials, who say the employees in question are students and students only.

“Yes, they receive a salary,” said Rick Malaspina, a spokesman for the entire UC system, which includes an estimated 9,000 graduate student employees, “but the service they provide is really a part of their education.”


Students countered that they often must teach courses in their department that are outside their area of research. Otanez, an anthropology student, has taught statistics because both subjects are part of the social sciences department, he said.

“We are responsible for 60% of instruction at the UC Irvine campus,” said Brian Chiu, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering. “It has nothing to do with our academic development.”

But Frederic Y.M. Wan, the dean of graduate students on the Irvine campus, said only faculty members teach students. The role of a graduate student is to simply help undergraduates with material that has already been taught.

The fact that they are paid “is the university’s way of providing financial support for the students,” he said.


The conflict at UC Irvine highlights a movement by academic graduate student workers throughout the University of California and the nation seeking union and collective-bargaining rights.

There are eight University of California campuses with academic student workers. (The ninth campus, UC San Francisco, functions as a medical school.) Only UC Berkeley has a recognized bargaining unit for two categories of academic student employees--graduate student tutors and readers. The rest have units that the university has not recognized.

Teaching assistants at 12 universities nationwide, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan, belong to recognized unions. Students at an estimated 20 other schools, including the University of California, are in various stages of forming one or being recognized, according to local and national union officials.

UC’s unionizing effort began a decade ago on the Berkeley campus. Since 1989, collective bargaining has taken place there for two categories of academic employees, readers and tutors.


In April, the unrecognized union at UC San Diego won a favorable decision from the Public Employment Relations Board, which ruled that the working students are employees and entitled to collective-bargaining rights. The university has appealed.

UCLA also is appealing a judge’s ruling from 1996 that teaching assistants, readers and tutors there are eligible for unionization. The Westwood campus has an estimated 2,500 academic graduate student employees, a majority of whom are members of the Student Assn. of Graduate Employees (SAGE).

“People who are students, first, and students, primarily, are not eligible for union membership,” said Robin Fisher, associate dean of UCLA’s graduate division, “and it gets in the road of accomplishing academic operations.”

No one expects the issue to be resolved soon.


“There’s going to be a certain amount of litigation and what-have-you for some years to come,” predicted Bob Thompson, the deputy general counsel for the Public Employment Relations Board, which enforces state labor law.

Meanwhile, as the national labor movement enjoys a resurgence in support, it is branching out to organize a work force that appears to have little in common with assembly line or garment workers.

“We feel that the lessons we’ve learned in representing auto workers and others can be applied to an academic setting,” said Elizabeth Bunn, a UAW vice president who is charged with expanding the union’s representation beyond its traditional industrial base.

“The problems are very similar and the solutions to the problems are very similar,” Bunn said. “These workers are incredibly exploited,”


The Detroit-based union provides legal, financial and strategic support for the student employees, which includes paying $300 in rent for the Student Workers Union office in Costa Mesa. The UAW also represents graduate students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Should a strike occur this fall, each campus would decide how to handle the disruption. Some may choose to cancel classes, and at UC Irvine, graduate student employees will not be paid if they miss class to walk a picket line, Wan said.

“It would be extremely unfortunate,” Malaspina said. “It would hurt the undergraduate education.”