After 16 years of struggle, graduate students at eight University of California campuses have taken the final step to unionize, hoping for more control over how they help professors teach classes and grade papers.
Election victories at all UC undergraduate campuses empower the units of the United Auto Workers to begin collective bargaining on behalf of 10,200 tutors, readers and teaching assistants.
Their unionization brings a 50% increase in the number of graduate students organized in a labor movement spreading through America's colleges and universities.
Unions now represent about 30,000 of the estimated 100,000 graduate students nationwide who teach classes, grade papers and otherwise assist college professors.
"Graduate students are real employees, not just students," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group representing the UAW and other major unions. "The contradiction that graduate employees face is clear: While the university enjoys a high premium of prestige for their teaching and research, the employees are underpaid and overworked."
UC teaching assistants generally work about 20 hours a week and receive an average stipend of $13,600, if they work the entire nine-month academic year. They also receive basic health insurance and a discount on UC fees when enrolling in graduate courses.
UCLA has begun collective bargaining, and other campuses will begin their independent negotiations later this summer.
Graduate students want to increase their salaries and health insurance benefits while reducing their fees and workload. Specifically, they want to control the ratio of students to teaching assistants, which could alter the size of grad student-led classes and discussion groups.
UC administrators oppose any proposals that would influence the size of classes or other academic decisions, which are excluded from bargaining under state law.
"We are going to do our best to contribute to good-faith negotiations with the union," said UC spokesman Brad Hayward.
Neither the union nor the administration would estimate how long such negotiations will take. But they expect to move more quickly than they did with the first graduate student union, which has been negotiating on behalf of exam readers and tutors at UC Berkeley without an agreement since 1993.
The acceptance of graduate student unions is a historic turnaround for the University of California system. Administrators actively fought such unionization for 16 years, arguing that teaching undergraduates was part of a graduate student's education, more of an apprenticeship than a traditional job.
UC administrators dropped their opposition in March after a four-day systemwide strike caught the attention of Democratic leaders in the Legislature, which holds the university's purse strings.
Those lawmakers made it clear that if UC administrators didn't reach an agreement with the graduate student unions, "We were going to put pressure on their budget," said Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley).
"It was very disconcerting that public dollars were being spent to fight unions," Aroner said. "That's not the position of the state of California, to fight unions. And that was going to stop with the election of this new [Democratic] governor."
Teaching assistants do the bulk of hands-on, small-group teaching to freshmen and sophomores at UC's eight undergraduates campuses, often leading discussion groups or laboratory sections that supplement large lecture courses.
Graduate student unions now exist on all UC campuses except for UC San Francisco, primarily a graduate school for medicine and other health sciences.
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Graduate student instructors at eight University of California campuses voted to be represented by the United Auto Workers.
UC CAMPUS % WHO % ELECTION VOTED YES TURNOUT Berkeley 74% 71% Davis 68% 45% Irvine 61% 56% Los Angeles 73% 60% San Diego 57% 70% Santa Barbara 58% 29% Santa Cruz 85% 60% Riverside 71% 44%
Note: Union officials did not try to organize UC San Francisco, primarily a graduate school in medicine and the health sciences.
Source: United Auto Workers