Grad Student Union Finally Busts UC

SAN FRANCISCO--After nearly 15 years of opposing unionization for teaching assistants, the University of California (UC) administration agreed earlier this month that it will recognize and bargain with a union of TAs at UCLA. Although UC's new policy applies only to the Los Angeles campus graduate student employees at seven other UC campuses, are celebrating--they're confident this victory will serve as a precedent for the rest of the system.

UCLA's success is the latest in a burst of graduate student labor organization over the last 5 years. Grad student collective bargaining in the 160,000-student University of California system is sure to buoy unionization drives in progress at other public universities, such as the University of Minnesota, University of Georgia, Temple University, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The dispute at UC began in 1983, when students at the Berkeley campus first sought collective bargaining rights. Since then, grad students have staged seven labor strikes, including one during the week before last fall's final exams. But until now, the university's position on TAs had remained constant: TA work is part of a graduate student's education and therefore should not be covered by collective bargaining.

The decision to recognize unionized TAs came only after UC had exhausted all possible legal appeals, says Brad Hayward, spokesperson for UC's Office of the President. The last straw was added in February--a refusal by the state's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to have a higher court review a case involving UCLA TAs.

Student organizers also credit their success to their recent systemwide strike and to pressure from state legislators. "In budget meetings [last fall], members of state assembly directly questioned President Atkinson on his handling of the union issue," says Connie Razza, spokesperson for the Student Association of Graduate Employees (SAGE) at UCLA. A few powerful legislators have also written letters in support of the students' position.

Now, with the bar on unionization lifted, UCLA's TA's are moving rapidly to implement their newly won rights. In an election last Monday UCLA's TAs, readers, and tutors chose union representation by SAGE which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). Negotiations by the union on behalf of the 1700 UCLA grad students who hold these jobs are expected to begin soon after union membership chooses a bargaining team.

The first item on the student negotiating agenda might be a limit on the size of sections that individual TAs are asked to handle, Razza says. But the union's actual priorities will be determined by a survey SAGE will be conducting soon, she says.

PERB has said it wants to schedule elections at other campuses. On 25 March the board will meet with university officials and organizers from these campuses to work out the details. "We're fairly certain that [other campuses] will be given the same rights," Razza says. UC's lawyers still want to review other court precedents that might affect elections at other campuses, says UC's Hayward.

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