Grad Students Picket in California

SAN FRANCISCO--In what may be the largest student labor strike in U.S. history, the graduate student employees' union comprising more than 9000 teaching assistants and other workers at eight University of California (UC) campuses began a walkout last week, demanding that the administration recognize their union. UC officials say that's out of the question, although they're willing to negotiate over working conditions.

The move was timed to wreak maximum havoc, coming with just a few weeks left in the fall term. Without their teaching assistants (TAs), professors will be swamped with final exams and term papers normally graded by grad students. The TAs also won't be providing prefinals review sessions. "The quality of education throughout the UC system will be seriously eroded," predicts Ricardo Ochoa, President of the Association of Graduate Student Employees, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers union, at the Berkeley campus. Paramount among the students' demands is a lower ratio of students to TAs in each section.

UC officials say they have no plans to recognize the student labor union. In an open letter last week to the UC system, President Richard Atkinson reiterated the university's position that grad student employees are considered to be students first, and employees second. He pointed out that a 1992 California Court of Appeals decision makes it illegal for UC to recognize TAs as employees. However, he did pledge to "work in good faith to resolve the issues of interest to them."

If the strike extends into finals week, the UC faculty will have to scramble to handle the extra workload. In some cases, professors may be able to give an electronically graded multiple choice final, but mostly they will have to log extra hours over the holidays and perhaps hire temporary help.

Students at the University of California have held a few smaller strikes in the 15 years since they began organizing. This latest movement is the first systemwide walkout, and the first in which a majority of grad students are members of the union. The United Auto Workers union will pay half their missed wages during the strike.