Graduate Student Strike Likely to Resume on University of California Campuses
by David Bacon
BERKELEY, CA (1/27/99) -- The 45-day cooling-off period, during which graduate student employees recessed their December strike against the University of California, has expired with no movement from UC administrators in sight.
Last December 8th, State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and State Senate President Pro-Tem John Burton brokered a deal in which graduate student unions agreed to suspend their systemwide job action, while administrators agreed to sit down to discuss union recognition. That marked the first break in UC's historic position that graduate student employees are students, not workers, and therefore not entitled to union representation.
"Unfortunately, the university has failed to address in any meaningful way the single issue over which the strike was called -- the recognition of teaching assistants," said Ricardo Ochoa, president of the Association of Graduate Student Employees at UC Berkeley.
"We urge the legislature to aggressively intervene with university officials before they again place undergraduate education at risk," declared Connie Razza, a member of the Student Association of Graduate Employees at UCLA.
During four days in early December, graduate student unions struck all eight teaching campuses of the university system simultaneously. The job action, coming the week before final examinations, threw classes and the state's premier public university system into turmoil.
Hundreds of grad students organized vocal and boisterous picketlines at the entrances to all the campuses, stopping deliveries. Many classrooms normally filled with students and instructors were empty. In others, knots of students organized self-study sessions without their teaching assistants.
On many campuses, university administrators attempted to get professors and lecturers to take over instructional duties. A statement by the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, representing lecturers, said that they were not required by their jobs to scab on the grad students. On some campuses, university administrators tried to force the graduate students back to work.
"On our campus, faculty are very supportive," said Professor Edna Bonacich from UC Riverside. "They feel it's a democratic issue. Faculty are not the employers here -- we don't control wages, conditions or class sizes."
The UC system, the largest public university system in the United States with 129,000 undergraduate students, depends on the labor of graduate student workers, who actually carry a great deal of the teaching load. While professors in many courses lecture to audiences numbering in the hundreds, teaching assistants provide instruction, hold discussions and answer questions in the smaller sessions between lectures, as well as grading papers and monitoring student performance. In some cases, associates even teach their own courses. Other graduate student employees include readers and tutors.
Without their collective work, university instruction would basically stop, a point the strike effectively highlighted. Barclay Scott, a Spanish TA at UC Berkeley, said that although she gets paid for 20 hours a week, she basically works fulltime. "For example, they only pay us to hold office hours for an hour and a half a day" she says. "But language students need much more than that."
With more contact with their TAs than with anyone else, most students have supported the strike, despite concerns over not receiving grades promptly. "We spend a lot of quality time with undergrads," said Connie Razza. "They understand the link between our working conditions and their learning conditions. But the university is treating us as a pool of cheap labor."
For years graduate student workers have been trying to get the university to recognize their associations and bargain a contract, providing better pay and benefits, and giving the student employees basic workplace rights. Student employee salaries average $14,000 for a nine-month appointment at 50% time.
The university has consistently maintained the position that they are all students who just earn a little money on the side, and not workers at all.
"Our position has always been that TA's are students first and foremost, and not employees," explained Chuck McFadden, a media relations spokesperson in UC's systemwide administration. The university has refused to recognize their associations or bargain. On the Berkeley campus, where grad student organizing began over 15 years ago, there have been at least five work stoppages in years past, including a major strike in 1992. There have been similar stoppages on other campuses. But the December strike was the first to include all eight teaching campuses.
All the grad student employee associations, which are organized campus by campus, are affiliated with the UAW. Just before the strike began, UAW President Steven Yokich announced the union would pay strike benefits.
Last year the Public Employees Relations Board, which administers the state's Higher Education Employee Relations Act, held that the 500 grad student workers on the UC San Diego campus were employees within the meaning of the law. In June, they voted by a 3-1 majority on the campus in favor of representation by their student employee association. Then PERB rejected a university appeal of the balloting, which again claimed that the student employees weren't eligible to organize. "Although we believe that PERB erred," said a letter from UC President Richard Atkinson, the university would bargain for readers and tutors, but "will refuse to bargain with respect to advanced-degree students at UC San Diego and at other campuses who perform the duties of teaching assistant, teaching associate, or teaching fellow."
In Los Angeles, an administrative law judge ruled that graduate student employees are covered by the act, specifically including teaching assistants, In December the full PERB board upheld the decision, and scheduled a representation election for March 9-11.. UC is appealing to court, using an old, outdated 1984 legal decision as precedent, a move called "disingenuous" by Speaker Villaraigosa.
That record of university defiance made the last strike inevitable, and in the original strike vote held among the system's 9000 grad student workers, the decision to walk out received 87% support. Student employees originally thought the intervention of legislative leaders in Sacramento would convince administrators to change course, since this year, to get appropriations, they face newly-elected Democratic governor Grey Davis, and a Democratic legislature. Those hopes were dashed by the administration's failure to make any substantive change in its position.
A new strike is beginning to seem inevitable. UC stonewalling "has renewed our resolve and increased the likelihood of the disruption of undergraduate classes throughout the UC system," said Marty Otaez, a member of the Student Workers Union at UC Irvine.
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