Students vie for employee status Graduates who teach want benefits, rights

December 01, 1996|By DAVID FOLKENFLIK | DAVID FOLKENFLIK,SUN STAFF

So. You're a graduate student teaching two sections of English literature to freshmen at State University Tech each term. You're responsible for discussing texts, assigning and grading essays, giving tests and issuing final grades. You're not paid much, just a thousand dollars or so per class, but it helps pays the bills.

Are you a student? Or are you an employee?

The question has taken center stage at campuses across the DTC nation, from New Haven to San Diego, where graduate student instructors are seeking to gain recognition as employees, with guaranteed benefits and the right to bargain collectively.

"With the trend toward downsizing in the academy, as part-time workers we're really vulnerable," said Molly Rhodes, a sixth-year graduate student in mathematics at the University of California at San Diego. "We want to represent our interests with the administration."

But this would change the fundamental structure of large universities, which rely on a ready pool of cheap labor to aid professors - scholars who themselves came through this grueling system of academic apprenticeship.

Administrators at most major universities, which are beset by cuts in federal funding and a backlash against sharply rising tuitions of the past 15 years, do not want to bend.

At Yale University a year ago, some graduate instructors - to force administrators to recognize them as employees - did not release the final marks of their students.

In response, the university refused to rehire the graduate students who withheld the grades as instructors last spring and this fall.

Government officials are starting to lend a sympathetic ear. Two weeks ago, an attorney for the federal National Labor Relations Board announced that the federal agency would file a complaint for unfair labor practices against Yale if it did not come to an agreement with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.

"This would be, in effect, a test case that could result in what has been the law for decades being changed," said Yale spokesman Tom Conroy. Conroy notes that Yale waives tuition for 90 percent of graduate students there, an unusual level of aid. "There's not a private university in the country that recognizes its students to be employees rather than students."

But a few public campuses, notably the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, do.

This fall, graduate instructors at three of the University of California System's largest campuses - Berkeley, UCLA, and UC-San Diego - staged rolling strikes in which they do not show up for classes they teach.

In September, a California administrative judge, for the first time, wrote in a preliminary decision that UCLA teaching assistants should be considered employees, not students, and be granted collective bargaining rights.

"I have friends [who are teaching assistants] at the University of North Carolina, where they have no health benefits, and, where, I'd point out, they have no collective bargaining," said University of Michigan graduate student Sue Sierra, who is an organizer with the Graduate Employees Organization. "It's definitely a growing movement."

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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