Adelson, Andrea. "Graduate Teaching Assistants, Increasingly Burdened, Are Unionizing," New
York Times, 31 March 1999, p. B7.
When Elizabeth K. Shermer started the five-year process of earning a doctoral degree in
medieval English from the University of California at Berkeley, her teaching responsibilities
began almost immediately. Without any tutoring on how to teach, she was asked to lead a
discussion group on Chaucer the next day.
"It's like an entry-level position, but you're thrown in up to your neck," said Ms. Sherman, 28,
who makes $1,300 a month for 20 hours a week teaching freshman composition, at the same
time, she is finishing her thesis. " It was scary. At least I knew the material, but I felt like I
needed a lot more help."
Students like Ms. Shermer take on more than half the teaching load for undergraduates at the
University of California and at the nation's other major public research institutions, a shift that in
the last 20 years has doubled the percentage of teachers not on the full-time faculty. A study by
We graduate student teachers' union at Yale University, released on Monday, concluded that
part-time instructors and graduate students taught 70 percent of Yale's classes.
Graduate teaching assistants give lectures, hold discussion groups, conduct labs and grade
papers. Such reliance on part-time instructors is a much-debated topic in academe and is
fostering a climate of labor militancy on campuses nationwide.
Dissatisfaction among teaching assistants has led to union organizing at 18 public-school
campuses, including the City University of New York and the University of Michigan. In a
decision expected to help organizing efforts elsewhere, last week the Public Employment
Relations Board in California ordered the University of California to allow union elections to
take place at seven campuses by the school year's end. Earlier in the week, teaching assistants at
the University of California at Los Angeles had overwhelmingly voted to join a United Auto
Workers affiliate. University officials had previously refused to recognize a union.
"This is the prize they're after," said Judith S. Craig, an associate dean at the University of
Wisconsin where the first union of teaching assistants was formed in 1969.
For 16 years, California's premier public university has fought unionization by its 9,000 graduate
students two-thirds of whom have joined, union officials say. Support is strongest among
students in humanities and social science. During the paper and exam crunch at the end of the
semester in December, graduate students walked off the job in the first systemwide strike. The
action brought pressure on university officials from state legislative leaders who urged a
settlement and union recognition. The new Governor, Gray Davis, was already on record
supporting the union.
In late December, the employment relations board determined that teaching assistants should be
considered employees and not students, and had the right to unionize. The board rejected an
appeal last month.
Members of the newly created U.C.L.A. union, the Student Association of Graduate Employees,
are most concerned about declining health benefits, the lack of an effective grievance procedure,
workload distribution and enrollment fees that are not fully forgiven, said Constance M. Razza, a
Albert Carnesale, U.C.L.A.'s chancellor, who helped the United States negotiate a missile treaty
with the Soviet Union, said negotiations over graduate students' concerns were likely to be
"The difficulty will come in being able to separate academic from workplace issues," Mr.
Carnesale said. "It's not a trivial undertaking because the line is not a bright one."
Ms. Craig, a member of the Wisconsin bargaining team, who wrote a dissertation on graduate
student unions, said a union benefited the university by forcing faculty members to improve their
supervision and evaluation of teaching assistants. It also meant that fair treatment did not rest on
the good will of the faculty.
Among the drawbacks, she said, is an adversarial environment. Another is that a student-run
collective bargaining group is transient. A result is a constant redefinition of the union's aims
over economic and academic issues. A collective-bargaining contract also takes away a
department's ability to make hiring or workload exceptions when necessary, Ms. Craig said.
Unions have failed to raise most graduate-student salaries, said Cary Nelson, an English
professor at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign. Pay that amounts to less than the
minimum wage is not unusual. "I find those salaries all the time," Professor Nelson said, citing
the $1,125 the University of Nebraska at Kearney pays a graduate student three times a week. He
figures that amounts to $3.75 an hour.
Professor Nelson is drafting a bill of rights for graduate students. Its provisions include pay equal
to 30 percent of median family income for a full year. He will urge its adoption in a June meeting
of the American Association of University Professors, which has 44,000 members.
The Modern Language Association, the first academic group to help graduate students and
part-time instructors establish their claim statistically, plans to survey working conditions in
English and language departments at all of the country's 3,500 colleges this fall.
"We hope historians and economists will take similar actions to reform their own workplaces,"
Professor Nelson said.