Students or employees? Unionizing assistants

Large public schools have weathered the storm of unionization, some observers say

Leaders at private colleges concerned about the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling allowing Columbia University teaching and research assistants to unionize can look to their peers at public universities to prepare for coming changes.

The impacts of unionization can be seen at several U.S. public universities, including the University of Washington, University of Michigan and Oregon State University, as well as across the University of California’s nine campuses. While wages are negotiated at these schools, unions representing graduate student workers have sought improvements concerning a variety of issues:

  • Fair hourly work expectations
  • Maternity/paternity leave and pay, plus childcare assistance
  • Lactation stations and storage options
  • Handling of social justice issues such as sexual assault complaints
  • Equal access for undocumented graduate students
  • Bathroom equity

The Columbia decision gave graduate student workers at private institutions the right to collectively bargain on, for example, working conditions and paid service hours. Some fear this could damage relationships between schools and graduate students, and disrupt the academic mission.

“The collective bargaining process doesn’t translate well into academic relationships,” says Daniel Johns, partner and leader of the higher education group at law firm Ballard Spahr. “At its heart, this relationship brings grievances that a traditional union has not dealt with.”

By organizing, graduate students might put academic matters (such as grading expectations and workload) in the care of a third party that may not fully grasp academia and its broader learning mission, Johns adds.

But large public schools have weathered the storm of unionization. The University of Washington has been transparent in its negotiations with its union, says Peter Denis, assistant vice president to labor relations in human resources at the university.

On those campuses, contracts typically take three to six months to bargain. Notes from each bargaining session, along with any meeting documents, are published at the Union for Academic Student Employees (UAW 4121) page on the university’s website. “We try to demystify the bargaining process,” says Denis. “This way, there is a constant record of various positions presented in a nonhyperbolic way.”

Since contract bargaining happens only every few years, unions spend the majority of time preserving agreement terms, says David McCleary, president of the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865), the graduate student union at the University of California.

For example, overworked teaching assistants will frequently file grievances, and the union will then fight for either a fairer workload or compensation for extra hours, says McCleary, also a research assistant and former teaching assistant.

“The demand on our workload is a direct result of growing universities, not particularly because of individual professors,” says Erin Ellison, UAW 2865’s research assistant organizing coordinator. Increased enrollment and fewer TA’s amounts to more assignments to grade and more emails that need responses.

Will bargaining cause a strain between faculty and the students they advise? McCleary has not found this to be the case. “The union has helped me to achieve basic workers’ rights so my advisor didn’t have to,” he says. “This has freed my advisor to devote our time together to academic matters.”

As faculty mentors are often not student workers’ immediate supervisors, any existing bargaining tension will most likely not taint this relationship, adds Ellison.

Ultimately, student worker unions are a result of a demanding higher ed landscape, where an escalating academic expectation of graduate assistants is coupled with pressure on these students to maintain a high quality of instruction, says McCleary.

“It is not grad students who are turning universities into businesses,” he says. “In reality, the work and educating we do is already commodified, and unions are forming in response to that.”

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