Photo by Anne Fishbein

Hundreds of UCLA teaching assistants, tutors and readers walked off the job Tuesday along with colleagues at the other seven University of California campuses in a bid to force UC administrators to recognize them as employees and as a union. Graduate students account for 60 percent of undergraduate instruction at UC campuses, running classes, grading papers, and giving one-on-one attention not normally available from tenured professors and lecturers.

The movement to organize UC grad students began on the Berkeley campus 15 years ago, and encountered vigorous opposition from the outset. During the ’96-’97 school year, student employees at five UC campuses staged a rolling strike, alternating the days they walked off the job. The 25 total days of protest yielded no concessions from the UC administration.

This time the balance of power has changed. The Student Association of Graduate Employees (SAGE) is striking in affiliation with the United Auto Workers, meaning the grad students can rely on $150 a week in benefits from the UAW’s $750 million strike fund. The year-end action was set in June of this year when 4,700 of the UC’s 9,000 graduate-student employees voted by an 87 percent margin to strike at a peak time of the academic calendar, when final exams and papers need grading.

For more than a decade, UC administrators have been able to fend off grad student organizers, arguing that allowing teaching assistants to form a union would disrupt the balanced relationship between faculty and students. As Brad Hayward, spokesman for the UC president, put it in an interview, teaching assistants “are students, first and foremost, not employees.”

That same logic for years governed the thinking of the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which held that collective bargaining by teaching assistants would disrupt teacher-student relations, and thus the educational goal of the university. In 1992, a state appellate court agreed.

In 1995, however, the PERB agreed once again to review a new UC graduate-employee case, finding that the 1992 decision had been “based on conditions and duties existing on the UC Berkeley campus in 1984,” and was not relevant “more than a decade later.” The following year, an administrative judge affirmed the students’ right to bargain collectively, a decision upheld by the PERB.

Since then, the PERB has notified each UC campus that grad-student employees may now organize and be recognized. Nevertheless, UC administrators have clung to the 1992 court decision.

On campuses around the state this fall, the bottom line is how the UC will function without the striking graduate students. Contacts at UCLA said on Tuesday that the English department was already trying to fill the gap. According to a memo distributed at the department, students with classes helmed by teaching assistants were given three options: a final grade based on work completed, a non-comprehensive exam in order to complete the components of the class, or dropping the class. The fliers apparently made no suggestion that tuition paid to cover a full 10-week quarter of instruction might be refunded.

At a rainy-day rally in Westwood Tuesday, Liz Geyer, external vice president for the Undergraduate Student Association, expressed the frustration soon to be felt by the entire undergraduate population. “Undergraduate education is not a priority for the administration. Their priority is to not recognize the union.”

LA Weekly