It was a busy year for progressive activists in the United States. In 1966, the Vietnam War was heating up and the opposition was growing, Huey Newton”s Black Panther Party was taking up arms in the streets of California”s East Bay in a battle against a racist society and a little organization known as the Teaching Assistants Association gave birth to the graduate student employee organizing movement.
The group started out as an advocate for improvements in the working conditions of graduate student employees as well as undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but when the state legislator proposed a bill to deny out-of-state student employees tuition waivers in 1969, the membership numbers swelled and the organization decided take direct action.
The TAA threatened to strike if the bill was passed and as a result the bill was quickly withdrawn. The employees recognized the TAAs potential power and decided it was time for collective bargaining. By spring of 1970, the TAA won a contract with an effective grievance procedure and health insurance for teaching assistants. The first recognized graduate employees union had been created, and student employees around the nation have since followed suit.
Emerging out of the student strike of 1973, an organizing drive at the University of Michigan lead to the recognition of GEO in April of the following year.
Around the nation, there are over 10 recognized graduate student employee unions, primarily on state university campuses in affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Several other organizing drives including four other Big Ten schools and several Ivy League schools.
Because state universities are more tightly governed by state labor regulation, it has been easier for organizers to create recognized unions at state schools.
Now, graduate employee organizers are now hoping to spread the movement into private schools. For most of the movement”s history there had been a tightly sealed barricade around the nation”s private universities which created a precedent for these schools to effectively say, “Teaching assistants are not employees they are students.”
The wall that separated graduate employees at private schools was torn down on March 1, 2001 at New York University.
A campaign tha,t from the employees” perspective once looked hopeless ended as not only a victory for NYU graduate employees, but also was a major breakthrough for the movement as a whole when the university signed a legal agreement that officially recognized the UAW-organized union and began the collective bargaining process.
UAW Vice President Elizabeth Bunn commented after the signing, “Graduate student employees across the country have a major stake in this historic achievement. It”s amazing the kind of support and networks these folks have. The word is out graduate students everywhere are going to organize.”
And she was right. Less than a month after the victory at NYU on a campus only a subway-ride away, Columbia graduate employees filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Beverly Gage, a Columbia history-teaching assistant, said at the filing of the petition, “Grad employees at public universities have made major improvements through unionization now it”s time for the Ivy League to catch up.”
As of now, the campaigns continue. Organizers seek as they shoud to unionize every last campus in the nation and existing unionized graduate employees are currently reaching out to the non-unionized workers at their schools.
The most recent victory to date was at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, when on Friday, Jan. 18, the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission ruled that Resident Advisors are, in fact, workers that can legally be represented by a union. This was the first victory for RA”s in the movement”s history.
“We”re not grubbing for money we just want the recognition that we”re working hard for less than minimum wage,”” said Patrick Colvario, a senior in his fifth semester as an RA. “Honestly, if it was greed, I would have quit this job and worked in town at Chili”s.”” Union officials had claimed that RAs were being paid effectively $2.50 an hour.
Now, every graduate employee union who has dreamed of organizing their RA counterparts has a legal precedent. Along with RA”s, other student workers may very well take a lesson from UMASS and organize.
With these recent victories the future of this student labor movement seems optimistic, but there are still a many barriers to GEs. Colleges and universities around the country unfortunately don”t seem terribly anxious to raise wages and improve graduate student instructors” benefits. But if the future is anything like the past for this movement, student workers may be looking forward to justice.