California grad assistants to strike

Sam Black

The strength of any union is its power to strike.
At three of the campuses at the University of California next week, graduate student instructors intend to test their strength by marching out of class and into the picket lines.
At issue is the University of California regents’ refusal to recognize graduate students’ right to collective bargaining, said Isaac Mankita, a spokesman for UC Berkeley’s Association of Graduate Student Employees.
“Each campus has its own governance bodies and none of them have the power to bargain for graduate student employees,” Mankita said.
University of Minnesota graduate student representatives are sympathetic to the California students, but don’t think a union is currently necessary for graduate student employees here.
“We don’t need a union,” said Tom Foster, president of the University’s Council of Graduate Students. “We at Minnesota really feel like we have a seat at the table, with the University Senate and (the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly),” he said.
In California, about 11,000 of the 15,000 graduate students at four of the university’s nine campuses have filed union authorization cards because they want bargaining power, Mankita said.
The California administration contends that they don’t have to recognize graduate students as employees because California state law might not require such recognition.
The plan to strike took off in September when a California administrative law judge ruled that graduate instructors should have collective bargaining power.
The university administration didn’t recognize the judge’s ruling, and decided to wait until the state Public Employment Relations Board makes a decision. In the meantime, graduate students are getting impatient.
There are plans for the strike to escalate, Mankita said. The graduate students at the Los Angeles campus will strike Monday. If the administration doesn’t budge, graduate student employees on the San Diego campus will join, and on Thursday, Mankita said, the Berkeley campus will strike.
Next Thursday, if the administration still hasn’t acknowledged the graduate student employee union’s bargaining rights, the students will meet to decide the next step.
Marie Felde, a spokeswoman for Berkeley administration, said the university considers graduate students to be merely students, not employees, who don’t have rights to collective bargaining.
“The university contends that if graduate students are treated as employees,” Felde said, “they will destroy their relationship to the university as students.”
There is a great deal of support for the graduate students, Mankita said. “It is hoped that professors and students will not cross the picket lines next week,” he said.
Problems between graduate students and administrators are not unique to students in California, said Kevin Boyer, executive officer of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.
Unions are a powerful negotiating tool, Boyer said. At the University of Iowa graduate students formed a union last spring, he said. In their first contract, teaching assistants received a 19 percent pay raise.
Boyer said his organization has been contacted by a few students from the University of Minnesota who asked about union representation.