TAs’ coalition zeros in on health care

The University has approximately 4,500 teaching and research assistants.

by Adam Elrashidi

The graduate students’ teaching coalition is focusing on getting better health-care benefits for its members, officials said.

The Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants Coalition United Electrical Local 1105 formed nine months ago and said it hopes to make a bid for unionization to the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services this month. The coalition officials said they would not reveal how many members it has, as part of their strategy to become an official union.

The coalition is working to provide an independent voice for the University’s approximately 4,500 teaching and research assistants.

Health care is a major issue for graduate employees who have families or people they claim as dependents, said Julia Musha, an international graduate student and teaching assistant in the English department.

“The amount of health-care coverage has decreased over time,” she said. “When I started here, it was 100 percent (coverage) and now, it’s 95 percent with a $10 office co-payment.”

Musha said the University previously covered the total cost of health insurance, but now, graduate employees must produce the missing 5 percent.

The majority of graduate employees in the Big Ten already have unions representing them, and graduate employees feel the University has fallen “behind the curve,” said Ryan Murphy, an organizer for the coalition and doctoral candidate in the American studies department.

“Not having a union – that really shows up in our pay and our benefits,” Murphy said.

He said that in terms of pay, the University’s graduate employees are number 28 out of 30 for the nation’s top universities.

The coalition has been working on educating graduate employees and gaining their support for the last nine months, Murphy said.

“Building a union is a long process,” Murphy said. “To be a functioning and effective democracy, everyone has to have the information that they need.”

He said the graduate student employees’ attempt to unionize is not meant to clash with the University but help it become better. The more graduate employees are taken care of, the better they will serve students, Murphy said.

According to its Web site, the coalition works to establish five things for graduate employees: health care, fair salaries, job security, respect and unification of students – regardless of citizenship.

Musha also said it’s important graduate employees work together, have an opportunity to address their concerns and have a “seat at the table” when it comes to sharing their views on University policies and decisions.

“It is always best to be represented as a collective entity rather than as individuals,” Musha said.

The union has many goals in its platform, but coalition member Kristen Houlton said one of the most important to her is earning the respect of the University as employees.

Houlton, who is also a member of the Council of Graduate Students, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, and the Student Senate, said she would like to see the University recognize how much graduate employees help it.

“That really needs to be acknowledged – that the work that we do really keeps this place running,” Houlton said.