Balance of Power: The Evolution of TAs and Unions
By Kyana Cavaiani
At universities across the nation, the call to unionize graduate student teaching assistants has become quite common. For the most part, the recent boom in TA unionization has come out of the visible changes that have taken place at the university. The number of undergraduates enrolling at universities around the nation has grown substantially. This growth has caused universities to expand their graduate programs to keep up with the rise of enrolling graduates and undergraduates. In turn, the university has begun to rely heavily on this pool of qualified students for the completion of a large part of undergraduate instruction. Since 1975, the number of graduate students who work as teaching assistants has risen 35 percent, and the number of actual hours undergraduates spend with teaching assistants continues to rise (AAUP, 1995). “It is estimated that nationally between 50 and 70 percent of all teaching hours are done by graduate students and other non-tenured faculty”.
At first TAs truly were only assisting professors, but TAs duties now reflect that of faculty, while their compensation for their work continues to lag. Paying student teaching assistants between $6,000 and $20,000 a year, universities have found it beneficial to draw from this cheap labor pool rather than hire new faculty. The Kansas Public Employee Relations Board found that graduate teaching assistants at the University of Kansas had taught 25 upper-level undergraduate courses in 1993. The cost to pay the TAs was $51,297; had faculty been hired for those positions, the cost that year would have soared to $209,413. At Yale, the use of graduate students is estimated to have produced a savings of over $5 million per year and allowed administrators to eliminate nearly two hundred junior faculty positions. These positions given to graduate teaching assistants typically offer low wages, no benefits, job security, or academic freedom.
The evolution of TA duties has put graduate teaching assistants in a peculiar position; they do much of the same work as tenured faculty, yet they are most often paid less than a livable wage. According to student organizers at Maryland, the university states that graduate students need $12,375 to live adequately for nine months, but some of their TAs receive less than $10,000 per school year after taxes. TAs must grade a substantial amount of undergraduate work, teach many undergraduate courses alone, and face increasing work loads at minimal pay, while being excluded from departmental meetings, cope with little job security while working on a semester-to-semester basis and work with little to no administrative support. TAs work and live in these kinds of conditions while facing disproportionate wages, declining health benefits, and the absence of grieving procedures – not to mention rising tuition and enrollment fees. Without a union, teaching assistants have no say in these issues that affect them directly.
For the majority of their history, TAs have worked and lived in conditions that have been less than favorable. And, with growing dependence on them by the university, their situation will only intensify. Through the organizing of unions, graduate students employed by the university have begun taking – by force if necessary – the situation into their own hands. Understanding that the university has little regard for the fate of its own TAs, many unions began their organizing drive in response to administrative decisions. Two of the very first graduate teaching assistant unions came out of the necessity for a representative voice. The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was born out of a legislative proposal to deny out-of-state tuition remission to graduate assistants. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the official bargaining agent for TAs of the University of Michigan, began its organizing drive following a 24 percent increase in tuition. Officially certified in 1969 and 1974 respectively, these unions fought against the growth of the same issues that plague university campuses today. Without a collective voice, the TAA and the GEO would have been subject to the demands of the university, but in recognizing their own strength in numbers, they were able to fight for bargaining rights on issues that concern them as students and as employees. Without the Teaching Assistants’ Association, UW graduate student employees would not enjoy the benefits the union helped provide. Not only was the bill to deny out-of-state tuition remission to graduate assistants yanked, but the TAs, for the first time, “won the security of 3-4 year support guarantees, an effective grievance procedure, workload limitations, fair discipline and discharge procedures, class-size limitations, a democratic evaluation process and health insurance.” Graduate students at the University of Michigan find themselves among the nations most adequately compensated TAs with an insurance package that matches the University's faculty, a feat only accomplished through GEO bargaining efforts.
The battle for collective representation has continuously been an uphill one. In the past, TAs have tried alternative forms of representation, but with less success than unions have provided them. For instance, the Graduate Students’ Advisory Council (GSAC) at the University of Illinois is a program in which graduate students give their recommendations about issues that concern them. These recommendations hold no legal weight and GSAC's input is often only sought after the administration has made their decisions. Because GSAC is not a union and its members function only as students, the University of Illinois is under no obligation to negotiate with them and the university has the right to prohibit the group from discussing the major issues of employment. The Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) at Yale serves as a communication link between graduate students and the administration. The committee, made up of faculty and graduate students, exchanges ideas and fosters discussions concerning major policy changes. They are permitted to discuss issues concerning graduate students and are expected to reach agreements with the graduate school Dean over such issues. Under GSA, the graduate students would not have a voice in the final decisions of the administration and would remain unsure of what the end of each contract would bring. In this form of representation, graduate students are still bound by university rules and there is no negotiation about these policies.
The reluctance of the university to recognize TA unions stems from their desire to continue the current arrangement that has been so beneficial to them. The administration understands that they are responsible for the situations within the university that has created this cheap labor pool that is relied so heavily on. To try and keep their hands clean, the administration has consistently tried to mask the true picture of the graduate student teaching assistant by explaining it all away. The long heard cry from administration is that TAs are not employees, but students. These students, they argue, are simply apprentices learning a trade. They explain that TAs are teaching in furtherance of their degree and would not be teaching undergraduates if they were not primarily students of the university, turning their duties as a teacher into a part of graduate learning experience. Teaching undergraduates is not a degree requirement, nor a part of graduate curriculum. Often, TAs have finished all of their coursework and are only working on their dissertations while they teach. Teaching assistants can be hired or fired by the university, and are given some sort of faculty handbook and training. They use supplies furnished by the school, and are often required to commit to up to 20 hours per week where they are expected to hold office hours for undergraduate consultation. If there were a lack of TAs, then classes would have to be altered or canceled. TAs, then, are more than apprentices who are learning – their jobs have grown into faculty.
The administration claims that the stipends TAs receive for their work is part of the financial aid package that they are given to sustain them as students of the university. Yet, their compensation often comes through the universities payroll and TAs must fill out W-4 forms so that taxes may be withheld from their checks. In reality, TAs perform work for which they are paid and this is the typical model of an employee.
The administration also states that TA unionization will only hurt undergraduate education; arguing that when negotiations between administration and the union falter, undergraduates bear the consequences. Most often in this argument, the Yale grade strike is pointed out. In early December 1995, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) called for a grade strike when the administration refused to engage in collective bargaining with its graduate student employees. Participating TAs withheld the grades of their undergraduate students. The University called GESO's tactic an attempt by one group to hold another hostage for its own gains. GESO contends that the approach was meant to show the administration how important TAs are to the structure of the university and because they are so dependent upon them they cannot be ignored. Referring to repeated threats aimed at the striking TAs, GESO points out the way that TAs are treated when they lack a voice in their situation. Because TAs have become such a fundamental part of undergraduate education, they state that without an institutional voice the quality of undergrad education is threatened when working conditions impair their ability to perform well. TAs include among their demands – requests for adequate training, better facilities, and smaller class sizes. TAs insist a union will also benefit undergraduate education by fighting for adequate pay that will leave TAs more time to concentrate on classes instead of on their secondary incomes.
University administrators have argued that the creation of teaching assistant unions will undermine faculty/student relationships. They believe that if TAs became a collective voice, it would hamper the relationships that professors have with their students. Due to the openness of this relationship, the administration maintains that professors will begin to feel that they have less of a mentor relationship with their students and more of a business arrangement where freedom in the discussion of ideas becomes lost and all avenues of communication between TA and faculty would become restricted. It is worried that once teaching assistants are cast in the role of “employee”, faculty would be labeled “supervisors” and it would be understood that faculty would be acting on the universities behalf. In this relationship, professors might be reluctant to discuss wide-ranging topics with students. Unionization would also establish formal procedures for students to bring grievances against faculty members who may feel that their future dealings with the student may be looked at as a form of retaliation.
TAs feel there is no such threat to faculty/student relationships. Union members adamantly insist that unionization concerns their relationship as teachers with the institution they work for, not as students with their advisors. The administration makes the decisions that affect TAs working conditions, not the faculty. A 1999 survey conducted by Tufts University, confirms this understanding. Ninety percent of the faculty at five universities said that TA unions have not harmed their mentoring relationships with graduate students. Similarly, the Chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – the university with the longest running teaching assistant union – remarked that “the sense of professionalism encouraged by union organization has facilitated a positive working relationship and minimized misunderstanding” among students, faculty and administration.
At a rally on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduate students held a replica of the building to suggest that the work of teaching assistants “carry” the University. The dependence on TAs has moved beyond the apprentice relationship it once was. There is no question as to the importance of the work performed by graduate students or to the dependence on that work by the university. With the shrinking percentages of full-time faculty, the university is shifting many teaching responsibilities to graduate students. The evolution of the teaching assistant’s job now bears a resemblance to that of faculty. The responsibility of undergraduate education is now shared with graduate teachers who lack the power to influence their situations. The fight to be recognized as an “employee” is crucial because the very word holds the power that TAs seek. As an employee of the university, TAs have legal right to form a union that can negotiate the terms of their employment. As an employer, the university is legally obligated to recognize this union and bargain in good faith. To accept teaching assistants as employees of the university, administration must give up the advantages that they have so long enjoyed by exploiting this group. TAs jobs have evolved over time and their fight to balance the power of the administration rests in the belief that the universities can no longer deny the role that these student employees perform at their institution.
© 2002 Kyana Cavaiani
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 The Labor Theory of Graduate School,
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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.