- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

University graduate students in metropolitan Washington are in the first stages of organizing unions to protect them from the traditional long hours and low wages of moonlighting as teachers.

Graduate-student unions are part of a trend sweeping the nation, which could make the cost of college education more expensive. This month, state officials in Pennsylvania and Illinois fueled the trend by handing legal victories to union organizers.

The Pennsylvania state labor board ruled last week that Temple University graduate students could organize. The ruling makes Pennsylvania the 11th state to recognize the student unions. In Illinois, the state Supreme Court Oct. 4 let stand a lower court decision that said universities could not prohibit graduate students from organizing unions if there is no "significant connection" between their studies and their jobs.

Although no student unions exist yet in the District, Maryland or Virginia, that will change soon, according to union officials.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recently set up an office in College Park to be the forefront of its union organizing efforts at the University of Maryland. A full-time AFT organizer operates out of the office, which uses the name United University of Maryland Profession. AFT organizers are trying to win support in the Maryland General Assembly for a bill that would allow collective bargaining among university faculty and staff.

George Washington University graduate students are working with the United Auto Workers (UAW) to organize a union. "We're continuing to support graduate students seeking to unionize at George Washington University and elsewhere," said Frank Joyce, UAW spokesman.

The UAW recently assisted graduate students at New York University who voted on whether to unionize. Results of the vote have not yet been released. More than 20 graduate-student organizations have unionized nationwide, AFT officials said.

Opinions are split on whether higher wages for the union workers would be passed on to other students in the form of higher tuition.

University of Maryland spokesman George Cathcart said, "I suppose it could" raise tuition costs.

He added, however, that the university administration was not opposing the unions. "We have taken a neutral position. We would not try to block it."

The University of Maryland's neutrality is far different from universities in Pennsylvania, where administrators took legal action to stop the unions. Temple University officials argued that teaching and research are part of the experience graduate students are supposed to acquire during their education. As a result, they had no right to complain about wages.

Penn State officials joined Temple University in opposing the unions before the state labor board. The board has not yet ruled on the Penn State case.

Typically, graduate students get their tuition waived if they agree to teach introductory courses and grade papers. Often, they also get a small stipend usually around $1,300 per month and limited health care benefits.

"The university administrations fought it vociferously," said Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. He called the Temple University case "a major breakthrough" for graduate-student teachers.

He denied that college tuition would rise because of unions. "If you look at other universities we've represented, it hasn't adversely affected the cost of tuition," he said.

Circumstances have changed for graduate-student teachers in recent years because of university cost-cutting measures, Mr. Horwitz said. Universities grant tenure to fewer professors and have shifted more of the teaching burden to lower-paid graduate students.

"Many of the universities have been trying to balance their budgets on the backs of graduate students," Mr. Horwitz said. "Even if they raise the wages dramatically for the graduate students, it's still less than what they would pay full-time workers."

Chris Woods, assistant organizing director for the national AFL-CIO, said the increasing job duties for graduate-student teachers contributed to the success unions have experienced recently in organizing on university campuses. The entire educational field is now one of the most successful for union organizers, she said. Others are health care workers, transportation workers, food processing workers, and low-income service employees such as janitors and hotel attendants.

Fatu Gbedema, president of the University of Maryland's graduate student government, said that even if tuition rises because of unions, "It's a trade-off. I think the priority is to attract the best students with the right kind of package."

Private universities, such as George Washington University, would be most likely to incur tuition increases if graduate students organize unions, said Miss Gbedema, a graduate business student. Private institutions lack state subsidies to cushion them from the higher costs unions would create.

A worse alternative is to offer inadequate compensation for the graduate students who do much of the front-line teaching, she said. "I don't see how they're going to attract or retain students if they're not going to give equal pay for equal work."

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