- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000


Kristina Dziedzic is not your father's union organizer.

She doesn't wave picket signs. Her collar is far from blue. And when the University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student talks about her work, she sprinkles in words like "pedagogy."

Yet Miss Dziedzic is typical of graduate students across the country stirring up union sentiment in a push for better benefits and higher salaries for students who teach or do research.

From Yale to the University of California system, graduate student workers are fighting for and sometimes winning collective bargaining rights. As of December, 27 campuses had recognized graduate student unions, with organizing efforts under way at many other schools, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Students say it's only fair that they get the same benefits as faculty members at a time when tenure-track jobs are more scarce and freshman classes are growing, along with the need for graduate students to teach them.

"Undergraduate classes that could and probably should be taught by faculty are being given to graduate students," said Miss Dziedzic, an art history student who has taught composition classes at UIC for the past four years.

"You often end up doing work that has absolutely nothing to do with what you're studying. Then it's obvious that you're a worker."

University administrators argue that even if students are working for the school, they are students first and their teaching assistantships simply provide financial aid while training them for an academic career.

Bill Murphy, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said graduate student unions create a students vs. administration mentality. But the students actually work for professors, who see themselves as anything but management, he said.

"The problem with unions as they have been described by organizers on campus is that they really follow a factory model," Mr. Murphy said.

Some graduate students agree.

"It's not the coal mines at the turn of the century," said David Legg, a doctoral student in sociology at Yale University. "The principle of unionization here is much more ideological and idealistic."

Mr. Legg started an anti-union group at Yale in 1995, the year graduate student union organizers launched a "grade strike," refusing to issue grades for fall semester classes.

In November, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that while a strike was not protected by federal law, administrators may have illegally threatened students who participated. The NLRB sent the case back to an administrative law judge to decide if teaching assistants are indeed employees a key argument for student labor organizers.

But Mr. Legg said graduate students at Yale are doing fine without union representation. They receive full tuition waivers and stipends of $10,000 or more and generally do not teach until their third year.

Mr. Legg believes a union would squelch any dissent among graduate students with very different interests. And this grandson of a union sheet metal worker scoffs at the idea that Yale students are "oppressed."

"You've got to visit some of these people's homes on Long Island to believe it," he said.

As at Yale, University of Illinois administrators have refused to recognize the student union movement in this case, the Graduate Employees' Organization, affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

University of Illinois graduate assistants receive tuition waivers, stipends and other benefits. On the Urbana campus, for example, the university recently added health benefits for graduate students' spouses. The school also offers vision and dental benefits and boasts that the average teaching assistant's stipend rose 44 percent from 1990 through 1999, to $11,069 a year.

David Kamper, a Graduate Employees' Organization member working in Urbana toward a doctorate in history, said the benefits aren't on par with what faculty members receive.

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