Campus aides in union victory

January 19, 2001

After a 30-year battle, graduate students who work as teaching assistants at private American universities have won the right to unionise. Their win has vast ramifications for higher education.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the 1,500 teaching assistants at New York University could choose to affiliate with United Auto Workers and bargain collectively for pay and working conditions.

The decision, which applies nationwide, reverses the board's previous stand that teaching assistants were students, not employees, and were therefore ineligible for workplace protection.

Graduate teaching assistants at many private campuses quickly began unionising efforts. The University of Washington hastily granted its graduate teaching assistants the right to collective bargaining in response to a threatened strike just as final examinations were about to be administered. The 1,600 graduate teaching students there had affiliated with United Auto Workers.

Graduate students at the University of Southern California, Columbia, Brandeis and other campuses were also undertaking unionising efforts.

The board ruled that there was "no basis to deny collective-bargaining rights to statutory employees merely because they are employed by an educational institution in which they are enrolled as students".

Graduate teaching assistants typically help manage large undergraduate lectures, grade papers, oversee examinations and perform other tasks in exchange for relatively low pay.

NYU and other universities had argued that the money paid to teaching assistants in exchange for working in the classroom was financial aid towards their graduate tuition fees, not a traditional wage.

The labour tribunal "has shown a serious lack of understanding of graduate education", university spokesman John Beckman said. Officials also contended that academic decisions could end up as subjects of contract negotiations. "The collective bargaining process will likely lead to a worsening of academic quality," NYU vice-president Robert Berne said.

But teaching assistants said that was a smokescreen and that the real reason universities dislike union organisation is that it could mean the end of a vast pool of cheap labour.

NYU has not yet decided whether to appeal against the decision, as other schools, including Yale University, have publicly encouraged it to do.

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