LA teaching assistants strike

December 18, 1998

In what seems a measure of growing discontent among United States graduate students, particularly in the humanities, teaching assistants at the University of California have walked off the job at eight of the system's nine campuses.

Graduate student activists, demanding organising rights for their part-time teaching work, have aimed for maximum disruption of end-of-term grades and exams. But administrators played down the strike, saying only a small fraction of classes were affected.

The strike is the latest chapter in a 15-year battle over union recognition for graduates at the university. It has highlighted wider complaints that universities are increasingly relying on underpaid, temporary labour as they cut back on tenured staff.

The shrunken job market for PhDs in history and modern languages is feeding the frustration of teaching assistants. Working part-time to subsidise advanced degree courses, they see worsening prospects at the end of the road for a good full-time job.

There are 129,000 undergraduate students at the University of California. Some 10,000 teaching assistants work with them part-time, doing everything from teaching about 15 per cent of courses to leading seminars or laboratory sessions and helping grade papers.

For working a 20-hour week through a nine-month academic year, they are paid an average of $13,600, along with discounts on college fees. Students say this is far less than tenured faculty earn for similar work, and cite university figures to argue that teaching assistants account for 60 per cent of "contact hours" with undergraduates.

About 9,000 teaching assistants at the University of California are members of graduate employee associations, whose leaders want the right to negotiate pay and benefit packages with the university. The university has agreed to union rights for about 2,300 of the most senior teaching assistants, working as graders and tutors.

But for the rest, officials insist that California law backs up their claim that the teaching assistants are students, rather than workers. Unionisation would jeopardise their own studies by undermining the flexible, informal relationships between graduate students and professors, it is claimed.

Universities in some other states have already recognised graduate teachers' unions.

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