John McMillian and Eric Matheis came to New York's Columbia University to complete their doctorates and practice their teaching. Their role is one common on many college and university campuses. While studying, they work as teaching assistants, a job that can include planning lessons, leading classes, holding office hours, and grading papers. In exchange, they receive a fairly rich basket of benefits. Patricia Catapano, Columbia University General Counsel says, "85% of incoming graduate school students get $15,000 in stipend, $26,000 in tuition remission, and about $2,000 - $3,000 in health fees. So the total package is of financial support is almost $44,000."
But a rift of dissatisfaction is running through the hallowed halls of Columbia. The teaching assistants believe they perform a vital teaching function and therefore should be better compensated. Says Matheis, "We teach 5 hours a week for a typical beginning or intermediate French language class, plus 20-25 hours of preparation, grading, and office hours, so the total time commitment is typically 25-30 hours a week."
Columbia's teaching assistants are looking for more than money. They'd also like better health-care coverage, childcare, housing, and improved working conditions. John McMillan describes the situation by saying, "None of us have office space. Can you imagine being a teacher and not having a desk or a place to keep your papers or meet with students?" In an effort to change their plight, last spring teaching assistants called in the help of unionizers. John McMillian, "I was with a group of 3 or 4 like-minded students in the history department who collectively decided to try to start the union effort. We had all been sort of reaching the same conclusions and had been here and had seen also the nationwide effort toward unionization that's happening and were inspired by that."
With the help of the United Auto Workers AFL-CIO local 2110, this March most of Columbia's 1,200 graduate assistants, from teaching assistants to research assistants, filed a petition at the National Labor Relations Board. The group is seeking the right to organize on the Morningside Heights campus. Not surprisingly, Columbia isn't too happy. Says General Counsel Patricia Catapano, "Columbia's Position is that our graduate students who teach and perform research are doing so as students as part of their training and not as employees of the University."
Officials at the University worry about the many problems faced by employers with unionized workers. They worry about contract negotiations, possible strikes, and the impact that these often emotionally charged conflicts will have on the relationship between their faculty and the teaching assistants. But this situation is not new to higher education. Graduate employees have been unionizing on public campuses for over 3 decades. There are currently 30 graduate student unions now represented on 63 campuses. And, last year, in a landmark decision by the National Labor Relations Board, the United Auto Workers Union helped T.A.s at New York University became the first to win the right to unionize at a private institution.
Maida Rosenstein, U.A.W. local 2110 President comments, "I think that victory at N.Y.U., where teaching assistants organized a union successfully, really drew a tremendous amount of interest all around the country, and most immediately at Columbia." Says NEW YORK TIMES reporter Steven Greenhouse, "Now, of course, cynics will say [that] the union also benefits. The UAW benefits by getting more members, and that means more dues in their coffers. But there are true believers at some unions that say, 'We have something to offer. We can help win you better wages and benefits. Come join us.' That's what they're saying to the graduate students."
But the success at N.Y.U. does not guarantee that Columbia T.A.s will win the battle to unionize. To General Counsel Catapano, Columbia's position is clear. "They are faculty in training or researchers in training. They are gaining the doctorate in order to go into academia, and we don't believe that that fits the labor relations model," she says. But T.A. John McMillian disagrees, saying, "I love what I do. I like the graduate student life. I love that I can live in New York City and study what I love. But the issues are larger than that. They're about long-term issues within the academy. It's about allowing T.A.s to be better teachers and giving us some control over the decisions that affect our workplace lives."