Those Picket Signs?

The 45-day cooling-off period during which graduate-student employees set aside their December strike against the University of California system has expired with no movement from UC administrators in sight. State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and state Senate president pro-tem John Burton brokered a deal on Dec. 8 in which graduate-student unions agreed to suspend their systemwide job action, while administrators agreed to discuss union recognition. That marked the first break in UC's historic position that graduate-student employees are students, not workers, and therefore are not entitled to union representation. "Unfortunately, the university has failed to address in any meaningful way the single issue over which the strike was called: the recognition of teaching assistants," said Ricardo Ochoa, president of the Association of Graduate Student Employees at UC Berkeley. UC's stonewalling "has renewed our resolve and increased the likelihood of the disruption of undergraduate classes throughout the UC system," said Marty Otanez, a member of the Student Workers Union at UC Irvine. During four days in early December, graduate-student unions struck all eight teaching campuses of the university system simultaneously. The job action, which came the week before final exams, threw classes and the state's premier public university system into turmoil. Hundreds of grad students organized vocal and boisterous picket lines at the entrances to all of the campuses, stopping deliveries. Many classrooms normally filled with students and instructors were empty. In others, knots of students organized self-study sessions without their teaching assistants (TAs). The UC system, the largest public university system in the U.S. with 129,000 undergraduate students, depends on the labor of graduate-student workers, who carry a great deal of the teaching load. While professors in many courses lecture to audiences numbering in the hundreds, TAs provide instruction, hold discussions and answer questions in the smaller sessions between lectures, as well as grade papers and monitor student performance. In some cases, TAs even teach their own courses. Other graduate-student employees include readers and tutors. Without their collective work, university instruction would basically stop, a point the strike effectively highlighted. With more contact with their TAs than with anyone else, most students have supported the strike, despite concerns over not receiving grades promptly. Graduate-student workers-whose salaries average $14,000 for a nine-month appointment at 50 percent time-have for years been trying to get the university to recognize their associations and bargain a contract, providing better pay and benefits, and giving the student employees basic workplace rights. The university has consistently maintained the position that the grad-student workers are all students who just earn a little money on the side, and not really workers. "Our position has always been that TAs are students first and foremost, and not employees," explained UC spokesman Chuck McFadden.Last year, the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB), which administers the state's Higher Education Employee Relations Act, held that the 500 grad-student workers on the UC San Diego campus were employees within the meaning of the law. In Los Angeles, an administrative law judge ruled that graduate-student employees are covered by the act, specifically including teaching assistants. In December, the full PERB board upheld the decision and scheduled a representation election for March 9 through March 11. UC is appealing, using an outdated 1984 legal decision as precedent, a move Villaraigosa called "disingenuous." That record of university defiance made the last strike inevitable, and in the original strike vote held among the system's 9,000 grad-student workers, the decision to walk out received 87 percent support. Student employees originally thought the intervention of legislative leaders in Sacramento would convince administrators to change course, since this year, to get appropriations, they face newly elected Democratic Governor Gray Davis and a Democratic Legislature. Those hopes were dashed by the administration's failure to make any substantive change in its position, and a new strike is beginning to seem inevitable.

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