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Graduate Students Strike All UC Campuses (Dec. 9, 1998)

For the first time in a decade of strikes and labor conflict between graduate student employees and administrators of the University of California, graduate student unions struck all eight teaching campuses of the university system simultaneously December 1. The job action, coming the week before final examinations, threw classes and the state's premier public university system into turmoil.

Hundreds of grad students organized vocal and boisterous picketlines at the entrances to all 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. 

On some campuses, university administrators tried to force the graduate students back to work. According to Anna Murasco, a teaching assistant at UC Davis, “I've seen letters in which TAs were told that they might not be hired again next year, and that they could even jeopardize their own oral examinations.” Professor Edna Bonacich from UC Riverside also reported that TAs on her campus were told that their relationship with faculty was in jeopardy, and that the fee remission many TAs receive as part of their compensation might be taken away.

On many campuses, university administrators attempted to get professors and lecturers to take over instructional duties. A statement by the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, representing lecturers, said that they were not required by their jobs to scab on the grad students.

“On our campus, faculty are very supportive,” Bonacich said. “They feel it's a democratic issue. Faculty are not the employers here — we don't control wages, conditions or class sizes.”

The UC system, the largest public university system in the United States with 129,000 undergraduate students, depends on the labor of graduate student workers, who actually carry a great deal of the teaching load. While professors in many courses lecture to audiences numbering in the hundreds, teaching assistants provide instruction, hold discussions and answer questions in the smaller sessions between lectures, as well as grading papers and monitoring student performance. In some cases, associates 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 current strike is intended to make. Barclay Scott, a Spanish TA at UC Berkeley, says that although she gets paid for 20 hours a week, she basically works fulltime. “For example, they only pay us to hold office hours for an hour and a half a day” she says. “But language students need much more than that.”

With more contact with their TAs than with anyone else, most students have supported the strike, despite concerns over not receiving grades promptly. “We spend a lot of quality time with undergrads,” says Connie Razza, a TA at UCLA. “They understand the link between our working conditions and their learning conditions. But the university is treating us as a pool of cheap labor.”

University administrators, faced with an impending strike, sought to replace traditional written final exams in many departments with multiple choice tests that could be graded by scabs without knowledge of the subject. Vipul Doshi, a second-year bioengineering student at UC Davis, says that he was told he would be given a blanket final which would be graded by a proctor with no familiarity with his work, and who would then give him a pass/no-pass grade. “Medical and graduate schools won't even credit a course with a pass/no-pass grade,” he complained.

Michael Watts, professor and director of UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies, adds that “bringing in graduate student scabs at this late date to grade students compromises the quality of their education.”

For years graduate student workers have 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 they are all students who just earn a little money on the side, and not workers at all.

“Our position has always been that TAs are students first and foremost, and not employees,” explained Chuck McFadden, a media relations spokesperson in UC's systemwide administration. The university has refused to recognize their associations or bargain. On the Berkeley campus, where grad student organizing began over 15 years ago, there have been at least five work stoppages in years past, including a major strike in 1992. There have been similar stoppages on other campuses. But the current strike is the first to include all campuses, and, unlike past actions, is an open-ended strike, not a one- or two-day job action.

This year, student employees won an important legal victory when the Public Employees Relations Board, 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. Last June, they voted by a 3-1 majority on the campus in favor of representation by their student employee association.

Then PERB rejected a university appeal of the balloting, which again claimed that the student employees weren't eligible to organize. “Although we believe that PERB erred,” said a letter from UC President Richard Atkinson, the university would bargain for readers and tutors, but “will refuse to bargain with respect to advanced-degree students at UC San Diego and at other campuses who perform the duties of teaching assistant, teaching associate, or teaching fellow.”

In Los Angeles, an administrative law judge has also ruled that graduate student employees are covered by the act. UC is appealing this decision as well.

Direct defiance by UC administrators of PERB rulings might not have been a risky move during the last 16 years of Republican state administrations, which were overwhelmingly hostile to unions. But the election of Democratic governor Gray Davis in November may make such stonewalling more dangerous.

Next year, university administrators will face a political climate in Sacramento, in which an unresolved campus strike could endanger the legislative appropriations which still make up a third of UC's budget. In addition, Davis will have the ability to appoint new regents, as the terms of those sitting on the board expire.

University stonewalling did convince workers, however, that a strike would be necessary to enforce PERB's legal decisions, and make the administration comply with its legal obligation to bargain.

Graduate students received a big morale boost in early October, when Steven Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, announced that the union would pay strike benefits. All the grad student employee associations, which are organized campus by campus, are affiliated with the UAW.

Ricardo Ochoa, president of the Association of Graduate Student Employees at the UC Berkeley campus, explained that “people were concerned about losing pay when they're already living close to the line — teaching assistants and other grad student employees aren't paid a lot to begin with. When we were told we'd have access to the strike fund, it gave us all more courage.” Pay averages $14,000 for a nine-month appointment at 50% time.

Beginning last May, campus strike votes were held among the system's 9,000 grad student workers. With over half of them participating, the decision to authorize a strike received 87% support.

“UC is acting as though the law just doesn't apply to them,” Ochoa says, “and people are angry at their arrogance. We've just had enough.”

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