Screwed, and Depressed About It

John Noltner

For years they've been the unrecognized backbone of the university. They've stayed up late grading term papers, taught the introductory classes no tenured professor wanted to teach, and spent hours explaining the fine nuances of calculus and composition to befuddled students during extended office hours. Somewhere in between they've fit in dissertation research and homework for their own classes. Some are even raising a family.

After all that, the University of Minnesota's 4,200 graduate teaching assistants complain, how could the U be so cheap as to allow Medica, the students' health-insurance company, to force them to pay more for birth control and anti-depressants? Sure, the new price of those prescriptions--which Medica says the students use in abundance--may have sparked the recent rally on Northrup Mall by more than 200 graduate students. But the grad students say this battle has been brewing for years, ever since the U began seeing them as a captive source of cheap labor.

It's time, they say, for grad students to join a union.

In 1993, the university employed some 3,190 tenure and tenure-track professors, according to Tom Gilson of the university's Office of Planning and Analysis. By 1997, that number had dropped by more than 200 to 2,941. Since 1981, the number of faculty has dropped more than 25 percent.

In addition, says Gilson, between 1994 and 1997, total funding for graduate teaching assistants and research assistants decreased from $64 million to about $60 million. The number of graduate-student workers also decreased, but the workload each was expected to carry increased.

Physics and astronomy professor Tom Walsh says the university's increasing dependence on graduate-student workers is fueled by simple economics. It costs less to employ a graduate student than it does to hire a new full-time professor, he says. In addition to staffing up with graduate students, the U is also hiring more adjunct professors, frequently former grad students who have completed their doctorates but have been unable to find full-time positions as professors.

If the students are going to be treated like employees, they say, they want the university to stop seeing things like health care and pay raises as perks. For instance, say the students behind the union drive, graduate workers haven't had a raise since the last time they threatened to unionize, six years ago.

"I've worked five and a half years for the U with no pay increase, and I would really like a raise," says Brigetta Abel, a graduate assistant in the University's' German, Scandinavian, and Dutch language department and a student organizer for the union drive. On her current salary, Abel says, it would be hard to her to afford the increased co-pays Medica wants to begin requiring from student policyholders. (Medica recently proposed increasing all graduate student co-pays by as much as 30 percent to cover some $5 million in costs it hadn't accounted for when it bid for the school's contract. Specifically, the health-maintenance organization says graduate students used prescriptions for birth-control pills and anti-depressants at a rate higher than anticipated, according to Abel.)

Abel insists there is more to the union drive than just these two issues. "Where last year we were talking about better health insurance, now we're just fighting for what we have," she says. "We teach 45 percent of the classes at the university and I don't feel we get the respect and compensation to match. It would be nice if we were treated more professionally."

For the last year, members of the Graduate Student Organizing Congress have been discussing the possibility of joining a union. Given the university's focus on economizing, they may need help protecting their pay and benefits, they say.

Graduate-student workers at the University of Minnesota aren't alone in their quest to be treated less like students and more like employees. Nationwide, graduate assistants are demanding the right to bargain with the schools who serve as both their employers and educators. Some 28 universities currently have either unions or union-organizing drives in progress.

Union campaigns recently concluded at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the University of California-Berkeley. In both places, students are trying to win state recognition for their unions. Organizing drives are also underway right now at Wayne State University in Detroit and at Yale. Yale's particularly long and contentious union drive has resulted in both a strike and in an unprecedented National Labor Relations Board complaint against the school for alleged violations of federal labor law in 1996.

Union proponents say such organizing drives will become increasingly common as universities come to depend heavily on graduate workers as staff. In fact, if the University of Minnesota follows the national trend, it will eventually use even more graduate assistants' work. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, graduate assistants perform 47 percent of the instruction. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst they teach about 60 percent of introductory classes. University of California-Berkeley teaching assistants handle about 58 percent of undergraduate classroom work and research assistants perform 50 percent of the lab work.

Somewhere along the line, Abel says, graduate students stopped thinking of their work as part of their education and began to look at it as work. "It's feeling less and less like grad school is something you do for a while and move on," she says. "Especially when it takes nine years from your B.A. to your Ph.D."

One result, adds American studies graduate student Matt Basso, is that teaching assistants are increasingly faced with the choice of either "screwing yourself or the screwing the students."

The UM union proponents have affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers but have not yet scheduled an election. If students vote to join the union, it could eventually encompass graduate assistants at the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth campuses. Which is a problem right now, says Abel. "Right now we have more contacts in departments than we have people to talk to them," she says. "We want to bargain, not to beg."

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