College organizing accelerating: TAs, RAs at Boston College, Penn seek votes

A prior ruling by National Labor Relations Board, opening the way for teaching assistants and research assistants at private colleges to organize and file for union recognition votes, as employees of the schools, is leading to increasing unionization drives nationwide.

Hard on the heels of one such vote petition in early May, among TAs and RAs at one of the nation’s most-prestigious private universities, the University of Chicago, TAs and RAs at an Ivy League university, Penn, filed on May 30 for a recognition election with the Teachers.

And earlier in the month, TAs and RAs at Boston College cheered an NLRB ruling in mid-May upholding their right to organize with the Auto Workers. BC, a Catholic university echoed other Catholic schools in saying unionizing its TAs and RAs conflicts with its religious mission. The NLRB rejected that idea in prior cases involving universities with religious ties.

Not all is sweetness and light: Eight Yale TAs and RAs staged a hunger strike in  May to demand the university recognize and bargain with Unite Here, which they voted for months ago. The Yalies drew a supportive speech from AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler.

“Stop delaying. Stop scheming. Stop lying. Teaching assistants won the election, fair and square. Now it’s time to negotiate a first contract. Anything less violates the laws of our land” and Yale’s own mission statement, Shuler declared on Yale’s commencement day.

And an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) organizing drive at Cornell narrowly lost, 856-919. But there were enough challenged ballots (81) to leave the outcome in doubt. The looming elections at Chicago, BC and Penn are part of efforts by several unions to organize the tens of thousands of underpaid, exploited TAs and RAs at the nation’s private college campuses.

Those TAs and RAs provide an overwhelming majority of the research at the schools, and often handle much of the teaching load, too. But unless they’re organized and have a contract, their jobs are at the whim of administrators and professors from year to year, their stipends are low and their benefits – particularly health insurance – are non-existent.

Those issues, along with respect at work, are part of the BC and Penn drives. The Penn election would cover more than 2,300 TAs and RAs, their organization, Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) said. Key issues there are “funding insecurity, healthcare costs, family leave, vision and dental care, and inadequate mental health resources,” GET-UP added.

Education and anthropology doctoral candidate Miranda Weinberg told AFT that “We’re unionizing in order to gain a real voice in determining our working conditions. Graduate workers do important work at the university as teachers and researchers, and deserve to be treated with respect. Forming a union will allow us to do a better job of advancing our goals and those of the university: achieving excellence in research and teaching.”  Other TAs and RAs at Penn had similar comments. A 2-year organizing drive by the Boston College Graduate Employees Union-UAW (BC-GEU) will lead to the vote there, after the NLRB ruling, the union said.

“We are thrilled about turning to our election, and are looking forward to having a seat at the bargaining table,” history TA Betsy Pingree told the union. “Having a union contract will have a major material impact on our lives,” added Chad Olle, a PhD candidate in educational psychology.

In a statement that other unions organizing TAs and RAs could echo, UAW Region 9A director Julie Kushner called the present “an amazing time for graduate workers in the labor movement. I’m thrilled to see the workers at Boston College join with other grad workers around the country, and I’m confident they will vote to form their union.”

Meanwhile, 100 University of Chicago professors who are members of the American Association of University Professors signed an open letter to the university administration urging neutrality, not opposition to the union organizing drives there. They also urged their fellow faculty not to organize their own anti-union meetings. One of the two Chicago drives is ground-breaking: Teamsters Local 743 filed the union recognition election petition for 225 undergraduate students who work in the university’s library system. The other is a joint Teachers-AAUP drive among Chicago’s TAs and RAs.

“Wages, hours, and third-party legal representation in cases of Title IX (sexual discrimination), the Americans with Disabilities Act and labor law violations,” are key in the undergrads’ drive. “Only as unionized workers will students be able to protect their rights as well as fully engage in the academic mission of the University of Chicago,” their statement added.

“Creating a union will provide me with the ability to bargain for a higher wage so that I can actually be a student at my own school, as well as offering me legal representation and defense against ADA violations, allowing me to feel safe and supported in the workplace,” third-year undergrad Alex Peltz said.

In the TAs and RAs vote at Chicago, “Even when meetings are cast as informational, the inherent power differential between faculty and graduate students can result in a coercive and silencing atmosphere,” the 100 AAUP Chicago professors told their colleagues. The professors also asked the administration to “remain neutral, not use any university funds or institutional resources to oppose unionization” and “not employ any union avoidance consultants” – a polite term for union-busters.

Source: PAI