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UNC grad students push to be recognized as employees.

The Right to Beg 

The law says they can't unionize, but graduate teaching assistants at UNC are pressing ahead anyway to negotiate collectively with the university administration

Like many Ph.D. candidates at UNC-Chapel Hill, 29-year-old Brian Thomas has learned only the fittest survive graduate school. When he came to the university four years ago, Thomas juggled teaching, as most graduates do, and a full course load. Today, he has completed all but his dissertation for a doctorate in philosophy. Although he no longer teaches classes, he does work four part-time jobs to make ends meet.

On a typical day, Thomas is in his Graham Memorial Hall office by 9 a.m. Graham Memorial houses the Office of Undergraduate Research, where Thomas spends most weekdays doing design work for two Web sites. On Wednesdays, he teaches undergraduates how to use computer applications such as Microsoft Excel in back-to-back classes; he reserves weekends for getting lesson plans together. He earns $8.50 an hour for the work from UNC's Academic and Technology Network. All told, Thomas figures his four jobs eat up some 50 hours a week.

He further divides his work day between Caldwell Hall, home to the philosophy department, Davis Library, where he conducts research for his dissertation, and Hanes Hall, where he teaches. Thomas finds his single escape from the hectic pace in an occasional late afternoon basketball game. He eats dinner between 6 and 7 p.m., then hits the books again, finally calling it quits around midnight.

Recently he passed a second set of comprehensive exams; each demands a year of intense study. The first time around he failed, he believes, because of overwork.

"I had to work enough to pay the rent and study for the exam, prepare my [dissertation] defense, and in the fall, start writing my dissertation, which will take about a year and a half," Thomas says. "Eventually, I had to cut back a little bit.

"One of the things you learn about yourself in graduate school is, if you don't have an ability to multi-task, you're not going to be around long. It is very hard." So hard that he believes it contributed to the failure of his marriage. "I don't know how people do it. We didn't have kids, and it was still just impossible for us to juggle all of our interests."

Yet Thomas has accepted another task, one he hopes will help future grad students endure the rigors of academe and bring a measure of fairness to a system which, he believes, treats teaching assistants like employees but pays them like, and calls them, students.

Thomas is president of UE Local 150-A, the graduate student union at UNC, sponsored by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. It is not a real union in the usual sense of the term: It is not recognized as a collective bargaining unit by the university, and therefore has no ability to negotiate and enforce the terms of a contract. But the union is not without resources or goals.

The immediate goal is to have graduate student teaching assistants across all 16 UNC system campuses reclassified as state employees, in the hope that the status will deliver better pay and benefits--including the same health plan state employees receive. In the long term, they want to see General Statute 95-98, repealed. The law, enacted in 1959 and incorporated into Article 12 of the state constitution, prohibits collective bargaining by public employees.

Graduate student teaching assistants at UNC who are members of UE 150-A believe they aren't fairly compensated for providing an essential service to the university. They just received their first raise in six years, to take effect this fall, raising stipends from $4,100 to $4,400 for each course they teach. In addition to the stipend, UNC pays tuition for its graduate TAs but not books and fees, with the latter running about $450 a semester.

On Feb. 21, roughly 50 graduate TAs, mostly from the English department, marched into the office of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Risa Palm and presented her with a petition for a pay hike, citing a study that compared the cost of living in Chapel Hill with their salaries ("The Need for a Livable Wage," released in November by UNC's Association of Graduate English Students). The group included members of the burgeoning graduate student union. A week later, Palm agreed to a raise. Unfortunately, it won't benefit students like Thomas, because he isn't teaching while writing his dissertation. He will have to foot the $1,300 bill for in-state tuition and fees.

He has learned to make other sacrifices as well. He can't afford to buy a car, visit the dentist or buy new glasses. He estimates he's $20,000 to $25,000 in the hole for student loans.

"I could probably go out and get a job that would pay me a lot more money than I make now, or I could just go to professional school," says Thomas. "I keep telling myself that this means a lot to me and my family. It's a lot of pressure, but I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Tempted to Quit
Some 1,100 graduate students (about one-sixth of the total graduate student population) hold assistantships at UNC-Chapel Hill, although duties vary widely between departments. In the humanities, teaching assistants may lead lectures, teach smaller classes, read and grade papers and tests and hold office hours. In other departments, they lead labs, conduct independent research under faculty supervision or perform clerical tasks.

Statistics from the UNC General Administration show UNC-Chapel Hill relies heavily on teaching assistants. According to an administration report released in March, tenure-track professors taught 16.1 course hours in 1999-2000 system-wide, compared to 15.2 course hours during 1996-1997. At Chapel Hill, the number of course credit hours per full-time student taught by tenure-track professors rose by almost an hour, from 9.5 to 10.4. There are 2,420 full-time faculty positions.

But the report also showed that the percentage of lower-level undergraduate credit hours taught by tenure-track professors has dropped as UNC institutions have replaced them with part-time faculty. Overall, tenure-track professors taught 48 percent of all undergraduate classes in the UNC system in 1999-2000, compared to 54 percent during 1996-1997.

In other words, as the student population has grown, the increased work load has fallen more heavily on non-tenure-track instructors, including graduate students.

The increased reliance on non-tenured faculty comes as no surprise to Thomas. Frustrated by low pay and long hours--TAs at minimum devote 20 hours per week to each class they teach, in exchange for the stipend and tuition--Thomas first attended a meeting of the UE 150-A in 1999. That year the union began placing organizers in a number of UNC departments. In addition to building membership within academic departments, these days the UE 150-A is focused on pushing for positions on committees that address issues such as tuition allocation, Thomas says.

Elizabeth Wright, a 27-year-old Waterville, N.Y., native serves as the union's organizer in the English department. The union calls them "stewards," although in typical union parlance that is a position that enforces a contract, and in this case the union has no contract to enforce. Three years into her doctoral program, Wright juggles teaching--about 20 hours a week, including grading time and office hours--her own coursework and working with a program called "Documenting the American South" at Wilson Library. All told, it adds up to a 60- or 70-hour work week.

According to the Association of Graduate English Students report, 67 percent of all undergraduate classes in UNC's English department are taught by graduate students. Freshman are required, unless they place out, to take three composition classes: English 10, 11 and 12. "All of those sections are carried by graduate students," says Wright.

"It's exhausting, and I have wanted to quit," Wright continues. "But I enjoy teaching and being part of the freshman experience. I get to read great literature and talk to people about it, people who are inspired. That part of the work I'm not ready to give up."

But the lack of financial support weighs on her. "If I have to take out more loans, then I will quit," she says. "I'm about $15,000 in debt." She estimates it will be another three years before she graduates. "Definitely, it's the strong who survive," says Wright. "I'm not always convinced it's the wise."

Unlike TAs in the humanities, their counterparts in the chemistry department, who are typical of students in the sciences, lead labs or conduct research but rarely lecture, according to chemistry professor Joe Templeton. Graduate TAs in the sciences receive higher stipends, in part because many are privately or federally funded. The minimum stipend for graduate TAs in Templeton's department is $18,000 per year. "We recruit in competition with the best universities in the country," he says.

Apparently it works. UNC's chemistry program ranks 15th among the 300 national doctorate-granting institutions, according to a 1998 Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Science Foundation. UNC ranks second in analytical chemistry, eighth in inorganic chemistry, 10th in polymer chemistry. UNC's English program ranks 17th among 300 doctoral-granting institutions, according to the NSF study.

Templeton hasn't gotten wind of an attempt to organize grad students within the chemistry department, and Thomas admits most UE 150-A members come from the humanities, where stipends are funded by the university and where teaching loads appear heavier.

Employees or Students?
The union's current membership of 60 to 65 is a modest start at a university with a total graduate student population of 6,816, but UE 150-A is moving ahead anyway. In February, union representatives met with Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, who agreed to introduce a bill in the General Assembly that would reclassify graduate student teaching assistants as state employees.

In March the Carrboro Democrat told The Independent that her research staff was first studying what steps would be most effective for reclassifying graduate TAs as state employees.

"It will cause a lot of grief," she said. If approved, the bill would affect graduate student TAs at all 16 UNC campuses.

But if she's serious, she'll have to move fast. As of April 3 she had yet to introduce such a bill, and the filing deadline is April 4.

Lawrence Gilbert, William Randal Kenan professor of biology and a member of the chancellor's Advisory Committee at UNC, is skeptical of a bill to reclassify graduate assistants as state employees. "I think our TAs are underpaid, but I also tend to think of them as students rather than employees," he says. "I'm not sure if I'm in favor of a graduate student union or faculty union at the university. They're here to learn and get an advanced degree."

Kay Hovious, director of administration for UNC's School of Law, doubts the union can flex much political muscle either way, unless General Statute 95-98 is repealed. Without a change in public employee labor law, graduate TAs could form all the "unions" they want, as students or employees, but could not bargain collectively for pay or conditions of employment.

"They're a union by virtue of their national sponsorship, but they don't function effectively in North Carolina in the traditional sense," she says. "They don't have a contract." The UE 150-A didn't bargain collectively for a raise, Hovious points out, "they negotiated a raise."

Furthermore, benefits for state employees are on a downward spiral--accelerated by the current budget crisis. Many state employees find their health care "barely more than catastrophic," says Hovious. The state plan covers the employee but no dependents. "When you're making $25,000 or $27,000, which is I think the average salary for a state employee, you can't afford to pay $500 or $600 a month for dependent coverage. It's going to mean quite a bit of cash out of pocket, if you have much interaction with health care providers."

Pay hikes are also shrinking. This year, state employees will receive a 2 percent cost of living adjustment; last year, they received a 4.2 percent COLA. The General Assembly abandoned merit increases around 1988 or '89, says Hovious.

As for repealing G.S. 95-98, UE 150-A President Thomas admits a lot of grassroots work needs to take place first. "A lot of things will have to happen before various legal precedents kick in and statutes get repealed," says Thomas. "The more graduate students become organized and express their demands and are willing to enforce them, the administration will work with us."

With the university having officially recognized neither the UE 150 (UNC's first employee union) nor UE 150-A, his optimism may not be well-founded. Furthermore, union members haven't met with Chancellor James Moeser, says Brenda Kirby, assistant to the chancellor. Administrators are not obligated to respond to union demands.

"All we can really do is wag our fingers and complain," Thomas admits.

Housekeepers Take the Lead
Even in the absence of a contract, UNC housekeepers, who are state employees, began organizing a decade ago and say they have successfully negotiated with university administrators.

In the summer of 1990, the housekeepers--then 88 percent black and 70 percent female--began organizing the UE 150 after they found the university's grievance procedure an unsuccessful avenue through which to raise issues of racial discrimination in pay, unfair supervisory practices and limited training and promotional opportunities. They held their first meeting on the second floor of the Campus Y, and in February 1991, more than 350 housekeepers filed a mass grievance with the university.

UNC administrators agreed to deal with workers on an individual basis only--effectively ignoring the fledgling organizing attempt. The UNC Housekeepers' Association, as it was known until the United Electrical Workers agreed to sponsor them, filed a discrimination complaint with the state personnel commission in January 1992 with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Along with demands for adequate housekeeping supplies, workers insisted on a minimum starting salary of $16,800--poverty level wages for a family of four at the time.

The university challenged the workers' right to sue, but agreed in November 1996 to settle out of court, paying more than $1 million in raises and back pay and promising career training and better child care. As part of the settlement, then-Chancellor Michael Hooker agreed to meet regularly with housekeepers and discuss grievances.

In early 1997, service workers from UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte and East Carolina University joined ranks, debating how best to form a union across a 16-campus system in a state that outlaws collective bargaining for public employees. UE 150 put pressure on university administrators through grievance brigades made up of students, faculty, community supporters and complaints collected during membership drives.

UE's Director of Organization Bob Kingsley insists the union's grassroots strategy allowed workers to effectively win workplace battles, even in the absence of a contract.

National Trends
The first effort to unionize graduate student employees started at the University of Wisconsin 30 years ago. But it wasn't until 1987 that the Wisconsin Legislature authorized teaching assistants to form a union, according to Mike Rothstein, contract administrator for the UW chancellor. Nationally, graduate TAs have fought for such issues as stipends to cover costs of living, inflation-based raises, waivers for tuition and fees and benefits such as subsidized health care and sick leave.

In addition to collective bargaining, unions provide protection for graduate employees in the form of a grievance procedure through which they can voice complaints without fear of retaliation, especially from professors, whose influence over the arduous Ph.D. process and a student's future career is enormous.

Nationally, faculties generally oppose unions for fear they will cross into the realm of academic policy and threaten time-honored prerogatives of tenured professors by making the conditions of their relationships with graduate students, whom they see as apprentices, a matter subject to negotiation.

Much of the debate nationally since the formation of the union in Wisconsin has focused on the legal status of graduate students. As students, TAs have no rights, but as employees, in states that don't outlaw it, they are able to bargain collectively. Generally, their legal status has been determined by individual courts and state and labor boards.

Last May, after 17 years of organizing and pushing for lighter teaching loads and job security, graduate TAs at the University of California got their first contract. Ninety-four percent of graduate TAs who voted approved the contract, which carries a 9.5 percent increase over three years and full remissions of student fees for employees by 2002.

On March 2, New York University became the nation's first private university to bargain with a union of teaching assistants. The agreement averted a strike and set a precedent for other private schools such as Yale, where graduate students are organizing. During the spring and fall of 2000, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate TAs at NYU are employees; as private employees, their rights are governed by the NLRB under the National Labor Relations Act.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, more than two-thirds of states granted public employees the right to some form of collective bargaining. According to the State Employees Association of North Carolina, 36 states permit public sector bargaining through statutes, constitutional amendments, court decisions, opinions of attorneys general, or some combination.

Two states, New Mexico and Maryland, allow collective bargaining via executive order. Five, including Alabama, Georgia and Texas--restrict bargaining to certain types of employees. Eight states--including Arizona, Alaska, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia--have no legislation in place to prevent collective bargaining. West Virginia's Supreme Court ruled that without such legislation, municipalities have a statutory authority to contract and be contracted with. North Carolina is the only state in which public employees are prohibited from organizing and bargaining collectively.

Without a contract, the UNC housekeepers' union is technically not a union, and therefore not in violation of the law.

In 75 years, private-sector unions in North Carolina have made little progress. At 3.3 percent, or 109,000 workers, the state has the lowest union density in the United States. The state also ranks near the bottom for wages and benefits; 47 percent of all North Carolina workers earn wages at or below the poverty level, according to the Common Sense Foundation. Nationally, union workers take home 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts. In 1998, the median pay in non-union states was $26,927; in unionized states, the average was $31,932, or 19 percent more, according to the AFL-CIO.

Colleagues-To-Be
The UE 150-A points to university examples around the country for evidence that unions work in the best interests of grad students. But Michael Poock, assistant dean of the graduate school, says in the grand scheme of things, graduate students at Carolina aren't that bad off. "The packages our research assistants and TAs receive are at worst comparable to our peer institutions," he says. "Our graduate students are better off than the other institutions."

The numbers don't support this view. At the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, students pay no registration fees. The University of Michigan caps fees at $80 and provides full waivers. At UNC, TAs pay 100 percent of their fees, or $450 a semester, for a full course load.

At the State University of New York, Rutgers and Wisconsin, TAs receive the same comprehensive health care as faculty, and most plans provide dependent care at no extra charge. At UNC, premiums average about $91 per month, cost $832 per year for a dependent spouse and provide no dental or vision coverage.

As for child care, the University of Wisconsin offers $500,000 in child care subsidies, shared by 350 families. At UC-Berkeley, 10 subsidized child care centers serve more than 200 student families. At UNC, three student families split $15,000 during 1998-1999. According to a conservative estimate from UNC's Office of Institutional Research, about 10 percent of graduate students are married and have children.

And at Michigan, TAs received a stipend increase of 4.1 percent in 1998, a 3.5 percent increase in 1999, and 2.5 percent increase in 2000; the hikes are guaranteed and linked with faculty increases. Stipends for TAs at Wisconsin ranged from $19,267 to $26,816 during 1998-1999. At UNC, TAs receive annual stipends ranging between $8,200 and $18,000.

Some UNC faculty and administrators support the recent pay increase but turn lukewarm on the effort to organize graduate TAs.

"They work very, very hard and the pay is barely adequate in a town which is very expensive to live in," says James Thompson, associate chair of the English department and director of graduate studies. "They are expected to support themselves on $15,000 a year." In his department, graduate students typically teach one class one semester and two the next and receive roughly 60 percent remissions through the graduate school.

But it will be tough to establish a strong student union in North Carolina, says Thompson. "I wish the graduate students extremely well in this effort. I don't think this state is amenable to unions of public employees or unions of any sort."

Though the UE 150-A is struggling to build solidarity on the UNC campus, it hasn't voiced its concerns before the Faculty Council, says Chair Sue Estroff, professor in the Department of Social Medicine.

"Many of us have expressed concerns about their pay level," she says. The Faculty Council is comprised of more than a dozen professors and administrators from UNC departments. "The faculty worked with [graduate student TAs] to get health insurance. We certainly want to consider conditions of employment among us." Estroff agrees graduate TAs play dual roles, as students and employees. "We're their teachers, and they're our colleagues-to-be. We want them to be successful, and we want them to be treated with respect, like any other employee on campus."

Like any other employee. Those are words graduate students like Brian Thomas and Elizabeth Wright hope to hear uttered more often. As they strive toward becoming colleagues, the twin pressures of work and finances sometimes get the better of them. Thomas, Wright and others like them have all at one time or another considered abandoning their dreams of earning a Ph.D. But that, according to Thompson, would be a tragedy.

"There is a huge misperception of their role in the university," Thompson says. "They just have to be here, if there's going to be a university five years down the road." EndBlock

  • UNC grad students push to be recognized as employees.

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