Teaching assistants at several Ivy League schools, following the lead of graduate student organizers at Yale, are working to join the growing national campaign for TA unions.
As Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization continues its 10-year effort to unionize graduate students here, nascent campaigns at Brown University, Harvard University and Cornell University add three more prestigious schools to the list of universities where graduate students are organizing, said Shannan Clark, a Columbia University graduate student and organizer
“There’s definitely work toward starting organizing [at those three schools],” Clark said.
United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate students at Columbia began an effort last summer under the title of Graduate Student Employees United, joining Yale as the second Ivy League school with an active official organizing group.
John McMillian, another Columbia graduate student and organizer, said his group’s goal is to get 70 percent of current teaching assistants to sign union cards and then to have a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election by this spring. He said he is optimistic that his organization, with the backing of the same UAW local that also represents Columbia clerical workers and New York University graduate students, can carry out the campaign on this remarkably quick schedule.
“We have a pretty good group,” he said.
Although graduate student unionization efforts are still controversial at schools like NYU and Yale, GESO chair J.T. Way GRD ’05 said the organizing effort is spreading.
“I know that at many private universities all around this country, there are people interested in starting organizing drives,” Way said.
In Providence, Gina Rourke, a Brown graduate student who was a leader of a recent effort to get improved health care coverage for graduate students at Brown, would neither confirm nor deny upcoming union activity at Brown.
Brown spokesman Mark Nickel also did not specifically comment on the possibility of a union.
“I don’t have that information,” Nickel said. “In any case, it’s hard to comment on actions the university would take … We make whatever improvements [for graduate students] we can.”
At Brown, recent controversy in the graduate school centered on health care and off-campus dial-up modem access.
Brown graduate student Marisa Huerta was active in protesting her university’s decision to close access to the Brown modem pool for off-campus students as of last Dec. 31.
“I know there’s been discussion [of union activity],” Huerta said. “People mentioned it and said if we had a union people would have to negotiate with us.”
UAW organizer Lisa Jessup, who works on the NYU campaign, said she knew last summer of Brown graduate student interest in organizing.
“They were interested in working to form a union,” Jessup said.
In 1999, a group called the Committee for Reasonable and Affordable Student Health formed to focus complaints about the change in health care, which affected more graduate students than undergraduates.
“We held a very well-attended public town hall meeting,” Rourke said. “The people were very unhappy.”
Graduate students also were at the center of the debate about reduced modem access. After cutting off free access to all off-campus users, Brown has created a graduate student-only computer cluster, but Huerta said that is not enough.
“Going to campus every time you need to use a computer is not ideal,” she said.
But Nickel said the move had wider cost-cutting motives.
“It’s not entirely graduate students that are affected,” he said.
The activity at Columbia, Brown and other schools comes after NYU graduate students formed the first teaching assistant union at a private school in the country last fall.
Coming after a NLRB decision reversed federal precedent and ruled that teaching assistants at NYU are employees, the formation of the certified NYU union has prompted increased activity from graduate students across the country.
In addition to these private schools, public schools like Pennsylvania State University are also seeing new campaigns. Because state labor law governs public school labor policy, some public universities have had graduate student unions for years.