TAs discuss unionization

Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants are discussing possible unionization plans despite strong objection from the University. Plans for unionization with the United Auto Workers to increase bargaining power have received mixed reaction from TAs.

Unionization efforts by graduate teachers and adjunct professors have been sporadic for more than two years, University officials said.

According to a policy statement released on Sunday, the University has not been presented with a demand to “recognize a union of graduate assistants and part-time faculty for the purpose of collective bargaining.” The statement noted, “unionization … has the potential to undermine our academic mission and sharply curtail academic freedom.”

Angela Hewett, a part-time professor in the English department and organizer for the D.C. Coalition of Academic Labor- UAW said TAs are concerned about their current position in the University. GW has about 400 graduate teaching assistants and about 220 adjunct professors.

“One thing that we have found in talking to people is, there are a lot of concerns and we all have a desire to have a voice in improving our current situation,” Hewett said.

TAs rarely have a say in what classes they teach and when the classes are scheduled and often don’t have offices, phones or competitive salaries and benefits, USA Today reported in December. These “outside” instructors are not eligible for tenure or traditional union membership.

Nationwide, unionization has won support from TAs who do not typically receive the salaries and benefits of other University employees yet share a substantial burden of conducting academic activities. Between 1981 and 1999, the number of nontraditional faculty, adjunct professors and outside instructors has increased by 79 percent to more than 400,000. according to The New Professoriate. An American Council of Education report in October 2002 reported that such faculty “now make up the majority of academia.”

According to a study by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, whose members include nontraditional faculty, nontraditional faculty teach more than half of the courses offered in eight of 10 social science and humanities subjects nationwide.

A large proportion of TAs teaching classes can often shortchange students and parents.

When parents pay tuition, “they assume their children are going to have a place to sit down with their professors,” UAW director Juile Kushner told USA Today.

Because salaries and labor load vary in different departments, several TAs said they and their colleagues do not have concerns that would be best addressed through a union.

“I’ve heard about the unionization effort,” said economics TA Maksim Troshkin. “It’s not a concern for most Tas, as far as I’ve heard, in the econ department.”

“I’d say that most of us in this department are happy with the way it works,” mathematics TA Corey Null said. “I’m split on the issue of unions. I think I have a good deal here, but other departments may have issues.”

Although the need for medical benefits is a primary concern for union organizers, some TAs said that one of their main worries about unionization is that the organizers have been vague in defining their ultimate goals.

“I have been approached about unionization,” history TA Yvette Chin said, “but no one has given me a clear stance, and if they really want people to join, they should.”

Organizers say they are working to get the required 50 percent of TA and adjunct faculty signatures before they bring unionization to the full population of part-time professors.

“We’re a grassroots, democratic organization,” Hewett said. “Our decisions about concerns will be made by our membership later on.”

The connection between adjuncts and UAW is not as unlikely as it might seem at first. Over the past few years, the University of California and New York University have joined with the UAW for help in negotiating contracts for TAs and other adjuncts.

“UAW has an outstanding record of negotiating contracts for TAs,” Hewett said. “We’ve been drawing on their experience at running campaigns at other universities, and we’ve gained tremendously with the organizers.”

When NYU part-timers joined with UAW last summer it was a watershed moment for university unionization efforts.

At Cornell University, the UAW suffered a major defeat when TAs voted by more than a 2-1 margin not to unionize last year. This was only the second defeat for the unionization effort, which now counts more than 30 campuses where unions exist.

Organizers at GW say unionization is still in an incipient stage.

“Right now, we are talking to people to find out about the level of interest,” said DCAL organizer and political science TA Lee Ann Fujii. “We’re trying to expand, so the goal is to speak to as many people as possible.”

Another issue with adjunct unionization is that different types of adjuncts have different concerns, but they would all be organizing with one voice.

“I think graduate students have it a lot better because we have an apprenticeship and we get free education,” Chin said. “That’s professional advancement to me.”

In a letter to Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Lester Lefton, then-Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman said the TA unionization would “be a significant and detrimental departure from the academic goals of the graduate teaching assistant program.”

Lehman wrote, unionization would “risk having (academic) matters subsumed into a monolithic collective bargaining agreement in which all terms and conditions of employment are negotiated by the United Auto Workers union on behalf of all students … without regard for the individual concerns of each student.”

Now executive vice president for academic affairs, Lehman released a memo in mid-January strongly condemning the formation of unions on campus.

The memo prohibits administrators and their staffs from looking at any type of union material and insists that interactions with union representatives be immediately documented and reported to Lehman’s office.

Lehman was reluctant to comment on the memo or on his position on adjunct faculty unions, directing questions to the University’s published statement.

GW recently invested $1.5 million in graduate assistant support, including a salary increase for graduate teaching assistants, research assistants and administrative assistants. Administrators said the investment is not related to the burgeoning unionization plans.

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