Union talks divide TA’s, adjuncts

Talk of unionization among adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants has sparked discussion about working conditions for part-time professors on campus.

Part-time professors make up about 64 percent of faculty, according to the GW Office of Institutional Research. In fall 2001 there were 2,725 part-time faculty members out of 4,233 professors. There are currently about 400 TAs on campus.

Adjunct faculty include part-time faculty who are doing something other than just teaching a course, such as research, said Donald Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs.

“Being an adjunct you’re entirely responsible for the class, from selecting books, writing the syllabus, grading tests and papers and monitoring online discussions,” said former history TA and now adjunct professor Mark Santangelo. “It’s a heavy load.”

Adjunct professors said they have different concerns than the TAs, with whom they are trying to unionize. Their obligations are similar to those of full-time faculty members, but they often have trouble getting medical benefits, funding for professional advancement and tenure.

The Graduate Teaching Assistants-Adjunct Alliance’s push for unionization has resurfaced after receiving sporadic support over the last two years. The University objects to such activity and recently awarded TAs, research and administrative assistants new benefits packages.

Some faculty members said part-time faculty would be better off unionizing without the TAs.

“I believe that adjuncts should organize a union without graduate students for several reasons,” history TA Yvette Chin said in an e-mail. “Unions that involve GTAs and adjuncts pay more attention to TAs than adjuncts, and benefits to unionization, if any, usually go to GTAs when it’s really the adjuncts that get screwed.”

Graduate teaching assistants teach 3 percent of all undergraduate classes, according to a report issued by the Office of Institutional Research last year, and 57 percent of undergraduate lab and discussion sections.

“All of my labs are taught by TAs,” said freshman Rich Galli, an engineering student. “I think this provides more areas for students to interact with people who know about the subject because it can be hard for most professors who hold big lectures – (they) have a harder time getting one-on-one interaction with students.

TAs’ responsibilities vary depending on their department and professor, but usually include keeping up with a class’ curriculum, running discussion sessions, grading, giving lectures and meeting with individual students.

With all of these obligations, some TAs said their work-related resources are often limited.

“We have a small math lab and we share office space with two or three other people. On busy days when a lot of students come in, we sometimes have to find a place in the hall where we can sit and do work,” mathematics TA Sarah Pingrey said. “I’m disappointed with my computer. It only has Windows 95 and is trashed with junk. I keep asking the tech department to come fix it. The only good computers are in the math lab, but even they have a lot of unnecessary files and are low on memory.”

GTAAA unionization efforts for better working conditions are not new, but have been public since the summer of 1999, when organizers tried to gain support from parents and incoming freshmen at Colonial Inauguration.

Later that summer, they held a rally at the Professors’ Gate, on the 21st Street side of Kogan Plaza, and were scheduled to meet with administrators in early September to try to gain union recognition at the University. The meeting was canceled at the last minute because administrators said they would not recognize the union.

In October 1999, the Student Association openly recognized the GTAAA’s right to collective bargaining. In April 2000, GTAAA held another rally on the Quad when it received the news that graduate teaching assistants at NYU were granted permission to organize as a union.

University administrators said they are critical of the need for a union.

“I think most of us who work with graduate students feel that the optimal environment is where graduates work directly with the faculty and not through another body,” Lehman said. “We feel we have positive working relations that are collaborative and educational for the graduate students. Once you bring in an intermediate, you create an adversarial relationship, which we don’t want to happen.”

GW recently announced a $1.5 million investment in graduate teaching, research and administrative assistants, raising stipends to $15,000 a year, as well as doubling health plan stipends to $1,000 a year.

“Two years ago when the student health plan cost around $1,100 we contributed $250 to the graduates per semester,” Lehman said. “Over the past couple years the cost of the insurance package has risen to $1,600, and our original contributions have been nullified, so we’re now increasing them to $500 per semester.”

Administrators deny that the newly released benefits package has anything to do with GTAAA efforts to unionize with United Auto Workers, but rather it is a move toward making GW employee packages competitive with those of other research universities.

“I’ve been trying to make sure the campus community fully understands what we are doing through strategic planning, which has nothing to do with unionization,” Lehman said. “We want to promote academic excellence.”

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