Graduate students debate unionization
By Lakshmana Rao
Graduate students heard arguments in favor of "Labor Unions for Graduate Students" at a colloquium by that name Wednesday.
The colloquium, organized by the Graduate Student Council, explored "ways that graduate students on some other campuses around the country have attempted to deal with the challenges facing graduate students," said Andrew D. Silber G, who chaired the colloquium.
Much of the discussion at the colloquium focused on the best form for a student union. Thomas A. Kochan, professor of management at the Sloan School of Management, said standard labor unions serve as very ineffective models for contract negotiations between students and university administrations.
"The primary concerns of students are different from those of labor unions," Kochan explained. "Students are concerned with issues like educational policy and housing in addition to employment. They are particularly faced with the problem of a rapid turnover rate. The generation of
students responsible for the mobilization of a union is normally not present at the time of contract negotiations," he added.
Kochan cited the Harvard Clerical Union (HCU) as an example of a successful union based on an alternate union management model. The HCU focuses on issues like career development, child care, and the union's role in governance at Harvard University.
The union mobilizes its members by saying that "it is not
necessary to be anti-Harvard to be pro-union," Kochan said. "Mobilization based on such non-confrontational stands has a greater chance of surviving the rapid turnover in student unions," he added.
Binding arbitration described as
"difficult" without unions
"It is difficult to achieve binding arbitrations with a university administration outside of student unions," said Andrea DeVries, a representative of the Graduate Employees Organization of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "The GEO was responsible for the waiver of a $400 tuition raise that was announced by the administration in the middle of a semester," she added.
"Unions have teeth in their ability to strike," Silber said. "Often just the threat of a strike is sufficient to make gains."
"Student unions give legal leverage to collective bargaining with an administration," said Hank J. Bromley '83, chairman of the Educational Committee of the Teaching Assistant's Association at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The TAA was formed in the mid-1960s and was largely responsible for mobilizing support for the introduction of some bills in the state legislature that are favorable for teaching assistants, Bromley said.
"We now have a contract that standardizes grievance procedures, limits class sizes, has non-discrimination clauses, and guarantees minimum health insurance coverage for all the TAs," Bromley reported. The contract also addresses the similar concerns of projects assistants, who are analogous to research assistants at MIT, he added.
Amy Polk, secretary of the Graduate Employees Union at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said that "it is important to get undergraduate support for all the causes of a union."
"[The GEU] explained to the undergraduate students [at Ann Arbor] that poor working conditions among teaching assistants have a serious effect on the quality of undergraduate education, and they were very sympathetic to our cause," Polk said. The GEU began a strike yesterday, demanding extension of the terms of its current contract, she noted.
Kochan noted that all three schools represented at the colloquium were publicly funded. "Private sector industrial relations statutes, which have to be invoked to form student unions in private schools, are in a shambles," he said. "Under the present rules, it is very convenient for an institution like MIT to drag on an arbitration for as long as five or six years before responding positively," he added.