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Columbia University strike one of several battles
Grad employees fight back

April 23, 2004 | Page 11

A STRIKE by teaching and research assistants at Columbia University in New York began April 19 in the latest in a series of similar battles across the U.S. The strike will determine whether Columbia's 1,900 teaching and research assistants will be recognized by the university as part of United Auto Workers Local 2110, which also represents Columbia's clerical workers.

Columbia's grad students teach the majority of required "core curriculum" classes and lead discussion sections in half of the humanities courses and two thirds of the science classes offered at Columbia. Yet most grad students receive a stipend of only $17,000--and international grad students are prohibited from working off campus.

Columbia's grad students have been trying to form a union since February 2002, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that they are legal employees of the university and have the right to unionize. The ballots from a 2002 union vote were impounded after Columbia appealed the NLRB's ruling.

A majority of current Columbia grad students have signed union cards, and last week, grad students voted to strike by an 80 percent majority. On the first day of the strike, spirited picket lines of as many as 200 people at a time lined both sides of the main entrance at Columbia. Undergraduates are planning a rally and walkout of classes on Wednesday in support of the grad students.

A similar battle may break out at New York University, where adjunct professors--represented by UAW Local 7902 --voted by 91 percent to strike by April 21 if no contract improvements are won in health care insurance, pay, job security and working conditions. NYU has eliminated adjunct positions by converting them into full-time jobs--and then using labor law to bar these employees from eligibility to join the union on the basis that they're "managers."

Similar issues had sparked a walkout at the University of Michigan, where the Lecturers' Employee Organization is fighting to boost pay for contingent faculty that is often little more than $20,000 per year--event though these non-tenured faculty teach as about half the undergraduate courses. The walkout by LEO--which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)--defied state laws banning work stoppages by public employees.

The next picket line by graduate employees is set for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where another AFT afffliate, the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) has voted for a two-day strike. With the threat of a strike looming, the state made a new offer to the TAA, doing away with the retroactive health insurance fee and offering an average 4.6 percent wage increase for teaching assistants and project assistants.

However, the state's new proposal asks union members to pay $11 individually or $27.50 per family per month for health insurance. While these fees are relatively low, it is widely acknowledged that instituting a payment will open the door for regular increases in health care premiums.

A meeting of nearly 200 people April 19 night tabled a decision to accept the state's contract proposal until the day before the strike deadline. According to members in attendance, most are still prepared to strike for a better deal. Despite attempts by some university administrators to divide undergraduates and graduates on the issue of the strike, undergraduates are wearing support pins, speaking to classrooms and professors on the issue, holding forums, and distributing pro-TAA leaflets on campus.

Laura Durkay, Marshall Braun and Bill Linville contributed to this report.

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