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Who Said It Can't Be Done?:

A History of Graduate Student Organizing and Unionization in the U.S.

by Robert Ovetz

There is a common myth shared in many circles that graduate students passively accept their fate and do not organize themselves to defend or advance their interests. This is a myth unsupported by history and the recently successful strikes at Yale and University of Massachusetts-Amherst over the last year and the activities of grad students at UT (University of Texas) since the 1970?s.

This article first examines the various strategies used by graduate students and then details the history of their organizing attempts nationwide and at UT. We can learn from these efforts of graduate students to organize themselves for our own ongoing battles for tuition and fee waivers and a number of other needs of UT graduate students.

Shattering the Myth of ?Professionalism?

Since 1965, graduate students have shed the mystifying labels of ?professionals? and ?equals? among the faculty and administration and have begun to organize themselves. While the best known and most successful cases have taken the form of union-type organizations, graduate students have also formed ad hoc groups, study committees, protest organizations and used other tactics to fight for more control over their working conditions, fewer work hours, higher wages, health benefits, early and publicly explained notification of appointments, and a number of other needs.

One of the most difficult issues confronted by graduate students attempting to organize to protect their interests is a common belief that graduate student employees?e.g., teaching assistants (TA?s), research assistants (RA?s), assistant instructors (AI?s) and instructors?are ?professionals? whose jobs are an essential part of their academic training. This ideal does not hold up to our everyday experiences, however, since these positions are often handed out in the form of charity or a gift by department and college administrators who believe they are doing us a ?favor,? a noblesse oblige. In this way, graduate student employees are implicitly looked down on as patrons of administrators? good will, hardly a ?professional? position of equality.

In fact, behind this facade of ?professionalism,? graduate students are doing the unrecognized and underpaid work without which UT could not function. As UT cuts hiring for new faculty and reduces faculty pay raises, sabbaticals, and other necessities, more and more of the work once done by fully-paid faculty are being picked up by underpaid graduate students. This is demonstrated in the composition of the UT faculty over the last decade.

Faculty AI?s & TA?s

1980 2,095 1,816

1986 2,289 2,243

1991 2,373 2,563

In 1980, there were 279 more faculty (full, associate, and assistant professors, and instructors) than AI?s and TA?s. However, by 1986, there were only 46 more faculty than AI?s and TA?s. By 1991, we surpassed the 2,373 faculty with 2,563 AI?s and TA?s. In other words, graduate students made up 70% of the growth in teaching staff in the last eleven years, besides teaching a disproportionally large number of students.

As the universities come to rely less and less on full-time faculty and more and more on part-timers, graduate students do an ever increasing amount of the teaching and research on campus for less and less pay. Meanwhile, as selective austerity channels money away from teaching and ?education? to entrepreneurial priorities, UT is using low-paid, flexible workers to fill in the gap.

We are being looked upon to do more and more of the teaching as instructors or discussion section leaders, counseling, advising, grading, and so on. Except for the few RA?s and AI?s that actually get to teach or do research in areas immediately relevant to their own research, most of the work we do is far from professional or relevant to our academic preparation, but is rather unfulfilling and underpaid work. Because of the nature of the work, it rarely is limited to the 20-hour assignment it is supposed to be. Some students do less and many do more than 20 hours?often sacrificing their own studies or research and taking incompletes when seminar papers come due at the end of the semester. We are then punished for our incompletes when considered for a position.

In addition, the conditions under which we are employed is hardly professional. Most of us have to wait until the end of the previous semester or even just before the semester begins to learn if we received a position. Many are often left on a ?waiting list? and do not know if they will be able to pay for tuition or even food and housing until the semester starts. This is often the result of departments using these positions to recruit new students. However, what they are never told is that once they get here they are not guaranteed a job for even the eight to ten semesters which is the maximum number of semesters of employment opportunity. (The number is normally dependent on the department?s position on UT?s ladder of priority, e.g., profitability.) We are treated no better than farmworkers who wait each morning in a hiring hall to find out if the labor contractor will use them. We are treated a pieceworkers, hired on a semester by semester basis (although they claim it is per academic year), without any protection against arbitrary firings. It need hardly be said that we are not paid professional salaries.

Even then, the whole hiring process is kept secret from us ?for our own protection from things we shouldn?t know,? as the outgoing Sociology chair implied to 50 sociology students at a meeting last semester. The students were presenting the results of their survey in which an overwhelming majority supported student involvement in faculty committees, tuition and fee waivers, and other necessities. Even though these jobs are supposedly part of the professional learning experience, we are kept in the dark about how it even works. Meetings in which TA?s are chosen are closed to students and the selection process has no set criteria. Although we are constantly assured that there is a fair process at work, it remains mystified. Meanwhile, thousands of grads cower in fear for what they say and do, afraid that they may not get to eat next semester.

Although this appears to be an almost insurmountable predicament, since the mid 1960?s, thousands of graduate students have come to the conclusion that this situation needs to be confronted and changed. By seeing themselves as workers for the university, they have attempted to do something to not only gain recognition for what they do, but also to reduce the amount of work they do while getting paid more for it. These are only fair demands considering that graduate students are doing the work of fully-paid professors at a fraction of their actual wages. Even worse, during the summer, graduate students receive only their monthly pay for teaching a whole semester in six weeks while faculty pay is pro-rated accordingly.

What Can We Do for Ourselves?

At this moment, a major effort is underway to unionize UT graduate students around higher wages, tuition/fee waivers and other needs. In the process, there are a number of questions to be asked about how we want to organize. Should we form a union, or are there other ways to go about it? Do we only include graduate students who are actually employed and receiving a salary? Do we limit ourselves to issues of wages and benefits or do we take up the broader issues of the university?s priorities and how it is run?

Forming a union is far from problem-free. One of the difficulties that has come up time and time again?although they are insurmountable only on occasion?is that organizing a union requires following certain rules and guidelines set out by the National Labor Relations Act that originated in the 1930?s. First, in order to be recognized as a union it is necessary to sign up 50%+1 of the TA?s and AI?s, or TA?s, RA?s, and AI?s, depending on which employees want to be included in the union. After we get 50%+1, we have to request either voluntary recognition of our union by UT as the representative of all graduate employees in order to begin negotiating, or we could go to the state?s labor relations board and request that we be recognized and an election be held. We could try either method, although both could take a long time to be settled as we wait out hearings and appeals by UT if we win, as the unions at the University of California (UC) campuses of Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and San Diego are currently doing.

If we made it to the election and won we would open negotiations with UT which could also drag on. However, we can easily set a date at which time if there is no collective settlement we could strike, which could also last a long time. Although strikes by state employees in Texas are illegal, that does not mean we will automatically lose as some claim. In fact, the 1975 Michigan strike was illegal but they could not be broken because of their widespread support from undergraduates, faculty and the Teamster delivery drivers. The only reason it is still illegal for us to strike in Texas is because we have not had the power to challenge the law yet. For example, the only reason the National Labor Relations Board included universities after 1970 was because there were enough faculty and grads striking that it forced the board to do something to try to control it.

But before we even petition for recognition as a bargaining agent we should be aware about how graduate employees have been defined. In nearly every organizing attempt described in this article over the last twenty years, graduate students have had to challenge the legal definition of graduate employee as being dependent on one?s status as a student and thus not an employee. Although graduate students have often been successful in challenging this definition by showing that most work by TA?s, AI?s and RA?s is not directly related to their education, universities have used this time and time again to gum up the process. This is the very problem faced by UC unions who have had their original favorable decision from the state labor relations board overturned, and then lost on appeal this past June.

It becomes apparent why the myth that TA?s, AI?s, and RAs are ?professionals-in-training? is so predominant. The flipside of this myth is a legal technicality that is used against us in court if we form a union. There is clearly a symbiotic relationship between the ruling ideology and the law.

This myth about grad students is equally dependent on the mystification of students in general. Students are not seen as workers because they are not paid an overt wage for what they do even though students spend most of their time learning to be workers and, in fact, their future work is only possible because of the work they do as students. This mystification of students is being used against graduate students in our attempts to organize. Although one would think graduate student employees are workers because they work and receive a wage, the university and the law would ignore this fact and revert to defining graduate employees as primarily students, and because students are not workers, graduate students cannot be workers.

Unions have failed to deal with this myth and have often won in the courts by showing the opposite?that graduate employees do work ?unrelated? to their education and role as students. Because their legal defense agrees that students are not working, they reinforce the very myth used to deny them the right to organize: because they are students they are not workers. In effect, by agreeing with the logic of the law they never challenge the very basis that has repeatedly been used against us.

Another question that is raised is whether we only organize graduate employees or all graduate students. Since the law already uses the unwaged status of students to say we are not workers because we are primarily students, we should not limit ourselves only to waged graduate students. The fact is that graduate students who do not get a job are still doing the unwaged work of maintaining themselves for the next semester in case they do get hired. If we ignore the concerns of unwaged grads?the need for more flexible grant-based rather than loan-based financial aid?the university could merely replace union members with starving grads of which there are more than enough in some departments. In other words, we need to make the connection between the needs of employees and non-employees or else it could be used against us.

Last but not least we need to decide if we are simply trying to improve our standard of living, or trying to transform the university itself. The issues of wages and benefits do not exist in a vacuum but are organized by the priorities of the university. Academic programs resistant or not immediately related to commercialization often have lower salaries, fewer positions, and more women and minorities enrolled. Our wages and benefits cannot be separated from the entrepreneurial organization of UT. As a result, students and faculty in unprofitable academic programs as well as international students, women, gay, lesbian and bisexual, Latino, black, and many ethnic students and faculty are already at a disadvantage and hardest hit by cutbacks. We need to be able to relate our needs to the needs of many groups not because it is ?politically correct,? but because we need to develop alliances and friends who can work together to achieve our goals. The more friends we have the more likely we are to get what we desire.

Too often grad unions have limited themselves to issues of wages and have either failed because they could not organize support or gave up once they were tossed a few crumbs. Even if we won higher wages and waivers, certain commercially- oriented departments and colleges would still be paying their grads more. And even if we had higher wages, that would not help those minority grads who are denied TA positions by their departments and, for example, sent to the Center for Mexican American Studies, which is expected to shoulder supporting most of the Mexican-American graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts. It would also not change the situation of women who are being sexually harassed by students and faculty, or researchers whose ideas are turned into profitable new products by their advisors without the researchers? approval. We need to change the way the university is organized and whose needs it serves.

Needless to say, forming a union is not the only way to organize. Signing a membership card is not organizing around meaningful issues that concern us in our everyday lives. Unions are not a substitute for organizing. Signing a card will never get us what we want. The union cannot do anything for us?we have to do it ourselves. And, no matter what we do, it doesn?t really matter what we call ourselves.

However, this does not mean we cannot do both. While organizing ourselves for tuition/fee waivers, childcare, extended aid, higher pay, etc., we can also ask people to commit to taking action to realize these goals by formally joining an organization. We could form our own unaffiliated union first, and after taking whatever action necessary to win our needs, then carefully select a union to affiliate with, which was the strategy used by the Graduate Employees Organization at Michigan and UMass. They initially formed their own independent union, and then chose from among a number of unions including the Communication Workers of America (CWA). However, as an independent it will be difficult for us to afford the legal costs of gaining recognition.

Those involved in the recently begun effort to form a union have been discussing these issues. Although about 150 graduate students have become members of the CWA-affiliated Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), we should fully inform ourselves about the history of this union, its relationship with CWA, and the way it is organized and organizes before we commit ourselves to it. There is much more to organizing a union than just ?signing people up? as TSEU organizer Travis Donoho told students at a GPA meeting.

CWA is expanding beyond the communications industry as AT&T and the Bell companies increase automation, reducing the union?s membership and dues. The recent Austin CableVision strike in Austin was less about wages or working conditions than Time Warner?s (which owns Austin CableVision and other cable companies) retribution against CWA for supporting AT&T in its attempts to receive Congressional authority to expand into the information industry, in which Time Warner is active. Paradoxically, CWA is working with AT&T (which is attempting to undermine organized employees with automation) so that AT&T can get new business and hire more potential dues-paying union members.

Other graduate student unions carefully researched each union before affiliating. Although it is true that we could switch later, there is no need to decide so soon. We could sign up members for our own union while deciding with whom to affiliate. Making a well-informed decision could be an early boost to our efforts. Yale grads received $100,000 from its union to organize. The amount of support a union offers us can demonstrate whether they take us seriously in our desire to improve our lives or whether they want more dues-paying paper members.

Another option is to organize in whatever fashion is needed according to the particular conditions faced, and when those conditions change, organize another way to serve our changed needs. It is possible to strike or take disruptive action without having to go through the legal bureaucracy at all. If we are well-organized and have the power, UT will have no other choice but to give us what we want. This is true of whether we form a union or not. Unions are only one option of many, yet it is an option many grads have used with success. We do not have to form a union but we do need to organize.

Don?t Do Us Any Favors: Graduate Student Organizing in the 1960?s and 1970?s

In the 1960?s and early 1970?s, graduate students began to organize around these issues in the midst of widespread student activism around the Vietnam war, military research, racism, sexism, grades, the draft, and other issues of social justice. In 1965, the very first graduate student employee union was formed at the University of California-Berkeley and went on strike for a week in the midst of the Free Speech Movement. After affiliating with the American Federation of Teachers they fought off attempts by departments and the state legislature to fire and de-fund their jobs. Although the union eventually confined itself to issues of wages and benefits, and organized around department concerns, members were heavily involved with other social justice movements. The union was never formally recognized although it did sign an agreement with the university to negotiate over a number of issues.

Graduate students quickly began to organize on a number of other campuses in the 1960?s. A union at the City University of New York won the right to bargain collectively in 1968 and won a substantial pay raise. TA?s also formed union or union-like organizations in Illinois and at the University of Oklahoma, UCLA, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Stanford. The Graduate Federation at the University of Colorado won recognition soon after they threatened to strike in the spring of 1970. In the same year, staff and TA?s at San Francisco State College signed a collective bargaining agreement. They had formed the union, according to its president, because they were ?underpaid, undervalued, overused, abused, dirt cheap, shit work employee? (and) virtually a slave laborer in the campus.?

In 1968, Cornell TA?s and RA?s also organized separate ad hoc groups that threatened to strike when the university granted pay raises only to TA?s and not RA?s. RA?s had refused to pay their fees in protest, and attempted to form a union along with TA?s in 1969 at the same time black students had taken over the student union.

In 1970, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was formed by graduate students who had originally met in 1966 to oppose the university giving their class ranks to the Selective Service. TAA eventually struck for 25 days in spring 1970, and, even without support from other labor unions and a threat by the university to call in the National Guard, eventually won a number of benefits including a guaranteed period and level of support, health care, grievance procedure, and maximum class sizes, although they failed to win a say over the educational form and content of the courses they taught, which was a popular demand. Although these demands were won after the strike was called off, TAA won the support of many undergraduates. The strike took place about a year after black students had gone on strike as well.

TAA?s success at UW-Madison influenced about 50-60 other organizing efforts on campuses across the US. To name only two cases, Harvard students struck for a day to protest the planned elimination of the tuition rebate, and Adelphi grads petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for inclusion into the faculty union in 1972.

Although many of the strikes and organizing that took place during the 1960?s were focused around broader issues of social justice as well as austerity, during the 1970?s, graduate students began to organize in response to the disinvestment from higher education that was being deployed to restore control over the insurgent campuses. Then as today, grads organized to block tuition and fee increases, cutbacks, and wage cuts while demanding waivers and pay increases. Yet, TAA?s success provided a model for graduate students that flared into an organizing effort at the University of Michigan, continuing to this day.

Following a student strike against tuition increases and staff organizing in 1973, graduate students at Michigan responded to the policy of charging non-resident grad employees out-of-state tuition for the first time by forming a new organization called the Organization of Teaching Fellows (OTF). Although various departmental organizations had been formed in the past, OTF signaled a concerted effort to organize university-wide. Although the university eventually set aside $2 million of the tuition increase to cover the increase in grad tuition, OTF accepted the money but agreed with undergraduates that they were being pitted against each other by using undergraduate tuition increases to supplement grads.

In 1973, OTF became the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) and demanded recognition from the university. When this was refused, GEO eventually won a state-sanctioned election and struck for 29 days in 1975, even though it was illegal under state law for state employees to strike, as it is in Texas. The strike received support from hundreds of faculty and from many undergraduates who boycotted classes. When students began returning to class, picketers blocked the incinerator (causing a trash pileup) and trucks delivering supplies. GEO was eventually successful with its demands and won pay raises, tuition reductions, and other benefits. The union did not affiliate with a larger union until after it won the strike, and it still exists to this day.

At the same time grads were organizing at Michigan, students were doing the same at a number of other universities in Illinois, and at the University of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, SUNY-Buffalo and Stonybrook, and three Canadian universities, although SUNY-Buffalo and Cincinnati students did not affiliate with a larger union. University of Oregon-Eugene graduate students won their first collective bargaining agreement in 1978 with the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation as their union, and even had state law changed to reclassify graduate employees as public employees, giving them the legal right to have a union.

In Revolt Again: Graduate Organizing In the 1980?s and 1990?s

In the late 1980?s, graduate organizing began to pick up again. The strikes at Yale and UMass-Amherst last year were only the tip of the iceberg. In all, there are active graduate student unions on at least 16 major universities, including the University of South Florida, Cornell, Yale, the SUNY System, the University of Pittsburgh, Illinois-Champlain, Rutgers, Temple, and six University of California campuses. Graduate students have fought for and won collective bargaining rights at the University of Michigan, University of Oregon-Eugene, Rutgers, University of Florida- Gainesville, and the University of Wisconsin. Unions at the Universities of Minnesota and Pittsburgh lost certification elections, and SUNY students won approval last fall to hold elections. There is also organizing around the need for health care (such as the University of North Texas), childcare, and a number of other issues at many other universities.

These successes have come because of constant organizing and pressure by students at these and other schools. University of California grads at Berkeley, Irvine, Davis, Santa Cruz, San Diego and UCLA are working as part of District 65 of the United Auto Workers (which is composed of mainly ?service sector? workers) to win recognition from the state?s Public Employee Relations Board so that they can holds representation elections and begin bargaining. Michigan?s GEO has been fighting annually to improve their situation since it was formed.

Although UC-Berkeley grads top the UT administration?s list for having the best standard of living, it is obviously not what it seems because grads have been organizing there since 1987. In the spring of 1989, UC-Berkeley graduate students? District 65/UAW-affiliated Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE) struck for two days, shutting down 90 percent of the campus. The AGSE was formed in 1983 during campus-wide resistance to a fee increase that would have resulted in a salary cut of $50. Although the strikers demanded and won some of their demands for affirmative action in hiring graduate student employees, class size limits, tuition/fee waivers, and health care benefits, they were not as successful in circulating the struggle to other movements on campus against military research, multiculturalism, and the defense of People?s Park. However, the union is establishing contacts at UC-Santa Cruz and UC- San Diego with other graduate students.

The District 65/UAW-affiliated Graduate Employee Organization at UM- Amherst struck in Fall of 1991 for about a week, winning nearly all their demands for wage and benefit increases. In 1979, a group of graduate employees were denied a union election by the state after waiting two years for a decision. However, they did not give up trying to achieve voluntary recognition from the university, which finally came in 1990 after two short strikes and a threat to shut down the administration building.

The organizing really took off at UM-Amherst in November 1989 as students, graduate students, and faculty struck for a week to protest million in cuts over the previous 18 months, as well as several tuition and fee hikes (like a proposed 0 curriculum fee and the elimination of over 900 course sections). GEO held a two- day strike, many faculty canceled classes, and the faculty union, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, and the Leadership Coalition which represents all the employee unions and student and faculty bodies, endorsed the strike, although some ?minority? groups didn?t because they were not included in strike planning.

Yale has also become a significant center of conflict. In 1984, dining hall workers struck for 10 weeks. And in February 1992, 1300 of Yale?s 2,200 graduate students went on strike. The Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) had been organizing graduate students for union recognition for a little more than a year before receiving majority support, receiving ideas from other graduate student unions at Michigan, Wisconsin, UM-Amherst and UC-Berkeley. Graduate students had been organizing for a while, forming the Teaching Assistants Solidarity in 1987 to demand higher wages.

Organizing was spurred again in 1991 by an administration plan to reduce the number of TA?s by 20% and limit graduate students to six years of enrollment. Yale was attempting to implement cuts of five to ten percent ($10 million) that semester even though it had recently received $30 million endowments, including $10 million from the Henry Luce Foundation for an international research center, and has a $700 million yearly budget and $2.6 billion endowment (which increased from $676 million in 1980). Their salaries are also some of the lowest in the country. TA?s are paid $6,000 a year for 15-hour work weeks. TA?s elsewhere make $8,000 and up to $12,000 at UC-Berkeley.

The strike, in which 75% of the TA?s canceled or relocated their classes off-campus, received faculty and staff support. Faculty were circulating a letter of support, and the staff union, which had settled on a new contract with the university the morning the strike began, wildcatted with about 75% of the maintenance and cafeteria workers, and 30% of the clerical and technical workers striking to show support.

The Graduate Advocacy Organization at Cornell has been organizing since a 1987 strike by food and maintenance workers, and won 10% raises two straight years. The Graduate Student Employees Association at Temple struck in 1990, and University of Michigan graduates worked with the Teamsters in the late 1980?s by setting up picket lines that the delivery drivers refused to cross, essentially shutting down the campus. Other organizing is taking place at the University of Florida, and at the state university systems of New York and New Jersey.

Graduate Students Organizing at UT

Graduate students at UT have organized as employees at least as early as the mid-1970?s. Graduate students organized a strike as part of the Students Helping Academic Freedom at Texas (SHAFT), a huge student power movement that called for the resignation of interim UT President Lorraine Rogers, the expansion of minority support, the assumption of student and faculty control over UT, and the end of political attacks on faculty and student organizations. The Graduate Student Caucus organized an ?Evacuation Day? in October 1975 when TA?s and graduate students would hold their classes off campus, call in sick, or postpone their classes. About 250 participated, at a rate of 50% in some departments.

The Union of Graduate Student Workers (UGSW), which grew out of these efforts, was organized in 1976 with the following demands: 1) a fair TA workload with adequate compensation, 2) fair and equitable hiring practices, 3) clearly defined, systematic TA rights, 4) reasonable class sizes, 5) relief from forced participation in the Teacher Retirement System and waiving of tuition and building use fees for TA?s, and 6) a meaningful voice in educational planning, whereby opinions and involvement of TA?s are actively sought and respected. UGSW grew out of the Graduate Student Caucus of SHAFT by students wanting to form a union. Although the union only lasted about a year, they were successful in forcing UT to let TA?s out of Teacher Retirement, which charged about $20 a month.

1980, the organizing began to pay off. In the summer, students in the Economics Department studied the financial needs of TA?s, compared them with other departments and schools, and showed that their real wages had dropped 40% in five years. After they presented their findings to the department and the dean, they were given a raise. Economics TA?s then went to other departments telling graduate students how they did it. In the fall, about 100 TA?s joined the AFL-CIO-affiliated UT Employees Union (UTEU), but were kicked out when the union feared the growing size of TA?s among their membership. Although another union, the University Employees Union, formed in January and asked the TA?s to join, many were fed up with unions and did not.

February 1980, University of Houston (UH) TA?s went on strike after a 5.1% emergency pay increase from the legislature was denied to UH TA?s. They were demanding pay raises, tuition and fee waivers, administrative support for academic freedom, and health benefits. After three days, the TA?s went back to work after negotiations began.

TAs at UT who were involved in UTEU sent a telegram supporting their demands?especially the waivers and $850/month minimum salary. TA?s from both UT and UH formed the Houston-Austin Solidarity Coalition (HASC) and held solidarity demonstrations on February 18 on both campuses at the same time. Five hundred attended the UT rally and threatened to strike if they did not receive wage increases. When UH balked on the pay raise, the TA?s went back on strike in March.

In April, the UT HASC group issued a position paper demanding academic freedom, minimum monthly salaries of $850, full medical and dental benefits, tuition and fee waivers, no increase in workloads, and maintenance of class sizes. In June UT offered a 14% pay increase, but HASC refused and threatened to strike if their demands were not met. In July they got a 20% increase for TA?s and AI?s, and dental insurance in September. With hindsight, it is apparent why graduate students have yet to win waivers for tuition and fees. If the university were to concede to this demand it would be shutting off a significant source of unreserved capital it has long used for entrepreneurial projects.

In 1990, the Graduate Professional Association (GPA) won a the restoration of UT?s contribution to premium sharing for graduate student employees after 26 months of fighting and studying UT?s financial records. In 1988, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had declared health supplements illegal under a technical definition that required employees to be part of the Teachers Retirement system. In effect, the state attempted to turn graduate students? earlier victory (removal from Teachers? Retirement) against us to save a few million dollars a year.

Although the UT administration eventually pledged support for continued health coverage after much protest by COGS and GPA, they did little to lobby the legislature to fund it. The victory took marches on the capitol and Regents? offices, lobbying, power structure research, and two huge Main Mall rallies. About 70% of the members and the four officers of COGS formed the off-campus group GPA, and organized a huge ?teach-in? that attracted almost 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students for classes and office hours.

When graduate students discovered that only $1 million was necessary to cover the premium sharing that the coordinating board had eliminated funding for in 1988, the legislature approved the payments but didn?t fund it. After continued protests, UT would offer only $90 per graduate student, leaving a potential pay loss of when the total cost of insurance would increase to $155. Yet, during the quiet summer month of June 1990, the Regents caved in under pressure for the full $155. The information used against UT was found by filing Open Record Requests for the ?Monthly Reports? that list the activity and number of each of UT?s bank accounts. GPA found an account with the necessary amount of money and threatened to expose what it was used for, and even released the account number to the Daily Texan. The day the number was published, Vice President Ed Sharpe called GPA, conceding the supplements.

Following the failure of a coalition of 12 student and faculty groups to stop the graduate tuition increases in Fall 1991, last spring GPA and COGS turned their focus to working at departmental levels to promote the idea of waivers, wage increases, and other issues. However, for many years, organizing has taken place quietly on department levels as graduate students have formed their own groups to request more diverse faculty and classes as well as improved working conditions, and to deal with other issues specific to their departments.

A number of graduate students from COGS and GPA have currently established a graduate student caucus within the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU) which has about 200 campus members. One of their strategies is to draw the connection between the impact of entrepreneurialization on graduate students in the form of higher tuition and fees, and on custodians who have lost their jobs in the Recreation Sports Center and the PCL library. (The private contractor which was awarded the contract by UT offered to re-hire the workers on a part-time basis without health benefits and other benefits required for all full-time state employees.) As the university entrepreneurializes, staff and students are being targeted for cutbacks, a connection that offers the potential for linking up these different groups.

Time to Get Organized

No matter how we decide to do it, graduate students need to get organized at UT or continue to face running battles over tuition, health care, fees, etc. that we will not be likely to win very often. Whether we go the way of forming a union or another type of organization depends on more than a handful of people deciding for us.

Throughout the U.S., graduate students are working with undergraduates and faculty on a wide range of issues from multiculturalism to wage increases. Students are getting organized to put a stop to the austerity sweeping the universities while attempting to carve out spaces for themselves on their campuses. As long as the cutbacks continue we will be increasingly incapable of devoting ourselves to what we came to graduate school in the first place while faced with the constant worry of tuition and fee increases, rising childcare costs, racial and sexual harassment, and declining wages and financial aid. And as we organize ourselves, we shatter the myth that graduate students are ?professionals? who passively accept their own destitution.

Document last modified 2003-06-17 21:56