Believe it or not, grad assistants are threatening to strike

November 20, 2012

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Victor Skinner Victor Skinner

Victor is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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By Steve Gunn
EAGnews.org

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – This is getting ridiculous.

First came the Chicago Teachers Union strike, followed by at least a half dozen strikes, or threatened strikes, by teachers unions in smaller Illinois K-12 school districts.

Now the fever has spread to the collegiate level.

Last week graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike because they have been working without a union contact since Aug. 16.

They are “asking for a minimum stipend equivalent to a living wage, wage increases for (members) earning more than that minimum stipend, better coverage of health care fees, and the protection of tuition waivers from reduction or elimination,” according to a report from the World Socialist Web Site.

The graduate assistants are an integral part of the university system because they teach more than 36 percent of freshman courses and more than 20 percent of all courses, the news report said.

There’s the problem.

Full-time, fully credentialed university professors make a great deal of money. Why aren’t they teaching their own classes, instead of passing their work on to student assistants?

It’s hard to believe that universities charge what they do for tuition these days when so many classes are taught by students who aren’t much older, or academically advanced, that the undergraduates in their charge.

Graduate assistants are exactly what their title implies – student assistants hired on a temporary, rotating basis to assist professors and gain teaching experience. They are essentially interns.

The position of graduate assistant was not created to be a career, and compensation for the job was never meant to approximate a “living wage.” The assistants are still students themselves, working while completing their advanced degrees.

They should not be unionized, and taxpayers should not be expected to pay them in the same manner as permanent university employees.

That would be like student teachers, working a semester or two in public schools to gain practical experience, forming a union and demanding a living wage. These are young people en route to a permanent career. They haven’t arrived yet, and they have no grounds to demand the type of treatment provided to full-time, or even part-time, permanent employees.

In the meantime universities should stop using these young people to cover for full-time staff in the classroom, at least to such a large degree. The professors should get off their tenured butts and do their own work for a change.

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