Grad Students May Get to Unionize

Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D) proposed the legislation.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D) proposed the legislation. (Marvin Joseph - Post)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Montgomery County lawmaker will introduce legislation tomorrow to allow graduate students and adjunct professors at Maryland's public universities to form unions, setting up a legislative battle over an issue that has hit a nerve at campuses across the nation.

Graduate students at the University of Maryland's flagship campus in College Park, many of whom hold campus jobs teaching undergraduates or conducting research for faculty, have partnered with national labor unions and hired an Annapolis lobbyist in the campaign to unionize.

The legislation, proposed by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), would give graduate students collective bargaining rights to negotiate stipend pay, benefits and workloads with university administrators. Raskin said the students should be able to form a union, just like the university's clerical workers, mechanics, janitors and campus police.

"Graduate students are treated like the migrant laborers of higher education," said Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University.

"All the graduate students are asking for is a seat at the table," Raskin said. "No one is ever going to get rich being a graduate student, but there should be a decent level of support for graduate students and adjunct faculty."

Although Raskin has persuaded several colleagues to sign on to his legislation, the bill is likely to face opposition from the University of Maryland.

Administrators have not studied Raskin's bill, but university spokesman Millree Williams suggested that they might not support it.

"The University of Maryland-College Park is not opposed to unions," Williams said, reading from a prepared statement. "We have several on campus, and we work quite well with them. Our students, however, are students and not employees, and we don't view them as employees."

Williams said the university is "not in favor of changing that relationship or creating an employee-employer relationship."

Raskin said he hopes to persuade university administrators to support his unionization bill.

"I think universities at first are very nervous about it, but it has proven to be a very positive thing for the campuses," Raskin said. "In all of these places, the satisfaction of the graduate students goes way up."

The issue has been controversial at universities across the country, where graduate students have tried to form unions in recent years but have had limited success. They have bargaining rights at public universities in Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon and Wisconsin.

But long-fought battles for unionization have been underway at some private universities -- including Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, where graduate students have held strikes in recent years -- and student unions there still are not recognized.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 20,000 graduate students nationally, is lobbying Maryland lawmakers to pass Raskin's bill. Chuck Porcari, spokesman for the national teachers union, said allowing graduate students to unionize could help foster a more positive campus environment.

"We see it as a win-win-win for the students, for the institution and for the undergrads that are benefiting from their time and effort," Porcari said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has not taken a stand on Raskin's bill because he has not reviewed it in detail, spokeswoman Christine Hansen said.

"The governor hasn't seen the bill but has a record of supporting the freedom of all workers to have their voices heard," she said.

Supporters argue that by forming a union, graduate students could receive better benefits, which would help the university compete against other institutions in recruiting top-caliber students.

"If you look nationally, the best public research institutions all have collective bargaining rights for their graduate employees," said Devin Ellis, a master's candidate in public policy and chairman of the university system's student council, which supports Raskin's bill.

Laura Moore, president of the College Park campus's graduate student government, said U-Md. is "losing good prospective graduate students because they can't afford to live on what they're being offered."

Moore said most graduate students working as teaching or research assistants receive a stipend of about $14,000 but spend the vast majority of it on rent.

"The situation for graduate students here is very close to untenable," said Moore, a master's candidate in entomology who helped initiate Raskin's bill.

Porcari added, "If you have a graduate student who has to work a second job to make ends meet, then perhaps the university and the undergrads aren't getting everything out of them that they would otherwise."

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