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Support Grows For UC Graduate Students’ Struggle


LOS ANGELES-A growing crowd of people toting bold protest signs and proudly chanting slogans over the rushing traffic blots out the overcast skies above Westwood Blvd. The day is Dec. 4, 1998, the fourth day of the ongoing SAGE/UAW strike on the UCLA campus.

The strike took place on all eight University of California campuses, as teaching assistants demanded the recognition of their union representative, SAGE (Student Association of Graduate Employees).

The strike followed years of unsuccessful efforts by the graduate students to gain the right of collective bargaining.

SAGE was striking with the help of the UAW (United Auto Workers), who offered to help provide strike benefits for the participating TAs. Organizations such as the National Association of Graduate Professional Students also expressed their support of the SAGE strike.

While the strike evoked much support from UCLA undergraduates, many became concerned as to whether their grades would be available on schedule and how final exams would be conducted.

The main back-up plan of the administration appeared to be that of giving multiple-choice exams to alleviate the hefty workload left to professors and the remaining TAs. Rumors of hiring replacement workers also circulated, but the university failed to confirm this as a possible solution.

Many undergraduates agree that they view their TAs as workers and that they believe the TAs deserve to be recognized.

“I definitely support their cause,” states Sammy Duong, a first-year geography major whose TAs participated in the strike. “They are here for graduate study but they work just as hard as the professors.”

In the past, the university has failed to acknowledge that teaching assistants are employees who are eligible for bargaining rights, as regular workers would be.

The ability of SAGE to exist as a recognized union is viewed by the UC system as unnecessary to the academic experience of a graduate student. According to the university administration, TAs are more readily classified as apprentices than as legal employees-and thus the need for collective bargaining rights is superfluous.

A significant factor that aids the SAGE cause is a ruling of the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB). The ruling states that TAs are employees of the university and entitled to bargaining rights.

The PERB decision came after the strike hit a 45-day “cooling-off period” on Dec. 6, during which the university and SAGE will negotiate. What will happen if SAGE’s demands are not met is uncertain, but the possibility of a second round of striking is likely.

The outcome of the negotiations will be cited as a model for similar conflicts in colleges and universities all across the country for years to come. Support continues to thrive for SAGE, and a decision to recognize the bargaining rights of the UC graduate employees is impatiently awaited by the enormous academic community that lies at the core of this struggle.

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