Do graduate assistants at PSU need a union?

For some of us, this is the time of year when we get ready to graduate and enter the real world. For others, it’s a time to find that summer job or take a break from it all and veg out in our parents’ basements. Still others of us, that hearty band of truly full-time students, summer only means we’re signing on for yet another hitch in our academic careers, albeit in nicer weather than usual.

But for those of us who will be graduate and teaching assistants next year, this could be a very interesting summer. It seems that union organizers are cruising these hallowed halls, looking for ways to bring us into the fold.

They’ve been successful at organizing assistants into a union at a state college to the south of us recently, but according to rumor not much has come of it. Perhaps they’re just building up a head of steam down there, and we’ll see the results next year. But they’re going to have a tough time organizing grad assistants at PSU, because of the very nature of this school itself.

Ask any of your professors here and they’ll give you horrendous stories about their days toiling as grad assistants. They’ll tell you about hard work, low pay and long hours, sometimes doing research for which the professor they assisted took credit, sometimes jumping into teaching classes of 100 or more students without proper prep time or even a few hints about how to teach, sometimes running personal errands or even baby-sitting. That’s their story especially if they went to a big-name research university.

But PSU is unique in that it is primarily a teaching university. Many, if not most of the “bonehead” courses taught by grad students at other schools are taught by full professors, perhaps with a little help in grading and administrative details by assistants. This school appears to be committed to teaching the next generation of scholars by easing them into the idea, rather than shoving them off a cliff to see if they can fly. PSU even provides grad assistants with a special computer lab, and we (as do all grad students) get to keep library books for a longer time than undergraduates.

In addition, grad students here seem to be very grateful to receive the great tuition break and stipend, even though they must pay about $250 in fees on their own every term and have no choice, generally, of supervising professor. Judging from what my peers have told me, it appears that few are dissatisfied with their working conditions.

So the union organizers will have an uphill battle here, and will have to offer grad assistants something the school does not already do for us. This actually may get a little silly as they search for the perks we’d really like, but are too overwhelmed to ask for.

Some of us may ask for desks made after the Hoover administration, with drawers that actually open. That, of course, is if it’s no bother. Some of us, who do not get to use desks, may wish for a sort of confessional box set up somewhere, so students can come to us for absolution from their academic sins. Those of us who assist in research may want a hand truck for the professor’s preference in media, be it note cards or printouts, and those of us who find it difficult to live on the stipend may want food boxes or toilet paper delivered to our doors once a month.

Aside from those few possibilities, the union organizers may find it difficult to buck essentially free tuition and money to do what we love to do. Unless they come up with creative and singular ideas that will appeal to a community that essentially likes things the way they are, they will find little headway amongst the grateful grad assistants at PSU.