[chang]Imagine trying to balance life on campus as a student and teaching assistant working between 10 and 30 hours a week and taking nine graduate credits at the same time. Imagine being part of a group of 1,100 graduate students who teach over one-third of all classes on campus and grade papers and exams for some of the largest class sizes of all public universities nationwide. Imagine being a member of the Graduate Employees Union (GEU), one of 10 labor unions on campus, claiming to suffer one of the worst teaching assistant situations in the Big Ten.
With their present four-year contract with the university ending at the end of spring semester, many wonder about the future of MSU grad students and the changes the GEU is advocating. According to their constitution, a teaching assistant (TA) is defined as “a graduate student whose assistantship appointment consists of teaching, classroom instruction, preparing handouts, monitoring examinations or performing other instructional activities.”
At first glance, the contract between GEU and its employer, MSU, seems rather generous on the part of the university. Both union and non-union members benefit from a tuition waiver for nine credits worth of classes; health coverage; ample illness leave and a tiered, annual stipend raise. The current situation, however, is anything but generous.
A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way to class as usual when suddenly I regretted cutting across a snow-covered field. It wasn’t the salt lines forming on the legs of my jeans that caused me to grimace. Rather, on the other side of the field was a group handing out those pedestrian-dreaded, slightly crumpled leaflets that end up littering a 50-yard radius surrounding protestors on campus. I tried to dodge the group by avoiding all eye contact, but was attacked by a neon-orange flier nonetheless.
I glanced at the half-sheet of paper while encircled by the chants of the group demanding quality education. Students, I thought. Who in their right mind would want harder classes and a heavier work load? But no, it wasn’t just students; it was the GEU protesting for higher wages under the guise of “Big Ten Comparison Day.” For a group that profits from such supposedly generous benefits, I wondered how it was possible that MSU has some of the lowest TA wages in the Big Ten.
According to the GEU, loopholes in the contract signed in May 2002, when the union was formed, legally strips TAs of their benefits and wages which monetarily amounts to no more than $35 million a year in a university budget in excess of a billion dollars. To put it simply, one-third of all classes on campus should not be taught by teaching assistants receiving 3.5% of the entire budget as compensation for promoting and pursuing higher education. And it’s not just TA salaries that need amending.
The University of Illinois, for example, provides both dental and vision coverage for all of its TAs, whereas MSU offers only health insurance that is insufficient to “cover” a single health issue that may arise. Going a step further, Western Michigan University offers its TAs the same benefits as its full-time professors. MSU doesn’t provide same-sex marriage benefits, works half-time TAs over 50-60 hours a week and provides some of the lowest pay raises in the nation.
Currently, the largest on-going battle between the GEU and MSU concerns parking. TAs are not allowed to park above the river on the north side of campus, which goes against any and all common sense. More than half the classrooms and offices on campus are in this area. Prohibiting parking north of the river puts TAs at a disadvantage to the students they teach every day.
[la2] L.A., if you meant what you said in the MSU “At the Millennium” report – “Graduate students at Michigan State University make a major contribution in the classroom…they are a key component in our rich scholarship and part of what makes us a world-class university” – then clearly it should be a goal to please both the TAs and their respective colleges. Without coming to some kind of agreement for all the many grievances the GEU has, MSU’s so-called “rich scholarship” will disappear along with hundreds of TAs who would much rather work at another, more generous university.
Without grad students, the university would be in a frenzy to get exams corrected, papers graded or even to hold classes. No research professor would be willing to sit around all day reading mundane papers about the composition of electro-magna-something-or-other when he or she could be splitting atoms in the lab. And few tenured faculty members are jumping at the opportunity to teach IAH 201.
As a university, let us refocus on what is really important: let us negotiate reasonably with the GEU, keeping the backbone of our university here and eager to enlighten our minds. Moreover, during this period of negotiation for a new contract, there are further amendments to be made than to just the contract itself. The lack of respect MSU has for its TAs is what really needs some amending.
Seeking A. Mendments

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