By Kelly Heyboer/ The Star-Ledger, May 21, 2010
TRENTON — Frustrated by low pay and limited health benefits, graduate students and researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have petitioned the state to form their own labor union.
If the request is approved, the public university will have to negotiate a contract with the nearly 430 student teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers who will make up the new union on the Newark campus. The workers — who are paid an average of less than $18,000 a year — say they want higher salaries, better health care and improved working conditions for graduate students who teach classes and assist with research projects.
“I honestly think we can change the environment at NJIT,” said Ali Avni Cirik, 27, one of the doctoral students who helped organize the union movement on campus.
Union officials said the new unit — called the United Council of Academics at NJIT — would be the second of its kind in the state. Rutgers University teaching assistants and graduate students unionized in 1972, helping spark similar campus movements around the country as budget-conscious universities turned to inexpensive graduate student labor to teach more classes.
NJIT students said they were inspired to organize after seeing their counterparts on the neighboring Rutgers-Newark campus were earning better pay and benefits for the same teaching and research work.
“We said, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we form a union?” said Cirik, a native of Turkey working as a teaching assistant in NJIT’s information systems department.
The average salary for a Rutgers teaching assistant or graduate assistant is about $23,100 for a 10-month appointment or $26,350 for a 12-month appointment, union officials said. By comparison, the average NJIT teaching assistant earns less than $18,000 for a 10-month appointment. Most students teach or do research part-time while working on their own master’s or Ph.D. degrees.
NJIT students submitted their union petition to the state Public Employment Relations Commission in Trenton earlier this month. The paperwork includes cards signed by more than half the 430 workers who would be included in the new union, PERC officials said.
The commission will spend the next several weeks researching whether the students meet the requirements to unionize. The new unit would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, a union that represents professors and other workers at more than a dozen New Jersey colleges.
NJIT officials declined to comment on the students’ efforts to organize. If the union is approved, NJIT will have to open contract negotiations with the teaching assistants and researchers in the midst of statewide budget cuts.
Shilan Motamedvaziri, a graduate student from Iran, said she spent weeks telling fellow teaching assistants about the union and encouraging them to sign the cards for the petition. Though many of NJIT’s graduate students are from outside the U.S., and some were unfamiliar with the concept of an American union, they quickly embraced the idea.
Motamedvaziri said she earns about $18,000 a year working 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant in a chemical dynamics course. If the union is approved, she said, students will have to decide what issues to fight for in labor negotiations.
“The next step for us is to find out what the students mostly want,” said Motamedvaziri, 30, of Lyndhurst.