SAN FRANCISCO--Graduate student labor organizers at University of California (UC) campuses, still fired up from their brief labor strike in December, say a recent state board ruling leaves university administrators only two choices: recognize the grad student labor union or disobey the law. The administration argues that it still has other legal options and does not plan to give up the fight.

Grad students at 18 other universities already have labor unions. But the outcome at the 160,000-student UC system may have a big impact on similar battles being fought at several other universities across the country.

Last week, the California's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which interprets state collective bargaining laws, gave its last word on the UC dispute, affirming that grad student workers at UCLA can legally form a union. A PERB judge originally made the ruling in 1996; the board then voted down a university appeal last December and last week denied UC's motion to ask for a higher court review.

In light of the latest decision, grad student organizers say they may not need to resume the 6-day labor strike they held during last term's final exams. At the request of state legislators, the students recessed their strike for 45 days and met several times with university officials. And although halting the strike saved the academic term by allowing grad student workers to give final exams and grade papers, the negotiations made were mostly fruitless.

The new ruling also means that, in March, 1400 UCLA grad students will vote, in a PERB-approved election, whether or not to approve the Student Association of Graduate Employees (SAGE) as their union. SAGE representatives say they held their own election last year and that they'll easily win the required two-thirds majority approval.

After the elections, union organizers hope the administration will finally recognize SAGE as a collective bargaining agent. "Their only other option is to break the law. And I hope that's not how my tax dollars are going to be spent," says Mike Miller, spokesperson for SAGE/UAW. (All eight UC graduate student unions are affiliated with the United Auto Workers Union.)

At other UC campuses, organizers are hopeful that PERB will use UCLA's case as a precedent and schedule official elections for their unions. "Basically the jobs are the same at every campus," says Scott Prudham, spokesperson for the Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE)/UAW at UC Berkeley. Miller predicts that elections will be held at all eight campuses by the end of the academic year.

But the administration says the battle is not over yet. "We believe there are still options for judicial review," says Brad Hayward, spokesperson for UC's Office of the President in Oakland. Hayward would not discuss what these options were, but said university lawyers are talking with officials about the possibilities.

The university is resisting because, according to UC President Richard Atkinson's 5 February open letter to the university, teaching assistants (TAs) "are not employees as defined by [law]." (The university says it will grant collective bargaining to readers and tutors.) A 1992 California Appeals Court ruling supports the university's position that "collective bargaining for [TAs] would interfere with the goals of graduate education," Atkinson says.

TA work is part of a students education, Atkinson says. Collective bargaining "could interfere with the educational objectives of TA appointments, [and] disrupt the collegial relationships" between faculty and students, says Atkinson in another letter. UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale echoed these views in an editorial published Tuesday in the Daily Bruin campus newspaper. While TA policies now vary from one department to another, he said, "collective bargaining would produce rigid rules, universally applied."

The student organizers counter that collective bargaining would actually help student-faculty relationships by shifting any conflicts away from individual students and faculty and onto the bargaining table. The contentious relationships are "already there, or [students] wouldn't have chosen to unionize," says Ricardo Ochoa, president of AGSE/UAW at UC Berkeley. The organizers say collective bargaining would let them address issues such as a high student-to-TA ratio in many sections, as well as improvements in salary and health care benefits.

Organizers say that if the university still refuses to recognize the legally elected union, they will resume their strike.