At NYU, the graduate assistants have gone on strike because the university has decided not to recognize their union any longer, or so says CNN's article, "Graduate Assistants on Strike at New York University."
Universities mostly don't like graduate students associating with unions; they argue that teaching assistantships are a kind of apprenticeship rather than a regular job, and that union membership and activities damage mentoring relationships. On the other hand, grad students pursue connections with unions in order to gain better pay, working conditions, and benefits. Grad students are very cheap teaching labor at a lot of PhD granting universities.
Their programs are, of course, supposed to prepare graduate students for both research and teaching, and TAing gives many students a lot of experience in classrooms. Unfortunately, for most students, this experience is completely unlike an apprenticeship, and includes little guidance, mentoring, or instruction in teaching.
Many programs accept more students than they can afford to really support. Too often, universities make it easy for graduate students to hang on, teaching and doing whatever grunt work they can get because the universities need cheap teachers. And, many graduate students spend a great deal of time teaching, and many years working on their degrees. It's a vicious circle. (And, the overproduction of PhDs contributes to the super competitive job market.)
The $50,000 "package" referred to in the article seems like a lot, doesn't it? Here's NYU's FAQ page about the issue (probably time sensitive). From the FAQ page, this looks like a move on NYU's part to deal with rising health insurance costs (covered by the previous contract); NYU also says that the UAW is inserting itself into academic affairs (including teaching assignments) and time to degree rules. The actual stipend for PhD students looks to be about $19,000. That's better than a kick in the pants, but probably doesn't go far in NYC, especially when you consider that people spend 5-8 years in PhD programs.
(That means that if all goes well, your average PhD goes into a first job at 28-30 with a fair bit of debt and no savings nor retirement savings. They're 5-8 years behind their peers in all sorts of ways. The FAQ doesn't say anything about retirement benefits, but I would expect they aren't included in any way.)
The UAW GSOC site (probably time sensitive) says that graduate student health benefits have already been cut.
I have to admire the graduate students who are willing to confront their university's administration and faculty by going on strike. Given the highly competitive job market for academics, they're taking a chance, potentially, if one of their letter writers doesn't like unionization, s/he can drop a subtle hint which may damage an applicant's chances for some jobs.
On a practical level, I avoided worrying too much about union issues when I was a grad student. I just wanted to finish my degree as quickly as possible, and my advisor and mentors completely encouraged that approach. In a way, of course, I was selfish and short-sighted.
Most graduate students are one serious injury or illness from disaster; reducing their health care benefits makes their economics even more tenuous.
There's no easy solution to these conflicts. No one's really getting rich in higher education (with the possible exception of a few football coaches and athletic directors. But that's fodder for another blog).
I'm so glad I'm not a graduate student any more!