Graduate assistants at the University of Michigan went on strike March 11 to protest a lack of progress in contract talks, and University of Illinois graduate employees plan to strike next month – their second walkout this school year.

Columbia University teaching assistants vote this week on whether to join the United Auto Workers (UAW). Resident assistants at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have already agreed to unionize.

Last week’s vote at UMass was believed to be first time an undergraduate group has formed a collective bargaining unit. The resident assistants act as supervisors and advisers in the dormitories and want a raise in their annual $5,000 compensation package.

“We’ve never seen the rush to organize like we’ve seen in the last five years,” said Jamie Horwitz of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 125,000 college faculty and staff.

“A lot of that has to do with full-time faculty seeing threats from the increasing use of part-time faculty, and part-time faculty saying ‘I can’t live on this wage,’ or ‘I want more job security,’” he said.

At Ann Arbor, Mich., representatives of the University of Michigan and the Graduate Employees Organization, which represents 1,600 graduate student instructors, had been unable to agree on issues including child care and wages, the union said.

The union wants raises of 4.5 percent for the first year and 5 percent for each of the next two years, union spokeswoman Nicole Lucier told the Detroit Free Press. The median salary is about $12,800. The school offered 2.5 percent and 2 percent, said spokeswoman Julie Peterson.

More graduate teaching and research assistants are also seeking labor’s clout. Lately, the movement has spread to private universities, where for two decades graduate students were barred from organizing as the National Labor Relations Board interpreted federal law.

The board had agreed with schools that teaching is training, not employment – but changed its position in 2000, when it gave some New York University graduate employees the right to organize.

This new interpretation is being challenged by administrators at other schools with union activity, including Columbia, where teaching and research assistants will hold a vote on unionization starting March 13.

Public institutions are covered by state labor laws, and some allow graduate employee unions. But Illinois is not among them.

“What we’re needed for is a cheap labor source,” said Jon Coit, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois. For six semesters, Coit taught undergraduates. In return, his tuition and some fees were waived and he was paid about $12,000 a year.

The university maintains that graduate students are students first, with no right in Illinois to bargain collectively. In protest, graduate employees walked out for two days in November and up to 240 classes were canceled. Another strike is planned for April.

Coit said more is at stake than money. He believes a union could give him more say about his work load. In the past, he’s seen lecture sizes increased while students’ contact with teaching assistants was reduced.

“Decisions that get made are really hostile to students’ learning,” Coit said. “They affect our lives as graduate students, and affect [undergraduate] students’ ability to learn.”