updated 4/18/2005 3:14:07 PM ET 2005-04-18T19:14:07

Graduate teaching assistants at Yale and Columbia universities kicked off a five-day strike Monday, an effort organizers hope will force Ivy League administrators to recognize them as a union.

It was the first multicampus strike for Ivy League graduate student teachers, who face an uphill battle to win recognition.

University administrators say the strikes should have minimal effect on classes. The number of strikers was not immediately available because graduate students teach classes at different times throughout the day.

The graduate students taking part have pledged not to teach classes, grade papers or host review sessions this week. Their demands include health care for family members and a grievance process that would allow student teachers to raise concerns with the universities.

“Quite a few classes have been either canceled or moved off campus,” said Dehlia Hannah, a philosophy graduate student at Columbia. Yale organizers did not advocate moving classes off campus as an option.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last year that teaching assistants are students, not workers, and cannot form unions. For the students to get union recognition, the universities would have to grant it voluntarily — something they have refused to do.

Pro-union groups say universities are increasingly relying on their services and should pay them accordingly. Administrators say teaching, research and grading are part of the educational experience for grad students.

While the arrangements vary, graduate students typically receive free tuition and a stipend, which amounts to $18,000 at Columbia and $17,000 to $25,000 at Yale. Many receive health benefits, but the union is seeking family health benefits as well.

“We’re in a fight against the Bush administration, who refuse to recognize graduate students as teachers,” Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, a Yale graduate, said at a morning rally with about 250 pickets and supporters.

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