Unionising Graduate Students

March 2, 2016

Erik Loomis at LGM has an awesome series called “This Day In Labor History”. For Feb 17th, he wrote about the Yale graduate student strike of 1992. It’s definitely worth reading (and please check out this amazing comment).

Of course, an interesting feature of graduate student organisation is opposition by academic staff:

Graduate student unionization has long been controversial on college campuses. Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices? The answer should be obvious that all graduate students getting paid for work are workers, but you would be surprised how many liberal faculty members simply cannot accept this idea.

Cf the NYU graduate student dispute where Bohgossian and Velleman cover themselves with shame. Here’s a good summary about the (very bad) position and a rebuttal:

The second line of NYU administration defense (or, as Velleman seems to suggest below, a different way of making out the first line of defense) is that grad student unionization institutionalizes a relationship that shouldn’t be institutionalized.  As Boghossian says: “Our basic impulse is not to want to lock into place a relationship to our graduate students, whom we treat as developing colleagues, that considers them to be laborers, and we don’t want to institutionalize that relationship”.

A difficulty with Boghossian’s presentation here was pointed out by Manuel Cabrera in the comment thread on Jason’s post:

Assume that it’s true that unionization will alter the relationship between the TAs and those who employ them. Assume that the relationship changes in the following way: tension increases between TAs and their employers. The thing is: the TAs aren’t employed by the professors in their departments, but by the university. Their professors are fellow employees, not their employers. The TAs aren’t appealing to their advisors and mentors to unionize, they’re appealing to the entity that employs both groups: the university. The mentor-mentee relationship between professors and students that is, indeed, so important to graduate education need not shift fundamentally even if the employer-employee relationship does, for they are two different relationships between two different pairs of groups.


and in a later comment, Velleman says:

The dispute over whether graduate assistants are “employees” is not about whether they are performing services for compensation. Of course they are […] The question is whether their relations with the university are best regulated by categories and procedures that are appropriate to relations between labor and management in, say, the auto industry. I have already given clear illustration of this question in my previous comment, showing how the concept of seniority can be disruptive to academic decisionmaking.

When a graduate student is not given a teaching assignment for the coming semester — say, because of failing to make adequate progress toward his or her degree — is that best conceived as a “layoff”? Is the student’s return to the classroom best regulated by the sort of rules governing the return of laid-off auto workers to the assembly line? Should the student’s appeal of the decision be referred to a labor mediator? The answers to these questions are clearly and unambiguously no. That’s the sense in which graduate student instructors are not “employees”.

These are the questions that arise about the graduate students’ relations with their departments.

The Academic’s Obligation to Support Graduate Student Unionisation

I believe academics — especially if they supervise graduate students — have a strong obligation to support graduate student unionisation. I don’t think this is a hard question! Indeed, it think it’s strongly overdetermined on various moral, prudential, and pedagogic grounds. (These intertwine, obviously.) Some considerations:

  1. Graduate students have common interests, have little power in their work life (either formal or informal), and are formally and informally compensated by their university for a wide range of work.
  2. Existing grievance procedures are often (nearly always?!) developed and administrated without graduate student substantive input. Furthermore, the arbitrator of any grievance is exactly the organisation that bears ultimate responsibility for a grievance.
  3. We are supposed to be training graduate students for their future career. It is commonly understood that such training includes professional development (e.g., how to negotiate a job offer,  how to interview and mock interviews, how to write grants, etc.).

1 and 2 strongly point to the need and justification for graduate students banding together to negotiate with and counterbalance the university. Graduate students form a distinct group with many common interests. They should be allowed, indeed, encouraged to work together to articulate and defend those interests. Any argument against this has to show why graduate students (who are extremely vulnerable) do not deserve the basic move to collective bargaining. We encourage graduate students to support each other in all sorts of other ways (e.g., mentoring). It requires a strong argument that one which gives them actual power is counterproductive for them.

3 is a clincher if you think that academics need unions. (I’m happy to substitute “professional organisations” in there for union, but I’m strongly pro-union.) If you aren’t prepared to make an argument against unions altogether, you are stuck I think. Even if you think 1 and 2 are overridden by…something…the point is that we want to train grad students to be good members of our profession. And that means giving them the opportunity to work with a union.

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