July 16, 2004

Grad students of the world, unite?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 16, 2004 6:57 PM

A setback for unionization of graduate student labor:

Board Overturns TAs Union Membership
Graduate teaching assistants at private universities can't form unions because they are students, not employees, a Republican-controlled federal labor board ruled, reversing a Clinton-era decision.

The National Labor Relations Board, led by three Republicans appointed by President Bush, ruled that about 450 graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University in Providence, R.I., could not be represented by the United Auto Workers.


"Because they are first and foremost students, and their status as a graduate student assistant is contingent on their continued enrollment as students, we find that they are primarily students," the ruling said.

Let me first say that I don't understand the reasoning. "Primarily" a student is not the same as only a student, and it doesn't make sense to me that a TA's status as a student overrides his status as an employee. Furthermore, a graduate student's TA position is (typically, in the sciences) his primary source of income, and so issues like wages, working conditions, and benefits matter just as much to him as they do to (for example) a factory worker. In some cases the entanglement between a grad student's academic status and his employment gives the university additional power to institute exploitative conditions, such as pressuring the student to work 60 hours a week while only paying him for 20. The power of the university over the student's academic advancement gives it additional leverage to do this sort of thing, and allowing the students to organize would help prevent this.

Can one of the legal types in the audience explain why the federal government is allowed to prohibit unionization at all? Doesn't the right to free assembly apply? Or is it that technically speaking, the ruling is that private universities are allowed to prohibit unionization (and this is why it doesn't apply to public universities)?

Because the ruling only covers private schools, it doesn't directly affect me, and in any case graduate student researchers aren't unionized at Berkeley (graduate student instructors are, under the UAW). It's unsurprising to me that research students aren't organized; there's no shortage of people who are willing to work 20 or 40 unpaid hours for a prestigious professor in order to get his name on their theses, and so those of us who feel that the compensation is a bit unfair could easily be replaced if we tried to take a stand. This kind of prisoner's dilemma creates a barrier to organizing. (But isn't that the case for all unions? I guess that's why there are labor laws... that unfortunately don't apply to graduate students.)

Arguably having this sort of free labor market is a good thing under capitalistic principles (interesting in the otherwise socialist world of government-funded research), and certainly if grad student researchers were to unionize and demand overtime pay, science productivity would sharply decline. I suppose this concern must be balanced against the fact that many talented people leave academia for vocations that have better working conditions, better compensation, or both (viz. the finance industry).


When I was at Cornell, some people were following the lead of Brown and (I believe) Columbia in attempting to unionize. Now, I was about to leave in a few months and I was concerned with graduating at that time, so I was only there for a very preliminary meeting the attempted organizers had with the students in my program.

The thing I found is that these organizers were _really_ aggressive and turned off a lot of people who might have joined in because of this. For example, the were giving the wavering people a 'for us or against us' propaganda and were not willing to listen to intelligent arguments from the other side. It was like join us or we'll run you over. I have heard rumors (I can't substantiate them and haven't bothered to try) that it's played out this way at other private universities as well, so it's _possible_ that this could be turned off students whose primary goal in grad school is to learn. (This does not take away from your very valid point about the finances. It's just a statement of the main goals for that period of life.) It was like, 'I don't even want to hear about your concerns about whether your advisor might take this out on you academically. You're either with us or against us.' If this indeed occurred with various attempts at other places, then there wouldn't be enough of an impetus to overcome the very natural fears of what will happen academically if one fights the power this way.

I don't remember if the Cornell movement was successful, but I do know that it had a lot of opposition among students and that the leaders behind it were showing off quite a bit of such 'tude.

Posted by: Mason Porter | July 23, 2004 6:09 PM
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