Plight of graduate students: Labor Day edition

In 1894, Congress passed legislation making the first Monday in September a holiday celebrating the social and economic achievements of the American workforce. Each Labor Day, I celebrate by describing an aspect of academic work in American higher education. Previously, I’ve examined adjunct professors and tenure. In this year’s edition, I consider the plight of graduate students. The National Labor Relations Board has declared that graduate students are employees with a right to unionize. This post will describe the plight of graduate students by considering the implications of the 3-1 NLRB ruling in the case from Columbia University which gives graduate students employment rights.

Photo credit: GWC-UAW

The National Labor Relations Board ruled 3-2 in 2004 that research and teaching assistants at Brown University did not have the right to unionize. The board ruled that graduate students were primarily students and not workers. As a result, graduate students did not have the right the negotiate conditions of employment, wages, and benefits.

The Columbia ruling overturns the Brown precedent.

At the heart of the Columbia decision, the NLRB stated that graduate students were employees if they performed and were compensated for work even if they have other relationships with the university.

Many leading universities from MIT to Stanford to all of the members of the Ivy League opposed giving employment rights to graduate students.

The ruling applies to private universities as public institutions are governed by state law. Several public university graduate students have organized under permission from state legislation.

In fact, the NLRB considered the public sector experience (which hasn’t been catastrophic despite private higher education’s claims) as a factor in favor of allowing unionization.

The argument against allowing graduate students to organize rests largely on the fact that universities believe the academic relationship between graduate students and faculty trumps any employment relationship that may exist.

Teaching and research assistantships, the universities argue, is about the academic experience not employment for the universities.

Of course, the fact that graduate students provide tremendous service in teaching and research at low levels of compensation never factors into the calculus for the universities.

Where do we go from here?

First, graduate students should not have to live in poverty while they go to school.  Graduate students can’t simply serve as cheap labor for the university.

Second, graduate students must still be subject to the academic oversight of faculty for their studies.

As graduate students unionize, universities and students will need to draw clear lines between graduate student employment and graduate student academic issues.

The experience of public universities suggest this can be done.

My concern with the unionization conversation

Nearly all of the media coverage of the NLRB ruling included quotes from graduate leaders talking about the corporatization of the university, the poor academic labor market, and including graduate students at the decision making table.

I am as concerned as anyone about the privatization and corporatization of higher education. I teach courses on these issues and have researched the implications of these trends for higher education.

However, I worry with how leaders are conflating the working conditions for graduate students with these broader issues.

For example, universities can’t take responsibility for the future employment of their graduate students. They must be honest in sharing job prospects and should prepare students for multiple post-graduation career options. However, universities have little control over a student’s success in seeking academic employment. And whatever control they do have is part of the education that student receives, not the business of running a university.

Moreover, whether an individual student finds value in their graduate experience isn’t the responsibility of the university as an employer.

I believe the university has the responsibility to be a good employer providing reasonable wages, benefits, and work conditions for graduate students as employees. Yet, many of the complaints from union organizers seem to focus not on employment aspects, but academic ones (i.e. value of the degree).

This is an area where graduate student advocates go too far. No doubt, there is work to be done on improving the academic success of graduate students, but this is an academic discussion not an employment one.

Clearly, there is a fine line here as nearly everyone appreciates.

But, I worry when I hear graduate student organizers talking about tuition revenue from master’s programs. Yes, master’s programs are incredibly lucrative for universities. Yes, graduate students may feel like they are being charged too much.

No, that doesn’t mean the union should be able to negotiate a piece of the pie for graduate students.

Graduate students have a right to fair compensation, but not free tuition. Tuition is part of the academic relationship. Universities may decide to forgo tuition as part of compensation, but they still have the right to charge a student to enroll in classes.

Union organizers are promising too much suggesting to potential members that they can solve all of the burdens of graduate school.

Universities have gone too far relying on the cheap labor from graduate students, but union leaders should not make the same overreach.

Ultimately, this will harm their union efforts and higher education.

What will happen next?

I don’t believe we’re going to see a massive rush toward unionization drives in private universities across the country.

In fact, in the short term, I think the most likely consequence will be improved conditions for graduate students.

Universities— in an attempt to undercut any unionize efforts—will increase wages, benefits, and generally improve the working conditions for graduate students.

As someone who works extensively with graduate students, I want to see universities do better for their graduate student employees.  I want better wages, healthcare benefits, childcare benefits, and better working conditions generally.

I have tried to work with my students over the years to ease the burden of graduate student employment, but this should be tackled across the institution.

I’m hopeful we will see better conditions for graduate students and I believe this is worth the small financial cost.

However, I also hope graduate students and their union leaders will realize that unionization will not solve the academic problems with graduate school.

These problems are real and should be addressed, but in an academic not employment context.

There is a fine, but important line to be maintained to improve the plight of graduate students.