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The False Hope Of Graduate Student Unions

by Omri Ben-Shahar of Forbes on January 18, 1970

The False Hope Of Graduate Student Unions Henry Kissinger once said “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” The recent struggle of graduate students to form unions in the nation’s top private universities is a new confirmation of that old wisdom.

Graduate students aspire a better bargain. In return for work they do for their universities, they want to be paid more. The fight has become so bitter that some Yale students, protesting the injustice, recently went on hunger strike. What used to be a sluggish movement to unionize graduate students received a surprising shot in the arm from a ruling last summer by the National Labor Relations Board. The Board decided that Columbia University’s graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants (“TAs” or “RAs”) are employees. Legally, the Board said, an “employee” is anyone who receives payment for doing work, and performs tasks controlled by the employer. Since students are told by professors what to do, and since they are paid for these services, they are employees.
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They are therefore entitled under federal labor laws to unionize and to bargain collectively for better pay. This groundbreaking decision led to a surge of unionizing drives in many elite campuses. Graduate students have been invited by union organizers to vote whether they want to be represented by unions, and despite efforts by university administrations to dissuade them, they have largely supported the drives. It is easy to see why so many graduate students feel that a union would help them.
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Many are struggling to make ends meet. They are at the bottom of the university academic food chain, doing labor-intensive work over long hours and getting paid very little (if at all) for the high-quality class instruction or lab work they do. They feel exploited. Are universities shortchanging their graduate students?
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It is a mistake to look only at the “wages” students receive in performing TA and RA tasks.
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Let’s first understand what the bargain with the graduate students is not. It is not — come to college and get paid for teaching and research. Rather, it is come to college to get trained and build your human capital. Working as TAs or RAs is a fairly small, but sometime critical, component in the overall training.
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Graduate students working towards academic PhD degrees are like people enrolled in professional schools, learning to be pilots or cooks or barbers, and in the course of their training they practice supervised flying, frying, or hairdrying. PhD students are likely to end up in high-skill jobs building on the expertise they learned, and many of these jobs will require teaching and research.
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They are now getting the benefit of a university apprenticeship. This bargain — come to the university to be trained — is not as stingy as may first appear from looking at what TAs and RAs are paid.
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Many graduate students are receiving generous stipends in the programs that dwarf any additional per-task compensation. The University of Chicago, where I teach, which is currently fighting in courts to stop the unionization of its graduate student body, is estimating that the typical PhD student receives a stipend worth close to $500,000! Most of Chicago’s PhD students pay no tuition for five or six years, a benefit worth nominally $235,000. (True, it is not money paid to students’ pockets; but it is nevertheless money they would have otherwise had to pay, and it reflects the school’s cost to train them.) In addition, students receive stipends for living expenses that vary from $25,000 to $40,000 and health insurance worth $3600 each year. Whatever else they are paid for class instruction or lab work must be evaluated in the context of this overall support, and of the value of the degrees and training they receive for their future earnings. But suppose you continue to think that, no matter how generous the overall package, TAs and RAs ought to be paid more.
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Would unions help? In reality, no collective bargain has yet been struck with any of the budding graduate student unions, so we can only speculate. My guess is that unions would not improve the material lives of its members. Here is why. First, the wack-a-mole problem: one benefit pops in, another pops out. If universities have to pay students more per task, they would offset this cost by paying smaller stipends for living expenses.
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Or, to stay within budget, universities might offer graduate students fewer teaching tasks, which would hurt primarily weaker students and those who take longer to complete their studies. Second, and more disturbing, collective bargaining could begin to undermine some of the core missions of PhD programs. One mission is access. If unions do manage to increase overall benefits, universities might admit fewer students. Another core mission is personalized instruction, tailored to each candidate’s needs. Unions would pressure universities to treat all graduate students alike. But a PhD candidate working in a lab is not like a history student working in the archive. They need different resources, supervision, and teaching practice. Even within an academic department, students require personalized treatment based on merit or individual circumstances. Collective bargaining would pressure for one-size-fits-all standards of supervision, and the quality of training would diminish. In truth, graduate students may have many legitimate grievances. Some are getting poor instruction, others are unnecessarily dragged on for years, and there are cases (hopefully rare) of discrimination, harassment, and even plagiarism by advisors. Complaining to their departments is often futile and likely to backfire. Perhaps naively, students believe that unions would bargain for grievance procedures that would give voice and redress to those who are wronged. Ultimately, if universities end up winning their legal fight to dismantle student unions, they would be wise to address the sources of the current protest.
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Superfluous notions of “academic freedom” have made it difficult to reign in faculty who provide lazy or disrespectful instruction. Universities should bolster the authority of ombudsmen and watchdogs, bestowing them with real power to protect ill-treated students.
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