Eugene V. Debts
December 7, 2014 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Columbia University may become the second private university in the country with unionized graduate students.

This Friday, dozens of students plan to enter the university’s administrative offices and deliver a letter to the university president, Lee Bollinger, seeking support for a union of student workers that would be affiliated with the United Automobile Workers.

In December of 2013, graduate students at NYU successfully voted to become unionized.

Christy Thornton has called these efforts 'an important victory over the corporatization of the university'.
posted by MisantropicPainforest (49 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
My knowledge of unions is vague, but why join the UAW in particular?
posted by efalk at 8:58 AM on December 7, 2014


Even with (A union for auto workers might seem like an odd choice for grad students, but it represents thousands of higher-education workers at institutions including the University of California system and Columbia itself.) , It still seems odd to have the UAW. Why not form a new union?
posted by efalk at 9:01 AM on December 7, 2014


The UAW actually represents more graduate students (technically "academic student employees") than any other union. To a certain extent, grad students try to unionise with whomever is willing to give it a shot (we had a failed attempt with the UAW while I was in grad school and had previously failed with IBEW and I think someone else before that), though the UAW has the advantage of having more experience.

(I have been told the largest UAW bargaining unit west of the Mississippi are UC grad students (because they're a single bargaining unit), but I don't know for sure this is true.)
posted by hoyland at 9:05 AM on December 7, 2014


To address the "Why not form a new union?" question directly, it's that grad students don't have the knowledge or resources to do so. You lean on the UAW (or whoever) to bankroll the organising--you need things like phone banks and flyers and so on.
posted by hoyland at 9:06 AM on December 7, 2014 [10 favorites]


Does the transitory status of grad students also have something to do with it? For most labor unions, the membership is going to make a career of it, while grad students expect to "age out" of being in the union.
posted by Etrigan at 9:11 AM on December 7, 2014


Does the transitory status of grad students also have something to do with it? For most labor unions, the membership is going to make a career of it, while grad students expect to "age out" of being in the union.

Yeah, to form an independent union, you need a large stable membership base that doesn't turn over constantly.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:15 AM on December 7, 2014


To address the "Why not form a new union?" question directly, it's that grad students don't have the knowledge or resources to do so.

Ironically, unions and union activity are heavily regulated by the federal government. There are a diverse set of legal requirements to both form a union and negotiate a contract, and general conduct that require experienced legal advice.

These are actually reasons why a union isn't necessarily what grad. students might actually want. They will find that the their freedom of action is severely constrained once their organizing has to follow federal law and exposes the union to legal liabilities.

I don't think most people understand just how constrained (in the US) unions are by fairly heavy basically anti-union federal law.

Does the transitory status of grad students also have something to do with it?

No, it's all about the lawyers. However, the transitory status of grad. students and the in built resistance of, ultimately, future professionals to being unionized means that the most solidarity the union will *ever* have is right before the union is formed (if they are successful). Without solidarity, a union is a drag on activity rather than a force multiplier.

As I've said in the previous grad. student union thread, grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers. "Adjunct Professors" are a cheaper way to teach classes. The biggest issues for graduate students relate to the way academia is structured, as an industry, and specific culture of power-relations with faculty. These are issues which, I think, are *harder* to address through a union than outside of it because the issues that unions are allowed to negotiate are strictly limited and the "actions" unions are allowed to take are heavily restricted.

Just to give an example: at my state university, grad. students (represented by a union) were classified as state employees who were forbidden to strike, at all, ever.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:29 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers.

This ignores both the returns the school gets from training and producing scholars and the returns the department itself gets from the research done by the grad students, neither of which is something that adjuncts generate.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:33 AM on December 7, 2014 [17 favorites]


I hope it works for them. I posted about it in another comment a day or so ago, but there was a unionization attempt while I was in grad school and the university's response was absolutely shameful, based on untruths that played in part on the (very reasonable) worries of international students about visas and jobs.

once their organizing has to follow federal law

I would have happily had my largely theoretical ability to organize constrained in exchange for a realistic way to hold the university responsible for its obligations to follow existing federal law. At least when I was a grad student the unionization was not so much about raising stipends (although unsurprisingly stipends rose slightly coincidentally with the university's anti-unionization efforts) as it was to have better protections against the various abuses to which grad students are so vulnerable.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:34 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers.

By which you mean, more than they are worth strictly as teachers, as their work is not limited to teaching.
posted by jeather at 9:35 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


At least when I was a grad student the unionization was not so much about raising stipends (although unsurprisingly stipends rose slightly coincidentally with the university's anti-unionization efforts) as it was to have better protections against the various abuses to which grad students are so vulnerable.

Unless those abuses are related to grad student teaching they are outside the purview of a the union. Unions have nothing to say about the education side of graduate studies (and nor should they).
posted by srboisvert at 9:38 AM on December 7, 2014


My knowledge of unions is vague, but why join the UAW in particular?

I work in a used bookstore and our union is the UAW. They're aggressively expanding into other industries.
posted by jonmc at 9:43 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Many grad students are also research assistants or do various types of administrative work.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:45 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I love my grad student union.

Unless those abuses are related to grad student teaching they are outside the purview of a the union. Unions have nothing to say about the education side of graduate studies (and nor should they).

Yes, they are related.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:50 AM on December 7, 2014


Also, at the school in question, most grad students don't teach classes like adjuncts do, they TA or RA.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:50 AM on December 7, 2014


why join the UAW in particular?

Because the UAW heavily leaned upon graduate students and postdocs at the UCs to force them to pay dues 'help them'. I was there. I know.

I physically winced when the UAW 'won' the same yearly raise we had always been getting. Not accounting for the several hundred dollars in dues, of course.

To me, from this experience, the UAW is just another big Corp in it for their own wallet and power to acquire said wallet.
posted by Dashy at 9:51 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Unless those abuses are related to grad student teaching they are outside the purview of a the union. Unions have nothing to say about the education side of graduate studies (and nor should they).

I'm sorry but this mischaracterizes the situation. Unions have everything to say about work conditions, and grad students perform a multitude of work functions in addition to teaching. (I was paid for my entire time there, but only worked as a TA for a few semesters, for example, and never taught my own classes.) People in the sciences work in labs (which are often not "labs" in the sense of a room with pipettes and equipment, but are rather a bunch of people working under the purview of a lead researcher, perhaps doing computer modeling or collecting field data or whatever); people in anthro and archeology work in field camps; etc.

I got asked to do things like pick up visiting researchers at the airport, bring trays of food to events, and other stuff that sometimes had value (like having extra time to chat with the visiting scholars) but also wasn't at all counted towards the number of work hours I was being paid for. That kind of casual approach towards work has benefits, but it also could easily lead to abuses. I was never the recipient of any serious abuses but plenty of people I knew were, and it definitely impacted their success.

The problems that unionization was meant to help with at my school were not on the educational side (eg how many classes do you take, when do you take your qualifying exams and what should those cover, etc), but were on the pay and work side of things -- hours required, benefits received, process and protection for responding to a bad situation, etc. (As noted above, though, those things are closely connected -- it's hard to be successful if you don't have consistent funding or if you are being asked to work an unreasonable number of hours, much less if you are facing abuses of power by your supervisor.)

I wouldn't say that unionization is the only path to having a fair and reasonable environment for grad students, but particularly at schools that have been the most resistant to providing even a semblance of a decent work environment it looks to me to be one of the best options and one of the very few points of leverage for transitory grad students who are so intimately dependent on relationships with professors and administrators.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:52 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


I need to add that the tactics that the UAW used to unionize the UCs were straight-up deceit and leverage. Again, this is my own lived experience.
posted by Dashy at 9:54 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Dashy-- does that mean that in the UC case the impetus was from the UAW, not the grad students?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:55 AM on December 7, 2014


Yes.
posted by Dashy at 9:57 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was at UC Davis from 2006-2011. Fro most of the time I was there, the UC-level of union was being run by some MBA types with an eye towards making it big with the Democrats after graduating. Some negotiations with the UC went horribly, which led of something of a revolt, in which the MBA's got kicked out (after, of all things, trying to rig the election). And that was right around hte time I left, so I'm not sure how thing shave been since.

I had been involved with the union ofr a few years, though, trying to build up the on-campus presence at Davis. I went to the University of Oreogn for undergrad, knew a bunch of math grad students, and had seen just how involved people were with the union there; it was the main organizing body for grad students, which was quite different from the situation at Davis, where a pretty powerless graduate student "council" was the main organizing body, completely separate from the union.

My takeaway was that the sheer scale of the UC union really works against it; nobody's around long enough to really learn and navigate the system, so it winds up being weirdly concentrated at one or two campuses, building little soldiarity or power for the rest of the network.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:15 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


I once had the Dean of our Graduate school argue that the teaching we did wasn't work, it was training.

The IRS disagreed with him. I had two different tax forms for my scholarship money (paid while I was in classes or doing research) and the money I received for teaching. The later was defined as wages/salary, and I received a W-2 (instead of a 1042s, which was for international student scholarships).

Whatever you feel about whether graduate teaching lends itself to union representation, the US government has already decided that it is employment.
posted by jb at 10:24 AM on December 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers.

And who decides how much someone is "worth," as a worker? You make it sound like there's some formula administrators use that impartially dictates our pay based strictly on economic "merit." That's not the case.
posted by clockzero at 10:53 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


The last decade has left me with profound defeatism with regards to unions- public opinion has long been turned against the unions and even the Dems have been inching away. But the last year has got me wondering if we might see a resurgence of the unions. It all started with fast food workers min wage demands, and talk of unionizing. Every day more people are beginning to see the power disparity between companies and employees. I'm sure the wet noodle labor market has helped.

Not directly related to this story other than another group organizing to fight back against abuses. It will be interesting to see if this tiny spark catches on.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:58 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


And who decides how much someone is "worth," as a worker? You make it sound like there's some formula administrators use that impartially dictates our pay based strictly on economic "merit." That's not the case.

You are missing the point. The fundamental basis for union organizing is that the employer is extracting value from the employees by paying them less than the value of output of their work. It's the basis for the leverage workers have by temporarily ceasing to work productively i.e. to strike.

However, this is largely not the case for grad. students. They exist primarily to benefit faculty (in manifold ways, not just strictly economic although certainly that as well...), not the university directly as an economic entity. The situation is different for RAs and TAs but your boss (for most PhD students) is really the faculty in your department. In particular, your future employment is entirely determined by the faculty in your department in collusion with faculty in your research discipline: a cartel. It's basically impossible to enforce union work rules when your boss (i.e. the faculty) holds so much power over you for work (as a future professor/researcher) which is entirely outside the domain of your union. Not to mention the fact that the contract can't really get into the "educational" side of the business. This is particularly bad in the biological sciences and doesn't even get into the uniquely vulnerable position of foreign national students. It's entirely common for PIs impose extreme working conditions, abuse of all sorts and to hold the PhD's of students hostage in return to more work on unrelated data work. All things which the union can't really approach.

BUT, my real point is that graduate students actually have more social power as *students* rather than workers. The contract negotiation cycle is utterly soul-sucking and you will learn to truly appreciate how destructive and self-destructive academic left-wing politics can be. And, fundamentally, the union is constrained by the extremely anti-union legal environment that it has to work with. The drive to unionize as a political act against the corporate university is, in part, driven by a kind of fetishization of Marxist thought (here's looking at you Gramsci) that wants to include graduate students as part of the proletariat... whoever they are in post-industrial america, but ignores the actual modes of power within the university and ignores the fact that the class within the university which is directly exploiting graduate students is the faculty, not the evil suits in administration.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:20 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


a kind of fetishization of Marxist thought (here's looking at you Gramsci) that wants to include graduate students as part of the proletariat

Smart and informed people can and will disagree about this issue, but it would be preferable to use Gramsci correctly and make at least a token nod towards the long history of unionization of white collar workers.

The broader framework that academia operates within will probably make far more of a difference than will unionization/nonunionization. For example, being a professor at a school where faculty are unionized is remarkably similar to being faculty at a place where there is no union, and I would be very surprised if the same doesn't turn out to be true for grad students as well, though with important differences at the more exploitative margins.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:32 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The drive to unionize as a political act against the corporate university is, in part, driven by a kind of fetishization of Marxist thought (here's looking at you Gramsci) that wants to include graduate students as part of the proletariat...

Do you have any evidence for this? Because my impression is that its driven by living in Manhattan on 28k a year.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:38 PM on December 7, 2014 [14 favorites]


grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers. "Adjunct Professors" are a cheaper way to teach classes.

Not at the rates that talented adjuncts are willing to work. You think they could find 50 people with PhDs to teach intro bio labs at Berkeley for $2k per with no benefits? Trust me, if they could, they would. The idea that graduate students aren't valuable to the administration and the faculty is so weird.
posted by one_bean at 12:40 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The fundamental basis for union organizing is that the employer is extracting value from the employees by paying them less than the value of output of their work. It's the basis for the leverage workers have by temporarily ceasing to work productively i.e. to strike.

While there's truth to it, that's an artificially narrow set of criteria. Working conditions, hours worked, and the ease of losing one's job are all valid enough reasons by themselves to unionize. The primary problem my wife had, and just about the only thing she ever contacted her union rep about, was having to teach too much (as an actual teacher, not a TA) without any sort of grading assistance; like she had a 150 student lecture that she would have handled herself or something.
posted by LionIndex at 12:41 PM on December 7, 2014


Smart and informed people can and will disagree about this issue, but it would be preferable to use Gramsci correctly and make at least a token nod towards the long history of unionization of white collar workers.

Right. sure. But the questions are:

1) is the primary mode of exploitation for graduate students through stolen wages or the collapse of the social contract between the professoriat and those who aspire to join it?

2) do graduate students have more social power in the US right now as "students" or as "workers"?

I believe the answers are:

1) Faculty are the primary exploiters of graduate students

2) students are free to do things that workers can't do particularly in the university where there is no clear line between work and education.

Unions in the US are uniquely constrained so that they must exchange social power for wages in benefits... which is exactly the wrong exchange for graduate students (due to their temporary employment and nebulous position between worker and intern/student)
posted by ennui.bz at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2014


1) Faculty are the primary exploiters of graduate students

In my experience, this is absolutely not the case. What can the faculty do? They can't do anything. They have no power. Sure if my advisor starts to hate me and refuses to write me letters, that would suck, but then I would just switch advisors. The faculty in my experience give me feedback and teach me. The worse thing they can do is ignore me.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:31 PM on December 7, 2014


Unions in the US are uniquely constrained so that they must exchange social power for wages in benefits... which is exactly the wrong exchange for graduate students (due to their temporary employment and nebulous position between worker and intern/student)

I disagree with both of your answers. Maybe if I had been in science rather than math, I'd feel my labor was exploited by my advisor, but I mostly feel the university was exploiting my labor, not even the department.

It's the nebulous position of graduate students that means they benefit from unionisation. You know all those AskMes were people say "go talk to HR" and the OP says "I'm an academic, it doesn't work that way"? That goes double for grad students. As far as I know, there was no policy for maternity leave that applied to graduate students until my last two years when they instituted a medical leave policy in the middle of the push for unionisation. I've read the UC contract. It's full of answers to questions that, in my graduate school experience, were answered by "You better hope your department isn't run by assholes."
posted by hoyland at 1:34 PM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


grad. students tend to be paid *more* than they are worth strictly as workers.

I don't know what its like outside of UBC. At UBC I received some training but then went without supervision to finish projects and self-taught a great deal. I was strictly RA and never had to TA. I made $21K Canadian.

I'm doing less work each day, working on a single instrument, with a fixed stream of samples and data, with training by the instrument manufacturer, and supervision (as a contract employee). I'm making almost triple my grad school "stipend" (salary in all but name).

So with regards to grad students not being worth the money they are being paid? LoL no. If they were paid what they were worth I'd guess that either the universities would be sending out a lot more alumni mailers within the first year (if they paid for it) or instrument manufacturers would start to go out of business as general grant money was spent on salaries instead of updated instrumentation (if the PI's/departments got stuck with the bill). As the federal grant resources sure as shit aren't going up after this last election.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:47 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


My knowledge of unions is vague, but why join the UAW in particular?

I hope it's been answered -- but specifically, they already represent 40,000 grad students, post-docs, and TAs at other schools.

As a more general point, unions do not have to be affiliated; there are pros and cons to affiliation (if there's a more specific term I've forgotten). My mom's public worker bargaining unit (under 20 people) was independent for a long time, but was constantly being courted by larger unions. There are reasons ranging from the fees (which anti-union folks love to focus on) to reporting aggregate numbers, but there's also a lot of union-versus-union competition out there -- one reason for the formation of union federations, the largest of which in the US is the AFL-CIO. Anyway, after internal politicking and some membership changes, the unit my mom was in joined the Teamsters. They are in no way truck drivers -- mostly social workers -- but the Teamsters already represented other workers at her government level and they had resources and experience that this tiny independent union sorely lacked. Consider that one of the most important is (most likely) labor attorneys with extensive national experience. In the long run, I believe they dis-affiliated with the Teamsters and are independent again, but now my mom is retired so it's moot.

The thing is, though, that while sometimes a national single-industry union might make some sense (UAW representing all the auto workers in a specialty, or across an entire company, or across the major autoamkers) the main thing that a parent union organization brings is not people in the same job as you so much as all that important union stuff like connections with labor bureaucrats or law offices, arbitrators, mediators, organizers, and so forth, and that tends to be less about the specific industry you're in than you'd imagine.
posted by dhartung at 1:59 PM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


1) Faculty are the primary exploiters of graduate students

In my experience, this is absolutely not the case. What can the faculty do? They can't do anything. They have no power. Sure if my advisor starts to hate me and refuses to write me letters, that would suck, but then I would just switch advisors. The faculty in my experience give me feedback and teach me. The worse thing they can do is ignore me.

This is what every boss you ever have will say: "what could I do? I can't do anything. I have no power"

What would life for faculty be like if they didn't have any graduate students? It's called working in a service department. In math, you teach business calculus on a 4/2 schedule if you are lucky.

You know all those AskMes were people say "go talk to HR" and the OP says "I'm an academic, it doesn't work that way"? That goes double for grad students. As far as I know, there was no policy for maternity leave that applied to graduate students until my last two years when they instituted a medical leave policy in the middle of the push for unionisation.


Which means exactly nothing because your research advisor will still demand you go right back to your 60 hrs a week and you'll do it no matter what your contract says, or you will drop out. When my child was born, as a father I had unpaid leave guaranteed in my union contract, which was a non-starter. The other grad. students gave me a week off from teaching and the department head still tried to kick me out of the department that semester because I was dropping too many plates as a parent with an infant. There's not a lot of room for incremental reform, and the situation for mothers is even more stark. This is all within the purview of student professor relations within my department.

Again, it's not a bad thing to have a union contract, but it doesn't change the fundamentally exploitative relationship between faculty and grad. students. Stop giving faculty what they want, when they want it and see the mask come off. It's not pretty.

I'm doing less work each day, working on a single instrument, with a fixed stream of samples and data, with training by the instrument manufacturer, and supervision (as a contract employee). I'm making almost triple my grad school "stipend" (salary in all but name).

So with regards to grad students not being worth the money they are being paid? LoL no.


Your current employer and UBC aren't in the same market at all. Walk into a grad. student contract negotiation with that comparison and you will get laughed at. My specific comparison was between graduate student TAs and adjunct faculty. The problem is that your work as a graduate student in science is inextricable from your education. What this means is that the union (in the US) will never be able to address this as a work environment and fundamentally, since the research grants don't work like business contracts, you can't withold work the way other workers do. It's a pretty simple point. Further, if you are a PhD student bringing a dispute (against say your research advisor) would be suicidal to your career in a way that no union could address.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:14 PM on December 7, 2014


This is what every boss you ever have will say: "what could I do? I can't do anything. I have no power"

Huh? I don't get what you are saying. When I had a job my bosses could fire me, raise my pay, ask me to come in and work, have me work from home, tell me where to sit, tell me what time to come in, etc.

You seem to be saying that faculty exploit grad students. I'm saying: how?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:18 PM on December 7, 2014


What can the faculty do? They can't do anything. 

Specifically, as faculty I cannot choose how much I pay my RAs or my TAs. Nor can I determine their other benefits.

I can, and I do, act reasonably as a boss and in being ... flexible ... around hours and expectations. But if you strike over a raise or sick leave, I am powerless as your boss.
posted by Dashy at 2:21 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


You seem to be saying that faculty exploit grad students. I'm saying: how?

I'm guessing you don't work in a science lab.
posted by leopard at 2:32 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Re: exploitation, see the Poo lab letter'. It does happen.
posted by Dashy at 2:40 PM on December 7, 2014


I can, and I do, act reasonably as a boss and in being ... flexible ... around hours and expectations.

Thank you. You concede that you are a boss. The problem is that grad. student unions can never negotiate with you and yet there is as big a power imbalance between you and your grad. students as any business owner and their employees.

You seem to be saying that faculty exploit grad students. I'm saying: how?

You can lay it out for practically any discipline, the details differ. But, it comes down to the fact that the department owes you nothing at graduation beyond a piece of paper. You are temporary labor, highly motivated, highly skilled, completely replaceable and they replace you every 5-10 years. On the other hand, there are very few research departments that can exist without grad. students and the life of faculty in a department without a 'research' classification is pretty grim. Teaching, no research seminars, no higher level classes, scut work. You could see this happening in the big state university I got my Ph.D. from. There used to be a department of insect biology, but it wasn't oriented towards big grants so it could it's support for grad. students cut by the university and folded into another department.

Research faculty absolutely need grad. students, but owe them nothing.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2014


The details differ tremendously: I'm in the social sciences. How can my advisor exploit me?

make me work? no
cut my pay? no
do xyz? no
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:11 PM on December 7, 2014


ennui.bz, my impression from your comments on this topic -- both in this thread and others -- is that you had a very negative experience with the faculty in your department. If that's correct, I'm really sorry that you went through that, but I don't think that your experiences are as universal as you think. I also don't think that a union's limited usefulness in that situation means that unions are not tremendously beneficial.

The details differ more than you seem to be aware?

The faculty in my department are very supportive, both of the students and of our union. This supportiveness is down to factors that the union can't control; it doesn't get the credit. But the union has provided real benefits, including:

* Creating a set of official rules with for reference. If a faculty member who has power over your future career decides to disregard these rules, contesting it can be fraught; however, (a) faculty members aren't all sitting in their offices twirling their moustaches and dreaming of new ways to exploit grad students, and many actually do refer to the rules; (b) disputes are not always with faculty members who have power over your future career.

* Creating a set of official rules and grievance processes to follow when the dispute is with the college. For example, if you find that your teaching load is exceeding the hours you're being paid for, the conflict is not with the faculty member (unless they don't give you their support--this has not happened in my experience). It's with the college. This has happened in my department and the union has helped.

And then there are a whole host of other things that are not grad students vs. faculty, such as offices and health benefits.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:13 PM on December 7, 2014


As someone in my lab said to the union rep who came by: "how are we supposed to collectively bargain ourselves to the top of a pyramid scheme?"
posted by thechameleon at 5:16 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz >

You are missing the point. The fundamental basis for union organizing is that the employer is extracting value from the employees by paying them less than the value of output of their work. It's the basis for the leverage workers have by temporarily ceasing to work productively i.e. to strike.

Really. I don't see how, so far. I was simply saying that grad students are not typically paid more than they are "worth," and I also disputed the implicit claim that there's some neat and fair method of determining that worth that administrators actually use. Excess value and its retention by management is one important reason for organizing, but there certainly are others which are no less important, including the fact that capital and management (to use those broad and somewhat old-fashioned terms) are organized in self-interest, and thus any workers who aren't are at an immense disadvantage right off the bat. I still don't see how this relates directly to the point of contention, though.

However, this is largely not the case for grad. students. They exist primarily to benefit faculty (in manifold ways, not just strictly economic although certainly that as well...), not the university directly as an economic entity.

I'm not sure if you've gotten to the point that you feel I'm missing yet, but I think this claim is similar to the one you made above about who benefits from grad student labor and how much that labor is worth. I disagree strenuously with it.

According to the federal government, college students at public universities paid an average of just over $16,000 dollars for the academic year 2011-2012. Every program and academic discipline is different, I guess, but lots of graduate students are TAs, and it would be impossible to run those 100+ lecture hall classes, or even many smaller ones, without us. Those undergrads, those kids who collectively represent hundreds of thousands of tuition dollars, per class, would not be getting proper instruction without graduate student labor. The university does not run without us, and more importantly they couldn't collect the tuition which is their main source of revenue now without us, so in a very simple sense we are directly entitled to a living wage, at the very least. Most of us are paid below the poverty line.

The situation is different for RAs and TAs but your boss (for most PhD students) is really the faculty in your department. In particular, your future employment is entirely determined by the faculty in your department in collusion with faculty in your research discipline: a cartel.

This is a mischaracterization. First, many graduate students are both TAs and RAs ay various times. Second, a cartel is a very specific kind of collusion; academia is somewhat unique in terms of the mechanisms in place for advancement, but calling it a cartel is more obfuscatory than clarifying. I admit that I don't see what this has to do with grad student pay in any case.

It's basically impossible to enforce union work rules when your boss (i.e. the faculty) holds so much power over you for work (as a future professor/researcher) which is entirely outside the domain of your union.

There certainly are dysfunctional departments and unprincipled professors out there, but I don't think this is true, as a rule. For one thing, your union would contact the department itself, not an individual professor, if you're being made to over-work or something like that; if the terms of a contact are being violated, then retaliating by preventing you from ever getting a job (!!!) is like seven standard deviations outside the norm. I hope that didn't happen to you.

Not to mention the fact that the contract can't really get into the "educational" side of the business.

This is true, and it's a real problem, but it emerges from the uniqueness of the job and the field. However, if grad students were paid a modest but reasonable mean wage (say, 36k for a full calendar year), for a period of time in which it would be reasonable to finish a graduate degree in their discipline (say, 5-7 years), then I think the educational problems would mostly fix themselves.

Still, nothing that's been said here either refutes my initial claim or bolsters yours, as far as I can tell. Graduate students are massively underpaid by any reasonable measure.
posted by clockzero at 5:31 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]



* Creating a set of official rules with for reference.
* Creating a set of official rules and grievance processes to follow when the dispute is with the college.

These are totally spot on. I'll just add (for emphasis)

* Actually providing leverage on negotiations with the university on issues the faculty have no control over or interest in -- e.g., pay, health benefits, etc.

Nobody ever said that a union would 100% prevent faculty from doing bad things if they chose to, but that doesn't mean that their other benefits don't exist.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:04 PM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


the class within the university which is directly exploiting graduate students is the faculty, not the evil suits in administration.

Except for the universities/departments where the 100-level and sometimes 200-level classes are taught exclusively by grad students and adjuncts.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:13 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


It still seems odd to have the UAW. Why not form a new union?

I may not have been in a real-life street gang, but I've watched a lot of 'The Wire'.
Labor, like gangs, is a cutthroat industry. Someone wants to kill you off to have what you have or want to have. If you're new, everyone wants to do it...unless you are aligned with a BIG BULLY. Grad Students unionizing? Holy krap will they need help.

If you don't understand, just ask yourself what you'd do if you ever caught yourself in long-term jail. Would you be all talking about how schooling has to stop preventing young women from going into science based-fields? Most likely, you'd be all "you know...i hear the revolution is going to help us", to some person who looks like you.

And I'm sure that all sorts of stuff has been said about why the Grad Students have aligned with the autoworkers...

But in the end, its because Grad Students were all "you know...once I had to change a flat tire... errgghhh help".

Benefits them both, though. The closer American Labor gets back to having the capability to launch a ***GENERAL**STRIKE***, the better it is for everyone.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:07 PM on December 8, 2014


To address the "Why not form a new union?" question directly, it's that grad students don't have the knowledge or resources to do so. You lean on the UAW (or whoever) to bankroll the organising--you need things like phone banks and flyers and so on.

Yup. Just like in 'The Wire'.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:08 PM on December 8, 2014


Certainly better than being ionized.
posted by Turd Ferguson at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2014


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