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On Graduate Student Unions

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I broke a few hearts with my take on graduate student unions. Mike Antonucci, who desperately wanted to out me as Randi Weingarten or Reg Weaver, probably won't be able to crawl out of bed tomorrow. (But Leo, this is what the Walmart-sponsored anti-union flag really looks like.) So let me say a few words on this issue, and since my heels aren't deeply dug in about it, invite you to convince me that I'm wrong.

I don't have new angles to offer on the worker versus student question. Nonetheless, it strikes me that just as aspiring teachers must student teach to complete their degree requirements (performing the same job as other employees), graduate students are also students, not workers. (There are arguably many differences between student teachers and grad students as well, as I'm sure someone will point out.) The central purpose of graduate school is to train students to become professors, and part of that training involves learning to teach. Here's the other side of the coin from FACE talk, a new AFT higher ed blog:

Beyond the legal and institutional definitions, the argument that graduate teaching and research assistants are students, not employees, and that their work is training as part of their student experience is problematic on at least two levels. First, graduate employees are responsible for a critical university function: undergraduate education. To suggest that they are not qualified to teach courses, run discussion groups, lead labs, etc.--that is, that they are untrained apprentices who should not be considered employees--is both demeaning and contradictory....Second, the notion that employees learn on the job should not affect their employee status....they are still considered employees from the moment they begin providing a service to an employer in exchange for wages.

Unrelated to the student vs. worker issue - the claim that graduate student unions will address the problem of contingent labor in higher ed hasn't borne much fruit in public universities with unions, has it?

That's all I've got for tonight. Readers, take it from here.
26 Comments

Since you asked: I'm fundamentally ambivalent about graduate student unions. I think that unionization is a barrier to an occupation's claim to being a profession (in the classical sociological sense, not our lay sense of what a profession is). In this sense, it seems contradictory for individuals on a trajectory towards membership in a profession to be unionized.

Having said that, I've seen graduate students exploited at institutions at which I've studied and taught. But the phenomenon is uneven (especially across disciplines), and rarely systemic. This means that on many campuses, there are some graduate students who view unionization as an essential counter to unreasonable working conditions and rewards, and others who wonder what the fuss is about. There is very little sense of a shared "community of fate" among the graduate students on a particular campus, in my opinion, which means that there will always be uneven support for a graduate student union on that campus. This lack of a sense of community distinguishes graduate students from the members of other occupations that might have more of a sense of a shared community of fate -- such as public school teachers in a particular school district.

Skoolboy, you state that you "think that unionization is a barrier to an occupation's claim to being a profession." Can you give me a little more on that? Maybe I just haven't had enough coffee, but I'm tripping over some assumptions there that I can't see.

Ooh, this'll hijack the thread. Teacher professionalization, anyone?

Keep in mind this is all a skoolboy's-eye view. Classical sociological approaches to the study of professions emphasize four attributes, which I call the "four A's" -- abstract knowledge, altruism, authority and autonomy. (Each of these has elaborate definitions and examples, but I hope you'll get the drift.) Unionization undermines the perception that an occupation is altruistic, because unions are seen as representing the interests of their members, not of clients. Collective bargaining agreements that have highly detailed, legalistic terms regarding work rules undermine the perception that members of an occupation have autonomy, i.e., control over the work process. On the other hand, collective bargaining agreements can also institutionalize understandings about the authority of members of an occupation over subordinate occupations (e.g., teacher aides and paraprofessionals), which could serve to strengthen the claim that teaching is a profession.

I suspect that eduwonkette and others will want to be heard on this, and I know that Corey Bower, Marc Dean Millot, and Nancy Flanagan, among others, have been discussing this very topic on other blogs earlier this month.

I don't know about fundamental change for grads, but we have our good days. For example the Michigan grads just got a 6 percent raise after management came initially to the table with an offer of 3. No union, no reason for mangement to do more than say "3 is what you get".

Skoolboy, are Michigan or Wisconsin grads less professional because they have a union? IFPTE/AFL-CIO represents the engineers at Boeing and the analysts at GAO. I could roll out the Albert Einstein quote or go John Dewey with you -- they carried an AFT card. In the workplace, as opposed to in the classic sociological sense, the concept of "professional" is frequently used as an anti union trope. And we often let our hopes of the status we'd like to obtain keep us from standing up to remedy the actual conditions we find ourselves in. Going back to fundamental change, I'll submit it's the standing up that matters.

My own situation when I was a grad was much more like the sort of ideal apprenticeship that we all hope for. And I happily put in more than the required hours into the work, as I do now. But it was still a low paying job -- with very clear conditions of continued employment. My third year I think there was an explicit threat to yank assistanships from less deserving grads to give them to the newer always more attractive grads. A contract would have been nice right about then, even though I wasn't in any particular danger of losing aid.

Also, I was expected to pay income tax on the value of the tuition remission. It was work for the IRS, so why not for the NLRB?

Eduwonkette, I can understand why you might not think a union would improve your particular situation. And I understand why someone might not want to carry a card. It's a democratic process, people can say no. But I don't understand why you think grads in the private sector should not have the right to have a union and work that out for themselves. Which is what Petrilli is saying.

Ed, the title "graduate student" isn't even an occupation, let alone a profession. Nobody says, "when I grow up, I want to be a graduate student." (Well, maybe a few too many of my students do.) "Graduate student" is a peculiar transitional state in which individuals are in the process of becoming members of an occupation/profession, and also frequently working for their institutions for pay. I don't think that graduate students at Michigan and Wisconsin are any less "professional" than graduate students elsewhere, but I don't think that graduate students anywhere can lay claim to professional status.

Having said that, I think that graduate students are entitled to decent wages and benefits commensurate with their contributions to their institution's mission of teaching, research and service. If collective bargaining is an appropriate vehicle for ensuring fair wages and benefits, that's okay with me. But in my view unionization does nothing to advance a claim of professional status.

Partial response as I am off to lunch: skoolboy, you know I don't like this 1950s strain of the professionalization literature that identifies the essential qualities of professions and then designates a group as a profession or not. I'm not sure what that strain of research ever accomplished, and it all had a normative veneer as authors tried to dignify or denigrate their "profession" of choice. In my view, which work activities get to wear the gold label of "profession" is more a function of interprofessional competition - i.e. the struggles between different groups for jurisdiction over particular work activities - than the four essential qualities you identified. But as you noted, I'm not sure how professionalization is relevant to graduate students, who should not be aspiring to permanent grad student status.

Ed, I'll be back on the flip side for more on your comment. Don't I at least get props for photoshopping the bearer of the magic abacus?

eduwonkette, you are so right. Graduate students should not be unionized because being a graduate student is not a profession or a career or even a job. Graduate students are "students." Why not unionize high school students and junior high school students and elementary school students? They could organize to reduce homework, eliminate grades, change their "working" conditions.

I am a TA union president who has just spent the last few months successfully settling a much-improved contract for our membership. The arguments identified in this thread so far related to the dual nature of our positions as well as professionalization are important comments. And ones we have been discussing with administrators, students,and board members at our university. While we are graduate students learning the ins and outs of the university, we are also employees at the universities where we teach. We provide a critical source of instruction at universities at a much-reduced cost to the university. In a day when universities want to provide education experiences that do not rely solely on large lectures and multiple choice exams across the disciplines, there is a need for instructors who can offer additional sections, grade large numbers of essays, prep and lead recitations, and develop and run lab sessions for undergraduate and even graduate students. We value this type of education, yet it requires human resources that most universities cannot afford if this labor is doled out to tenure-stream faculty. In step graduate teaching assistants who fill in many of these responsibilities at a cost far lower than a professor. This system lends itself to abuse if not regulated by unions. In stepping into these roles as employees, rarely do we have access to the wages, benefits, job protections, and workload/working condition regulations of other employees across campus. Unions have drastically improved the benefits and working conditions of teaching assistants on numerous university campuses.

Now, to the question of whether this is merely part of our educational experience. I think the answer likely varies widely across the disciplines. For TAs in colleges of education who enter with years of teaching experience, their prior experience may already match the teaching experience of the faculty in the department. This is not likely the same in a physics department. But in either case, I think that a line does exist between the two - the role of student and of teacher. While the two experiences hopefully enhance the other, we are not students of teaching in our roles as TAs any more than a professor who is continuously enhancing her/his classroom through research and teaching is a student of teaching. TAs are not intern teachers nor are we treated as such when we are provided the materials to go and be the lead instructors, graders, and lab instructors for our students. While we have supervisors to whom we can direct questions, our questions are often in relation to university policy not teaching itself. We look to our peers and teaching seminars for guidance. We are often given a fair amount of autonomy and independence to direct undergraduate education as necessary. This makes it difficult for me to see most TAs as students of teaching rather than teachers themselves. While this may be a fault of the university setting (perhaps we should have more guidance), the question here seems to be whether we are employees distinct from our role as students. I think the answer is yes. And as such, we need th right to unionize to protect our teacher/employee status.

I'd think that a main determinant of whether a union is needed in many circumstances is probably whether those who are thinking of unionizing would be treated fairly without one.

If grad students at an institution are being treated unfairly, then I can't begrudge their desire to unionize.

You always get props, photoshop or otherwise. I owe Skoolboy props for that John Wooden post a while back as well. But if he's suggesting that unions generally or in k-12 specifically are never a route to attainment of professionalization -- which sometimes might be different from attainment of the aura of a profession -- then I'll disagree.

I did manage to crawl out of bed this morning, and thanks to all those folks who worry about how well I sleep at night.

And for those who didn't understand the Weingarten/Weaver remark, it refers to a comment I made on an Eduwonk post about Wonkette's anonymity - that our assessments of her opinions would be affected if she happened to be Weingarten or Weaver (or Petrilli, for that matter).

As for graduate student unions, well, sometimes the TAs and RAs have their own opinions about them.

http://www.eiaonline.com/archives/19990511.htm

I'm inclined to lean in Corey's direction on this: the subject of unions wouldn't come into play if there weren't a need for them. Which partially explains why the UAW has been unsuccessful in it's attempts at organizing at the U.S. plants of Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, etc: those companies are coming close enough to match the wages and benefits of the Big 3, that the UAW's main argument (we can get you better wages and benefits) falls on its face.

As for any kind of union/professional dichotomy, I think we can point to a number of "professions" that have unions. Now, the question of whether a union is serving the interests of the "profession" or not may be a point of debate, but a union's purpose in life is to protect it's members. I may be incorrect, but I think you can track that back to the FLSA of 1930-whatever.

There is also the school of thought that unions can serve a function around facilitating collective action, in that a group of grad assistance (for example) may have a "collective" need that faculty (management) don't want to give them (could be wages, benefits, or it could be a voice in faculty governance).

Doctors, nurses, journalists, career government professionals, they all get unions. Why shouldn't grad assistants? Maybe consider the apprenticeship model in the building trades: the have sort of a provisional membership in the union, and don't get the same wages and benefits, but they get the protection of the union, on their way up the career ladder of their profession.

But my guess is that you'll now tell me that the building trades aren't a profession - and then we can debate what is and what is not a profession. Which is probably what this is about - determining what is a profession, and then deciding if *that* profession should be unionized?

Can someone tell me if medical residents can (or should) be unionized?

Mike A., I don't think anyone is saying that there shouldn't opinions, but that there *should* be a choice. As in a choice to unionize if that's what the grad assistants want. If we're going to get hung up on "unions are bad, end of story" then there's nothing left to discuss.

People who want a union should have one. People who don't want one shouldn't have to join or financially support one. If an intelligent choice is to be made, both sides should be presented.

The unique problem with grad student unions is that "careers" are very short-term by definition. The union is a permanent fixture for temporary employees, which would be fine if there were an automatic representation election every two or three years.

Grad students aren't just choosing unionization for themselves, they're choosing it for all future grad students at that university in perpetuity.

Back to Ed's comment about wins in Michigan and the GEU Prez's comment about her/his recent negotiations, I have a question about the effects of grad unions on the ground. Can someone say more about how grad union contracts have affected the number of stipended grad students accepted by universities,
time to completion (which could go either way?), and hours worked? Assuming these costs have to be passed on somewhere, did these universities take fewer grad students and increased class size, increase tuition and fees, or reallocate monies that were
being spent elsewhere? I'm trying to understand if/how/how much grad unions improve the lives of both current and aspiring graduate students, and whether there are unintended consequences of which we should be aware.

Mark, I'm not sure if residents can or do unionize, but there are now tight restrictions on the numbers of hours/week they can work, at least in some states.

NEWSFLASH: Most Graduate Students Never Become Professors. Those that do usually got out of teaching by finding a grant or a professor to work with, who pay them.

At CUNY about 50 percent of all courses are taught by adjuncts or other part-timers, and at CUNY they do not count graduate student teaching fellows as part-timers. The pay for teaching 3 credits $2,616. Public school teachers would never put up with such salaries, because they have unions.

Given the reality of getting an academic job, in NYC those teaching higher ed actually make the same as those teaching in public school, it is nonsense to pretend that they don't use graduate students to in effect "outsource" teaching. For adjuncts, teaching becomes a "sweat shop." This is why unions are very much needed for graduate students. Otherwise they have no protection from exploitation.

Take a look at this column, which has some real figures.
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/demographics/20060124/5/1732

Antonucci says:
“People who want a union should have one. People who don't want one shouldn't have to join or financially support one. If an intelligent choice is to be made, both sides should be presented.”

I agree (except I think that if a majority chooses collective bargaining then those who refrain from joining the union should still help cover the costs—no free riders). The important principal is that the workers should choose whether they desire collective bargaining.

If one accepts that grad students should have a choice then one would favor the Miller bill which allows graduate students the right to seek collective bargaining in private universities. It is up to the grad students themselves to decide if they have a common fate or not. All this talk of occupation and profession confuses me.
Larry Mishel


Apologies to anyone who finds this abstract stuff tiresome. But here's another possible unintended consequence of unionization in colleges and universities.

1950's and '60's writings on the professions and organizations do have something to recommend them, eduwonkette, even though I know you don't trust anything (or anyone) over, hmm, 35. I consulted my in-house counsel, and she suggested the following. One of the arguments that Amitai Etzioni made in that era was that there is a decoupling of professional expertise and administrative power in organizations such as colleges and universities. Administrators can do their thing allocating resources, but it doesn't have much impact on claims to expertise or the professional identity of professors. Unionization -- whether of faculty or of graduate students -- disrupts that, by forcing faculty to move onto the turf of administrators and to address administrative concerns -- to develop an identity that incorporates the role of administrator. With regard to graduate student unionization, faculty basically are obliged to become management in their supervisory roles, and that has real consequences in the long run for what it means to be a professor.

Apologies to anyone who finds this abstract stuff tiresome. But here's another possible unintended consequence of unionization in colleges and universities.

1950's and '60's writings on the professions and organizations do have something to recommend them, eduwonkette, even though I know you don't trust anything (or anyone) over, hmm, 35. I consulted my in-house counsel, and she suggested the following. One of the arguments that Amitai Etzioni made in that era was that there is a decoupling of professional expertise and administrative power in organizations such as colleges and universities. Administrators can do their thing allocating resources, but it doesn't have much impact on claims to expertise or the professional identity of professors. Unionization -- whether of faculty or of graduate students -- disrupts that, by forcing faculty to move onto the turf of administrators and to address administrative concerns -- to develop an identity that incorporates the role of administrator. With regard to graduate student unionization, faculty basically are obliged to become management in their supervisory roles, and that has real consequences in the long run for what it means to be a professor.

Wow, double apologies for the unintended double posting! If you found it boring the first time, it doesn't get any better the second time!

Mike, I need some help understand how "'careers' are very short-term by definition." And yes, a collective bargaining agreement does have some permanence to it, but that doesn't mean that those being represented can't choose to de-certify the union through an election. You make a choice getting a job in a union shop. My experience is that is something put out front during an interview process. Grad students have some choices as to where they wish to be - and if they don't want to be in a union shop, they can go somewhere else. Similar point I make to conservatives complaining about left-wing campuses: if you want a right-wing campus they exist, go there.

And skoolboy, aren't faculty already playing the role of supervisor to a grad assistant irrespective of whether the "workplace" is organized or not? If anything, a bargaining agreement can add some formality to that arrangement.

Maybe this shows my stripes, skoolboy, but I'll take Thomas Friedson's 1980s take on professionalism over Amitai Etzioni's any day. Friedson argued that professionalism existed along three axes: public acknowledgment of expertise, control over entry, and autonomy. In Friedson's view (and mine), there ain't no division between a "profession" and "a plain occupation," because many occupations are somewhere along the scale in all three dimensions. Friedson's is more persuasive from a standpoint of face validity: Try to get yourself a plumber some weekend when the pipes inside your walls are bursting and tell me that plumbers don't have a pretty good position somewhere along at least two of those dimensions.

I agree with CUNY Prof that Eduwonkette is wrong in claiming that "the central purpose of graduate school is to train students to become professors," because a heck of a lot of masters students who are TAs are never going to become doctoral students, let alone professors, and the same is true with doctoral students in many cases.

Moreover, as the GEU leader noted, the dual nature of a graduate assistant doesn't mean that they AREN'T workers. For example, I am both a faculty member and a person with horrible taste in clothing. But I repeat myself...

I don't want to insult my cyberfriend Sherman, who is the President of the United Faculty of Florida chapter at the University of South Florida, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the UFT. I've never worked at an institution with a unionized faculty. Maybe he and Mark Johnson-Lewis are right that collective bargaining doesn't transform the existing uneasy relations between administration and faculty that exist on most college campuses. I will say that Sherman's blog suggests that he spends more of his time than he would like engaged in negotiations with administrators and legislators, but perhaps that would be just as true if he were the head of a faculty senate in a non-unionized campus.

My invoking Etzioni was not to champion his view of occupations and professions over Eliot Friedson's, but rather to recognize that occupations and professions are defined within organizations, and the organizational context matters. The plumbing example doesn't really speak to that point.

In response to Mark, I think that there is a subtle shift in the supervisory relationship between faculty and graduate students in the presence of a collective bargaining agreement. The oversight is less collegial and more legalistic and compliance-focused, and this changes the nature of the relationship in important ways. But again, I've not personally experienced this.

[T]here is a subtle shift in the supervisory relationship between faculty and graduate students in the presence of a collective bargaining agreement. The oversight is less collegial and more legalistic and compliance-focused, and this changes the nature of the relationship in important ways.

Skoolboy, I would argue that the relationship was already less collegial - hence the organizing drive. I think unionization is successful at universities, in part, because grad students see themselves as merely exploited labor, labor that needs the protection of a bargaining agreement.

I think if the relationship was more collegial to begin with, there would be no need for a union. In other words, if faculty who supervise grad assistants were more concerned with the professional (and personal) development of these individuals, then an organizing drive would fall on its face.

Mark,
I think you are conflating the roles of faculty and administration in most colleges and universities. It's not the faculty who set the compensation and benefit rates and work expectations for graduate assistants; it's the administration. I think that most faculty who supervise graduate students are highly concerned with the students' professional and personal development--don't you?

skoolboy, I wasn't trying to minimize the complexity of the situation. But I also don't want to dismiss the roles that faculty do play - and don't want to get into whether or not faculty are concerned or not. But if they are NOT responsible for wages and benefits, I might then argue that a bargaining agreement would be essential to spell out who is responsible for what (admin, faculty, and students/workers) in the work-life of grad assistants.

I guess it all comes down to whether or not there is an agreement about whether or not grad assistants are employees - and so, who's management? And if faculty don't have a role to play in the supervision of grad assistants, who does?

I don't claim to know everything about all this. I'm always open to new information that might sway my in one direction or the other. But given what you're saying, I could also imagine a bargaining agreement that has three signatories: the administration, the faculty and the students. Long and short, I don't think the complexity of the situation should preclude (limit) the potential for an effective barganing agreement. Contrary to popular conception, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that bargaining agreements HAVE to be adversarial.

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