Panic at the Ivies: Graduate Student Unions (Part I)

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This post queries why is it that Ivies are so adamantly against Graduate Student Unions? The ferocity of their reaction to the unionization of graduate students suggests that there is something very powerful to be earned with collective bargaining-- might Graduate Student Unions be a part of the solution to the systemic failure of academia to provide basic rights to graduate students? 

Since my last post, time has gone by in a strange tug of war between past and present. The building in which I now work is clean, streamlined, and expensive. This is my first fall, ever, to not be starting a new semester. Rather, I have found myself in a very traditional 9 to 5. And it feels both surreal and refreshingly stable all at once.  Despite, of course, my nagging inner voice telling me I should figure out, sooner rather than later, what it is I really want to be when I grow up. The process of leaving academia reminds me of an old 30 Rock episode where Jack, finding himself in a dire predicament, declares that to get out of it, he must not climb up out of the hole, but rather, he must go lower, deeper into the crevice. This is how I have come to think of my alt-ac transition process. It is about humbling yourself and letting go of any previously held illusions. I have come to realize that in fact, my Ph.D. matters very little in the actual work force. What does matter, however, is my hard-won critical thinking skills, perspective, and, most of all, my work ethic. The aspect I loved most about the Ph.D. was writing, which I have found an alternative way of fulfilling that.  My Ph.D. gave me an invaluable perspective on the world, and one that I will never take for granted. However, it is but one part of me, and a part that is now largely in the past.

I think one of the hardest things about the transition out of academia is re-defining your identity and sense of self beyond your research. This is especially difficult since for at least six plus years, you have been trained, or perhaps, indoctrinated, into a belief system in which all that matters is your work. Perspective is definitely something I lacked in graduate school, and now that I have gained some of it, I am infinitely grateful for it. It has made me a happier and more empathetic person.

Speaking of perspective, while I was in graduate school, I avidly avoided any sort of organization related to graduate students, including the very idea of the graduate student union. Like everyone else, I sat through optimistic pitches during orientations about the importance of the Graduate Student Union, and like most people I suspect, I completely ignored it.

Could my graduate student union have helped me? I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t exist, nor that they don’t offer powerful benefits to graduate students.  At the very least, as this oft-cited study suggests, graduate student unions boost community and a sense of agency for graduate students, and thus, directly impact the culture of academia for the better.

I’ll be honest here: I never once thought of contacting my Graduate Student Union. Why? Because I largely saw it as a well-meaning but powerless entity mostly intended as an extracurricular activity for graduate students (to be clear: I was wrong). This is where the importance of a broader perspective comes to mind: perhaps if I had sought out a community of fellow graduate students, at the very least, I would have had a broader support system, and perhaps, would not have first turned to Wrong Dean.

However, this post is not intended as a rabbit hole of what-ifs, especially because the importance of Graduate Student Unions presses on the academic community with more weight than perhaps ever before. One year ago, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed its stance and allowed graduate students to unionize as employees of the university. In just over a year, the formation of graduate student unions has proliferated across private universities, much to the horror of administrations. Duke’s recalcitrant acknowledgement of the formation of a union there is perhaps the most positive reactive from the administration that I have heard about.

Of late, there have been many articles published on the pros and cons of graduate student unions, and, to be quite honest, all of the cons fall short of being a fully convincing argument. Rather, the cons sound more like a desire to maintain the status quo. For example, many articles state that that the collective bargaining power of graduate students through a union would undermine “some” of the “core missions of graduate school.” This article mentions that if unions do manage to increase overall benefits, universities might admit fewer students.  But seeing as there are so few jobs, is that really a bad thing? (See this article on how Ph.D.s keep rising just as steadily as jobs for them keep decreasing).

There are whispers that the Trump administration will reverse the 2016 decision allowing graduate students at private schools to unionize. In light of this, I thought it might be a good idea to look into exactly we would be losing, or rather, what graduate students at private schools would be losing, and further, what exactly do existing graduate student unions do? In light of Betsy DeVos’s repugnant moves of late in higher education “reform” (which sting all the more considering she is a woman, and her actions make all too clear that it is in fact essentialist to assume a woman would de-facto advocate for woman’s rights), I think the idea of Graduate Student Unions is worthy of a post, at the very least so we can know what we are at risk of losing.

For instance, one Graduate Student Union I spoke to stated that one of their chief concerns was harassment and discrimination, stating that the union argues  “that the decision-making power needs to be shifted from the hands of the administration; unfortunately, here as elsewhere opposite trends are going on.” There is no better example of the opposite of this happening than with DeVos’s repeal of title IX-- the new harassment policy puts new powers in the hands of the administration. This seems like a very clear, and urgent, need for Graduate student union.

Further, Columbia, among other Ivies such as Yale, are currently strategizing ways to get rid of Graduate Student Unions. The question I have about this is why?  If Graduate Student Unions are trivial and ultimately do little to change the dynamics of higher education, why are the Ivies, such as Columbia, shelling out large sums of money to law firms to fight them?

There must be something powerful about them, and this excites me. If Ivy leagues want Graduate Student Unions abolished, then they must be capable of enacting real change. At least this is the logic that makes the most sense to my brain. And of course: follow the money, because then you’ll find the real reason why private universities don’t want to see their graduate students unionize.

The demands of the Graduate Student Unions that I have spoken to can hardly be considered demands at all. One union wants better health care coverage for dependents and dental care, others want a neutral third-party person to assess discrimination and harassment charges, and another wants something as basic as being paid on time, which when you live paycheck to paycheck, is tremendously important.  And perhaps most importantly for administrations, the demands of the unions that I have spoken with are not prohibitively expensive. In fact, most of the demands are already offered to administrative hires within the university staff, so the infrastructure is already there. Why, then, are universities such as Duke so recalcitrant about graduate student unions, and universities such as Columbia going to such expansive efforts as to hire an external law firm to combat them?

Duke's reaction to the formation of a Graduate Student Union has been met with carefully worded condemnation, alleging that the union merely represents graduate students "in one limited aspect" and that the union will "affect the entire relationship and limit the flexibility and quality of students' overall academic experience, both now and in the future." Limit the quality of student's overall experience? The Duke Graduate Student Union is merely asking for slight but important improvements in health insurance and that they may be able to use university facilities, such as the gym. How does that, pray tell, negatively impact graduate student's experience? They also want a third party to mediate on issues of harassment and discrimination, which as my story illustrates, would only be beneficial to graduate student's experience. It strikes me that they are not worried at all about the graduate student experience, but rather, a bottom line that has been kept private. 

And this is one of the better reactions to last year's decision to allow graduate students at private schools to union. On the other extreme, for example, is Columbia University's complete refusal to bargain despite graduate student workers voting by an overwhelming 72% in favor of unionization last year. They have brought in a law firm to handle this dispute. My experience with corporate law firms suggests that the billable hours being racked up to fight Columbia's graduate student union is vastly expensive, perhaps more expensive than merely granting the union's proposed requests. It's time to follow the money and figure out, exactly, why Columbia is so adamant about preventing the formation of a union whose only aims would be to protect graduate student workers and their rights. What, really, is the issue behind this backlash against unions?

As I mentioned before, I not only had no idea about what my school’s graduate student union did, but I was also raised in a fairly conservative setting where the word “union” was almost always muttered as a dirty word. Could it be that in the U.S., we have been successfully indoctrinated to be against unions to such an extreme that our default and knee-jerk reaction to them is suspicion? I must admit, I think that is what the case was with me. However, when I taught at a public school a few years ago, I worked enough hours to have to pay union dues, but was one hour short of qualifying for union benefits, so perhaps I can slightly forgive myself to become involved in the graduate student union. But that still leaves a looming question mark over whether or not my own graduate student union could have helped me, or could have helped my peers who faced harassment and discrimination by professors, or my peers who had classes cancelled at the last minute, leaving them without a way to financially support themselves adequately for a semester.

This post comes just as Boston College is voting today over a Graduate Student Union, and just in time for next week at Columbia University on September 20th.

Because of my admitted ignorance of Graduate Student Unions, part II of this post will be co-authored by Cera Fisher, an enigmatic doctoral student at University of Connecticut, who sent me an impassioned email about her process of helping start UConn’s Graduate Student Union, and what has happened since. I had the pleasure of speaking to her on the phone recently, and I have to say, her optimism and intelligence is infectious. After speaking to her I felt, for the first time in years, optimistic about the future of academia-- if she represents what future professors look like, then academia’s reform is in excellent hands.

Along with several graduate students, Fisher formed a union at the University of Connecticut in Spring 2014, primarily over common causes across departments, such as the cutting of health insurance and the continual raising of student fees that graduate student assistantships did not cover. As a member of the bargaining committee, Fisher and her colleagues negotiated a contract. One thing they really wanted in the collective bargaining agreement was a clause about harassment, and a clause about intellectual property. Fisher notes that in both cases, they used the university’s existing language and sought to make it a part of our CBA (describe what that is) because then it would be “grievable.” This lines up with other representatives I have spoken with, all of whom list harassment and discrimination at the top of their concerns.

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