Why graduate workers need a union, and why it matters to everyone else

Right now, my colleagues at Columbia are preparing for a strike in an attempt to pressure the university administration into bargaining with our union. Here’s why I support them and why you should too.

If you already support graduate unionization, good for you! It’s because you recognize that students across the country deserve consistent health care benefits, appropriately-timed pay, protection from discrimination and harassment, and other kinds of support employers are typically legally required to supply to their employees. These kinds of support are already available to graduate students at public universities (as long as they’re not in a “right to work” state), because public universities are essentially considered the fingernails of the long arm of the government.

But if you don’t support graduate unionization, it’s probably because you think that graduate students a) aren’t employees and b) should just embrace the capitalist system and leave their jobs if they’re really that bad. So, congratulations, you are a university official! But here’s why you’re wrong.

For decades now, the National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on whether graduate students can be considered workers. This politically-charged flip-flopping makes it seem like a matter of opinion. But the 1935 Labor Relations Act, which established our modern definition of a worker and the rights afforded to them (such as collective bargaining aka unionization), pretty clearly states that people who perform a job as part of their training, even if they aren’t being paid for that job, are considered workers.

(12) The term “professional employee” means–
(a) any employee engaged in work (i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical, or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in its performance; (iii) of such a character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized in relation to a given period of time; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes; or
(b) any employee, who (i) has completed the courses of specialized intellectual instruction and study described in clause (iv) of paragraph (a), and (ii) is performing related work under the supervision of a professional person to qualify himself to become a professional employee as defined in paragraph (a).

Sec. 7. [§ 157.] Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8(a)(3) [section 158(a)(3) of this title].

Sec. 8. [§ 158.] (a) [Unfair labor practices by employer] It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer–
(5) to refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees, subject to the provisions of section 9(a) [section 159(a) of this title].

But let’s say you aren’t convinced by the letter of the law. You still think that graduate students are just whiny, privileged kids who don’t understand the value of a hard day’s work and are trying to get a free ride. Let’s say you’re not compelled by the description of a graduate student’s job: either as a researcher in which they are employed in a lab or other research site, conducting research for which the university receives payment in the form of grants and then publishing said research in journals from which the university gains notoriety and sometimes more grants; or as a teacher in which they instruct the majority of undergraduate classes at large institutions, freeing professors to do their own research (which makes the university money), and taking on the bulk of the instruction for which undergraduates pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend the university, including preparing assignments, grading assignments, proctoring exams, lecturing, meeting with students one-on-one, and organizing administrative tasks such as out-of-classroom activities, tech support for professors, and disciplinary actions. Let’s say you’re not compelled by the fact that graduate students are, in fact, paid for their work, and that this payment is often explicitly disbursed in reference to their teaching or research duties, as when students are only paid during the months that they work. This payment even often goes directly through the payroll office, rather than the graduate division or the student’s department. Let’s say you’re not compelled by the many ways in which universities already treat graduate students as employees, like by requiring them to attend personnel trainings and including them in communications directed at faculty and staff, or by considering them faculty and staff in issues of sexual assault and harassment. Let’s say you’re not compelled by the fact that most graduate students are not, in fact, kids, that most of them are in their late 20s and many have dependent family, health problems, and financial obligations that require support from their employer.

If you are not compelled by any of these things, than likely you are offering the pure capitalist argument – if there are abuses in the system, the onus is on the worker to correct them by bargaining with a competitor or otherwise leaving the job and making the system unprofitable. Ignoring the fact that this is extremely improbable because an individual worker doesn’t have that kind of bargaining power, which is why unions exist in the first place…

In a capitalist system, your identity in society is defined by your job. I don’t just mean in the sense that the first thing you ask someone when you meet them is “so what do you do?” I mean that the major ways in which you interact with the government and society at large are often mediated through your employer. The biggest examples are paying taxes and securing health insurance. When you pay income taxes, you supply forms to the IRS generated by the people who pay you as testimony of your income. But if a university doesn’t consider you an employee, regardless of the fact that they pay you, they don’t have to supply these forms. This means they also don’t contribute to social security or retirement accounts, and they don’t withhold taxes. Which would make you a freelancer, right? Except you are not a freelancer, and the process for filing taxes as a freelancer requires other documentation that you still don’t have because you don’t submit invoices to the university because you are in their payroll system. Similarly, you are able to secure health insurance largely through your employer in this country, but, again, if your employer doesn’t consider you an employee, they don’t need to provide health insurance. At all. It’s not even an issue of affordable or appropriate coverage, you’re simply not entitled to it. And because you’re not entitled to it, that means that when you do have it, the university can make that coverage whatever it wants. In my first three years at Columbia, the university revoked and then restored our dental insurance and made dependent coverage completely my responsibility and then completely free. When I was at Boston College, the university determined that its insurance policy was only a guarantee during the student’s first year and that the administration could choose to stop covering an individual after that without any justification.

So why don’t graduate students individually bargain for better terms? Well, the movies have lied to you – universities don’t give you an offer based on how brilliant you are, they give the same offer to everyone. Every University of California school has the same package, regardless of the municipality they’re in (imagine how far that goes in Berkeley versus in Sacramento). And your offer letter isn’t a contract – the university can change the terms at any time, and if you leave, they don’t really care. Even though graduate students create an incredible amount of value for the university, our treatment doesn’t reflect that and there is no market correction. This is because universities aren’t capitalist – the graduate student system is based on the early-modern apprenticeship system. The apprentice is free to leave the master at any time, he’ll just never get a job in that field and all his years of training will go to waste (don’t you dare lecture me about sunk cost).

Here’s why this hurts more than just graduate students: the cost of a university education isn’t rising because graduate students want consistent benefits, it’s rising because the administrations keep hiring more administrators and putting more work on a dwindling number of faculty, staff, and graduate students. If graduate students don’t deserve benefits or a living wage, neither do adjunct professors (professors without a full-time or long-term contract), since they have the same job. The service of education that the university provides is worse as teachers are given more students and fewer benefits, while the universities accept more students and open more programs and facilities. This combination adds costs in larger quantities while cutting relatively small costs (you’d be surprised how little cutting one professor’s salary adds to the university’s funds). Meanwhile, universities like Columbia are spending millions of dollars a year employing anti-union law firms, when they could just provide benefits and raise pay for a fraction of the cost. If you attend a university that employs graduate students or you send your child to one, these costs end up in your tuition, so the burden of this whole fight falls on you.

Here’s why this matters for everyone: the fact that universities can choose to deny worker’s rights to their employed graduate students is based on the university’s assertion that because it is not a government agency it is not compelled to maintain those rights, that essentially a student’s various rights no longer exist when they walk on campus. This works out in more than just tax forms and healthcare. When a graduate student is sexually assaulted by a professor, the university does not follow remotely the same protocol that even a typical office would – there is no investigation and no recourse unless the graduate student is willing to sit with her assailant and directly accuse him to his face in front of her employer (in a typical workplace, the management will investigate claims anonymously and independently choose whether or not to fire an employee, regardless of any specific accusations). Students are often denied free speech on campus, because the university can decide that students can only gather if they have petitioned the administration for a permit. And because universities believe they have this power, they can do what Columbia is doing now, and simply ignore the legally-sanctioned (and in some cases, ordered) actions of the student union. After graduate students at Columbia voted in favor of unionization, the university simply ignored the vote. The union is now in the process of suing the university to get them to comply with the law. What this means for the rest of us is that if your employer is large enough, they can just decide to ignore the law because it would be too difficult for you to fight them on it.