Should Graduate Students Unionize?

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students from private universities could legally form unions (see this short article from the New York Times), and commentators have subsequently asked whether graduate students actually need protection from their institutions. Graduate students already receive fee and tuition waivers, stipends, and healthcare from their universities whereas medical and law students pay for their entire educations. Why, then, should graduate students complain about their labor conditions when many other students and employees at the university level potentially suffer from even more clear-cut exploitation?

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The case for graduate student unionization follows two central principles: 1) Graduate students do not receive adequate compensation for their skilled academic labor. 2) The use of underpaid graduate students for college courses not only prevents universities from hiring tenured faculty but also lowers the wages of adjuncts and other nontenured instructors. Based upon personal experience, graduate students typically work over fifty hours per week and must divide their time between their own research (which will determine their long-term success) and their instructional responsibilities. Graduate students must therefore prioritize between their careers and their students whenever they manage their schedules, which inevitably weakens either their research programs or the curriculum and administration of their courses. While these trade-offs certainly apply for tenured professors, graduate students experience similar pressure from their departments for original research but generally receive less protection from campus administrators who expect well-designed classes from their instructors.

Furthermore, graduate students often receive stipends that neither cover their expenses nor reflect the number of hours they dedicate towards their students. Most graduate student assistantships provide compensation for twenty hours of work per week, yet most universities expect more lectures, assignments, handouts, feedback, office hours, etc. than twenty hours can actually produce. Graduate students must then decide between working without pay for their students and saving their time for additional employment opportunities and research. The graduate students I have met during my undergraduate and graduate careers have almost exclusively chosen the first option, and many of them teach far more than weekly sections. While most universities call their graduate student employees “assistants” for financial and political reasons, English departments commonly staff their first-year composition, upper-division technical communication, and literature classes with graduate students and adjuncts. I consider the teaching experience I received at the University of Oklahoma essential for my professional development, but I personally found the title “Graduate Student Assistant” disrespectful while independently planning and teaching college courses.

Of course, the compensation graduate students receive for their labor also affects other university employees; adjuncts often work more hours for less pay than their graduate student counterparts and do not receive the benefit of tuition waivers. I commend the University of Oklahoma English Department for recently hiring some of its adjuncts with renewable-term faculty contracts, which do not provide tenure but dramatically improve the payment and job-security of temporary English instructors. Graduate students and adjuncts nonetheless teach first-year composition and other general education courses across the country, and the low wages and excessive hours of each group worsens the labor conditions of the other. If campus administrations could not hire graduate students and adjuncts for heavily-impacted classes, then tuition costs would probably rise; however, additional tenure-track and renewable-term faculty could also increase the quality of university classes, the satisfaction of higher-education professionals, and the long-term stability of academia itself.

Although unionization would not solve these problems immediately, negotiations between graduate students, tenured faculty, and campus administrators could improve the labor conditions of graduate students and other university instructors. Colleges have increasingly modeled themselves after businesses, and perhaps graduate students should follow suit and realize they have become multiyear employees of the “corporate university.” This does not mean we should monetize education or let our students become our customers, but it does mean that graduate students cannot let universities pay them less than their market value because of the mere prospect of eventually receiving tenure-track positions. Graduate students can, and should, demand what they are worth, and unionization seems perfectly reasonable under the present circumstances.

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