July 19, 2004

Do Grad Students Work for a Living?

Via Chris Bowers of MyDD, a potentially important story:

The fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at the nation's private universities suffered a crushing setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as research and teaching assistants did not have the right to unionize.

In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled 3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

For legal reasons that I don't understand, this doesn't apply to public universities.

Maybe I should leave this as an open thread for grad students who teach classes or assist professors in research: Do you work for a living? Or has your university just socked you away in a cushy sinecure so you can finish your dissertation?

(OK, so those questions were formulated in a slightly leading manner. There are arguments for and against unionization, I figure, but it's a total non-starter to pretend that grad students aren't adults working at jobs that usually serve as their sole means of support.)

[UPDATE: Brian Leiter has more; he speaks from personal experience as a unionized TA at a public university.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 19, 2004 03:05 PM

I don't consider myself well-educated enough to have my own position on the issue, but I am at Brown and have been exposed to the rhetoric on both sides. The most pursuasive anti-unionization argument I've heard is that for graduate students at private universities, the interests of the students and the long-term interests of the university converge. The idea, I think, is that the employer-emmployee dynamic is not present, even though we obviously depend on the university for our support.

Posted by: Jonathan at July 20, 2004 08:34 AM

I don't mean to come down hard on the pro-union side, only on the question of whether grad students count as employees. It may be that the interests of students and long-term interests of the university converge, but is that enough to subvert the employer-employee dynamic?

Also, there may be a risk that the university fails to act in its long-term interest....

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 20, 2004 01:30 PM

At most factories the interests of the factory and the interest of the workers coincide on most issues. (E.g. demand for what's being produced staying high, the factory not being destroyed by terrorist attack, it being a happy workplace, etc.) But that's *no reason whatsoever* to keep unions out of factories. I'd be very surprised if the interests of the university and the interests of the students were a particularly closer match than our factory and its workers.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at July 20, 2004 02:33 PM

*our* factory? Are you trying to say something about Cornell? :-)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 20, 2004 03:17 PM

This has been somewhat of a problem at the U in terms of health benefits for grad students. It will only be next year that funded grad students get health insurance covered (80% covered, that is). Of course those grad students who will be on fellowships next year do not get this benefit...it's a lucky thing that some of us have our acting gigs to fall back on! :)

Posted by: Linda Fiorentino at July 20, 2004 03:53 PM

I wouldn't count on that either...

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 21, 2004 03:10 PM

And--Clorinda? Who knew?

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 21, 2004 03:10 PM

Everyone knows that--and you call yourself a fan... ;0

Posted by: Linda Fiorentino at July 22, 2004 09:26 AM

It's worth noting that even those who are in important ways "anti-union" can be strongly opposed to the NLRB's decision. (I think this is in the spirit of Matt's first response -- the second comment above.) I, for instance, was in some sense "anti-union" when the issue was being debated at Yale: I thought it was unwise for Yale graduate students to unionize. (This position had to do with details of the situation at Yale, and wouldn't necessarily hold for other universities.) But I thought it was their decision, and they should be given the right to decide (collectively, by an appropriate voting mechanism). Considerations about graduate students' interests seem like they could possibly make one "anti-union" in the sense that I was here at Yale. But that could leave you strongly opposed to the NLRB decision.

Posted by: Keith DeRose at July 23, 2004 11:31 AM

Keith, that's right--I wouldn't want to preempt any judgments about the merits of unionization in any particular case, but I think the rationale that graduate students shouldn't be able to unionize because they aren't employees is ridiculous.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 23, 2004 06:10 PM

What is the question? I thought it had something to do with whether graduate students work for a living.

Here's an interesting line Matt wrote: "it's a total non-starter to pretend that grad students aren't adults working at jobs that usually serve as their sole means of support."

First, the proposition presumes that grad students are adults. Are grad students adults? What is an adult? And, how do I (clearly)distinguish an adult from an adolescent?

Second, does a job that serves as the sole means of support translate into something that should be unionized? For instance, social security might be the sole means of support for some senior citizens. Senior citizens might argue that day-to-day living does (indeed) qualify as a job for them - and a high risk one at that. Should they be allowed to unionize? What about those whose sole means of support is welfare? Should they be allowed to unionize?

Finally, I am not clear about the "employer-employee" relationship in the university setting. Is the employer the "university?" Is it the Provost, Dean, Department Chair? Or, is it someone (or something) else? What's the product of the university? Also, being an employee means doing work. Many graduate students I know don't do the work they are assigned. We need only refer to the many "I"s on transcripts to show that the students don't work. If they were employees, then they would have been (and should have been) fired a long (long) time before accruing so many "I"s.

Posted by: Joe at July 28, 2004 03:59 PM