Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Grad students recognized as workers

Driving home from beginning-of-the-year meetings, I heard this news on NPR:

NLRB: Graduate Students at Private Universities May Unionize

If I heard the NPR story (which I don't see online yet) correctly, the ruling also applies to undergraduate student workers.

I don't know all the ins and outs, but I think this is probably good news, since it seems likely to reduce opportunities and incentives for exploiting grad student labor -- perhaps not by much, but maybe at least a bit?



  1. I hope this is good news. Yet I must admit that my current institution has made me very cynical.

    I earned my professional life by being a GA trying to balance teaching classes and taking classes, grading essays and writing essays.

    Here, I fear the university will offer fewer and fewer GA positions, cut funding for graduate students accordingly, yet still accept students who will need to borrow more money--all the while hiring more adjuncts (most likely the graduate students who just finished their programs) to "cover" classes that the GAs taught.

    I hope I'm wrong.

    And I don't like how I react these days to what should be good news.

  2. Beware the law of unintended consequences. Will advisers and committees be allowed to flunk shitty grad students? Who is going to intervene when a student feels they are being discriminated against? Will international students who make up nearly all of the hard science grads students really give a shit when they are more interested in finishing their degree and getting the hell ou?

  3. Comments like Professor Dumas'--and the bizarrely full of profanity dissent in this case--show how sadly little understood unionization and collective bargaining are these days. Our grandparents, whether they were allowed to join unions or not, understood these things perfectly well.

    The previous case law against grad student unionization hinged on the notion that one's status as a student somehow obviated one's status as a worker. The new ruling sensibly points out that both can coexist. Unions bargain contracts that spell out the terms of _employment_. That's it.

    1. I had the feeling that some people whose own professional work relies heavily on the use of grad TAs and/or RAs (research, not resident, assistants) might have a less-positive reaction to this news than I (tentatively) did, and I think I understand why, given how dependent both teaching and research have become on grad-student labor. I can also envision the unintended consequences Anonymous describes (and the only silver lining I can see there is that time to degree might fall somewhat; I'm not sure, however, that recent-Ph.D. employability outside the academy, or in decently-paid jobs inside the academy, would rise, so that's not necessarily a plus if student debt rises).

      However, we have managed some similar entangling when it comes to unpaid internships for undergrads and recent B.A./B.S. graduates (thank again, I believe, to the NLRB). I don't think that system was quite so entrenched as the use of irregularly-compensated grad labor in universities (the way institutions set tuition at the grad level is also relevant here), but they do seem to have made some headway in distinguishing between experiences with true educational/apprenticeship value (fair game in an unpaid internship) and free labor for clerical/scutwork tasks once performed by workers in entry-level positions (no longer fair game for palming off on interns). The situation in the academy is somewhat different, but I think there are some parallels: a true apprenticeship *ought* to require a good deal of work on the part of paid employees to plan the experience in a way that guarantees that it will give the apprentice the opportunity to increase skills, supervise the apprentice, and provide regular, detailed feedback and mentoring. If the apprentice is mostly *saving* the master time by doing work that (s)he would otherwise have to do, with little supervision, feedback, and other mentoring, and/or if the apprentice is simply doing the same kind of work over and over again past the point that (s)he no longer requires much supervision, but counts as a novice hirself, then it's no longer really an apprenticeship, and work conditions/expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

      In the end, I think it's analogous to teaching a smaller kid to get ready in the morning, manage hir stuff and time, etc.: if it would be quicker for you to do it yourself, but you have the kid do it because your want the kid to learn, that's education/apprenticeship. If it's actually faster and more convenient for the kid to do it hirself, you've got an independent worker (which is no problem in the context of a family, where all members should contribute to the best of their ability, but is a potential problem in a workplace that confuses apprentices w/ paid workers).

      (I'm sure a historian would remind me that apprenticeships have always been exploitative: there's probably not a lot of point, economically, to training an apprentice unless you get a year or two of good work out of him afterward. That's probably one of the many reasons apprentices often ran away. But we've rethought other parts of labor law a good deal since Ben Franklin was a child, and we probably need to rethink this one, too.)

    2. Sentence one, paragraph two, should include the word "unentangling" (not "entangling").

  4. When I was a PhD student, a few of us from different departments had the opportunity to devise and teach classes--essentially the work of an adjunct, just done by grad students. We were supposed to be paid $3000 for the semester, which, while not grand (this was about 15 years ago), was a nice little bump in stipend.

    Then, the following semester, when I prepared to teach the same class, the pay had dropped to $1500. Why? It turns out that when some students' departments found out they were teaching on the side, the departments ABSORBED the $3000 and lowered the students' stipends accordingly. The drop to $1500, then, was a compromise--the absorbing departments promised not to do that again if the amount of money was lowered.

    Meanwhile, down the hall, real adjuncts were probably making much more for doing literally the exact same work.

    That's the first time I wished we had a grad student union, or some similar body, able to enforce the principle of "if you do extra work in exchange for extra pay, you should be able to receive that extra pay."

    1. A sad experience, indeed. My general experience was that I made out much better financially as a grad student than as an adjunct (maybe about the same as a grad student and as an adjunct at my own institution, but it was by no means typical; I got my first TIAA-CREF account when I started working as an adjunct for my grad alma mater, and got insurance as well -- really, really unusual, and probably a result of the fact that we had a really short grad program, and a lot of people still working for the department and pursuing their degrees after their programs had officially ended). I'm not sure whether that was because I was pretty well-funded as a grad student (I was) or quite badly paid as an adjunct (I was, but it could have been worse; I've worked for the institution in my area that offers the best adjunct pay -- but a maximum of two sections -- but not for the one that offers the worst -- the local community college, I think, but it might be one of the worse-funded local Catholic colleges. The best-paying institution is also Catholic,though.)

    2. I actually got my first TIAA-CREF account from my grad alma mater, too. The brand-new Dean for the college was from a humanities department, and put a lot of pressure on my department head to force out students who had taken "too long" (despite the fact that we were paid by external grants from which the uni skimmed a generous overhead). So for my last five months I was a "staff scientist" instead of a "graduate research assistant" which meant I got benefits. Good time for it, too, because it meant we could drop my better half's very expensive COBRA.

  5. I can attest that working for shit wages as a Grad Student in research sucked, but it was ultimately for me to gain experience and education. That was my goal.

    As someone who is now working on doling out a budget for Grad research assistants, all unionization would mean is that we would have the same total amount of money (because our budget surely would not change!) and a smaller total amount of experience to a smaller number of grad students.

    As with most collective bargaining and unionization situations, it's great for the people who still manage to get the work, but horrible for those who, due to budget constraints, can now not get work but otherwise would have.

    This does worry me because I had promised an undergrad who wants to be an editor that come Spring time I'd scrape together enough to pay her minimum wage so she could edit our Galleys and actually be able to put the title "Galley Editor" or something like it on her resume. I'm afraid that if undergrads and grads unionize I might not be able to offer that because of an unforeseen increase in what we have to pay... I'd feel really shitty if I couldn't keep my promise to her because, perhaps against better judgment, I DID promise.

    1. Come to think of it, I don't know what I'm going to do about edits now because the amount I had set aside for professionals to go over our final proofs took into account that they would already be heavily edited before sending them over.

      If I can't afford any editing help whatsoever, I'll just have to do it myself, I suppose.

      Back to the excel sheet!

  6. If graduate students were apprentices to master research and teaching faculty, then this would be an unwelcome intrusion on academic communities (especially those not closely tied to state budgets). However, we are moving away from that model. Graduate students are adjuncts who want an education and can do research along the way. They teach introductory classes to students who are in most need of highly qualified, experienced faculty, and they are paid shit for doing it.

    My only concern is that messing up one aspect of higher education, however much it may need to be changed, will negatively affect the remaining parts of this system that work well.

  7. I did not go to a tier-one graduate program.

    Oh, it was an R1 department in the sense that most of the faculty had external funding to do research and published regularly in decent journals and the teaching loads were consistent with that idea, but no one would have mistaken it for a prestigious program.

    So, as I understand things my graduate experience was a bit different from that in high prestige situations. But I have to say that even looking back it never seemed exploitive.

    * Payed a pittance? Check.

    * Long hours? Check?

    * High expectations? Check.

    * Professor needed to present at the conference in Hawaii, and it would be good for you to present at the one in Cleveland? Check.

    But at the same time,

    * Menial work? No. It always needed our education, and generally furthered our understanding of what we already knew or broke new ground for us. I have had reason to value the work I did every semester of grad school.

    * Replacing Faculty? Or even adjuncts? Well, we taught the lab section attached to a faculty member's lectures or did grading, but policy and most of the prep came from the faculty, so not much.

    * Travel money for you to go to a conference every year? Check. Though it's in Cleveland.

    * Travel money for graduate summer schools? Check.

    And as soon as you switched form TA to RA, you found yourself in an intensely mentored and demanding work environment.

    In some ways I'm sure that I came out ahead of my peers who went to Famous Tech and East Ivy University. Not in the ways that get you a job at those places, of course, but in terms of my development in depth and breadth within my discipline.

    As a result the whole grad student unionization issue has always seemed remote to me. I payed my dues and my seniors took their responsibilities to me seriously and I have no need to complain. Indeed I hope I am serving my own students so well.

    But then I hear the stories from those famous places. And from less well funded departments and I wonder how anyone finishes and why they put up with it.


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