WHY A UNION FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS?
Why do graduate student workers want to unionize?
In the National Labor Relations Board’s decision that graduate students have the legal right to unionize, they expressed that “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer”–and we agree! As grads at Penn, we feel invested in Penn both in our capacity as students and as employees. A graduate student union would give us an official platform to participate democratically in decisions related to graduate student life and work. We take our situation as the future of the academic profession seriously and wish to participate in shaping that future as much as learning about the profession as it stands today.
I didn’t have many of the benefits of today’s graduate students when I was in graduate school. Why do graduate students need a union now?
Graduate students want a union because they want a voice in decisions that affect their lives, from day-to-day work conditions and benefits to the prospects of higher education more broadly. As the future of the industry, graduate students want to be able to meaningfully raise their concerns and help to shape the direction of higher education in the US.
In material terms, graduate students’ conditions have improved since unionization campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s, but the landscape of higher education has also changed significantly–especially in the past ten years. As many people employed in higher education would attest, the staffing models of universities are undergoing qualitative changes, which normalize precarity at nearly every level of academia. Universities have curtailed faculty rights and cut back on the number of tenure-track positions, undoing many of the protections that we associate with tenure-track jobs. Universities are relying on adjunct professors, postdocs, and other forms of contingent academic labor more than ever before. Therefore, today’s generation of graduate students understand that they may not be able to access tenure-track positions. By forming a union, we, along with graduate students at private and public universities across the country are working towards a more equitable and sustainable future for people working in academia.
EFFECT OF A UNION ON FACULTY LIVES
What would a union mean for the relationship between advisors and advisees/PIs and research assistants?
We believe that a union would only strengthen the relationship between advisors/PIs and advisees/research assistants! And the data, alongside the National Labor Relations Board decision, supports this.* There is no empirical evidence to suggest that a relationship between a graduate student and an advisor would be harmed by the establishment of a graduate student union. While we agree with the NLRB’s determination that a graduate student is “both a student and an employee,” we do not see faculty members—least of all our advisors—as “managers.” GET-UP will negotiate with representatives of Penn’s trustees, not with faculty.
SUPPORTING GRADUATE WORKERS AT PENN.
Do GET-UP’s graduate workers have the support of other faculty members?
Yes! Through the united work of our graduate workers and faculty allies, we have reached out to many supportive faculty members who stand by graduate students’ right to make this decision for themselves. If you are interested in supporting graduate students’ efforts to organize, we encourage you to reach out to GET-UP.
Does my position as a faculty member place restrictions on my speech in support of GET-UP?
Faculty are free to voice their support for GET-UP if they want to. The NLRB places restrictions on faculty’s ability to influence grad students with promises or punishments so that graduate students have the freedom to make the decision to unionize for themselves.
What can faculty members do to support graduate workers?
There are many things Penn’s faculty can do to support grad workers. Here are a few ideas:
- Get in touch with GET-UP to learn about our Faculty Allies working group
- Talk to your colleagues who are unsure about the value of a graduate union!
- Put one of our posters on your door!
- Read up on materials regarding how graduate student unionization has affected grad student life at other universities. One starting point might be:
* See for example, Sean Rogers, Adrienne E. Eaton, and Paula B. Voos, “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 487 (2013). This article was cited by the NLRB in their decision in favor on graduate student unionization.