structure and agency of graduate union activism

In the conversation about the Teaching Assistants’ Association at Madison not endorsing Tom Barrett in Wisconsin’s recall election, Jeremy wrote:

Mike: Given your experience, I would love to see a post from you on the individual/collective benefits versus time costs of graduate student unions. When I started at Madison, I was enthusiastic to get a faculty job somewhere where students were unionized, but left feeling much more ambivalent about it. Most of that shift followed from seeing the apparent costs to students in terms of time and distraction much more clearly than the benefits.

To be honest, I have thought about writing a post on this topic for a long time. Given strong negative feelings toward graduate employee unions among some faculty, I was reluctant to discuss the matter lest the post be connected to my real identity. But, no longer will I let my unruly side be sublimated by unwarranted caution so here I go…

The experience to which Jeremy refers is the activism in my own graduate student local, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers/AFL-CIO) at the University of Michigan, that I wrote about in my comment to the original post. To reiterate again as both background and disclosure, I was active for four years, serving the last two as vice president and president and the following year I served as a chair of the association of AFT grad unions (which included TAA as well as the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association, which also deserves substantial credit for the Capital sit-in last year).

I suspect that Jeremy is correct that grad local activism absorbs energy and delays (or prevents) completion of grad school; he is also correct that sociology departments feel a disproportionate effect (this is generally true of grad local, not just the TAA). While OW is right that many activists move on to academic jobs (even among contributors to Scatterpolot Shamus is a star on his way to tenure at Columbia, I am now happily employed in a tenure track job). But anecdotes do not constitute data and I suspect that if Jeremy modeled the hazard of completing the program, the indicator for student activists would be negative and statistically significant.

That said, I also think that it is important to consider the reasons for delayed or forgone degrees. I suspect that there are both push and pull factors that lead some activists to leave. Some activists might find talents they never knew that they had in politics, organizing, or mobilization and be pulled out of grad school. Shamus correctly suggests that some might find the academic life is not one to which they aspire (which, according to grad school rulz #21, is one of few good reasons to quit). I also agree that we should be wary to call exiting from academia after obtaining the doctorate a “failure.” We train too many Ph.D.s for the positions that colleges and universities currently hire in well-paying, stable jobs.

This last facet is especially pertinent for grad union activists. Their involvement leads them to directly observe the structural conditions found in contemporary American universities. Chief among these is the increasing reliance on low-pay, replaceable adjunct professors. Grad union activists might be high-information decision-makers making a rational choice as they look to an undesirable but increasingly likely future of contingent employment. I know this was true for me; I developed serious alternatives to academic employment, one of which was employment in the labor movement. Many activists actually took this route, Ph.D. in hand, and are now quite successful as international vice-presidents, state federation presidents, and division directors within large unions.

A full accounting of the advantages and costs must also include the social advantages and costs. We can start with the graduate students who would not complete graduate school without the benefits of the union, or even find it viable to start in the first place. During my involvement at GEO, we fought for and won increased stipends (which led to the net benefit of raising RA stipends as well), higher child-care subsidies, improved medical care (with no premiums on individuals and low premiums on families), and gained university support for disabled, transgender, and international graduate students. It is easy to overlook students for whom these benefits are necessary to support their continued progression; the conditions that delay their progress are often invisible to advisors and department leadership. This means that the counterfactual world in which these students don’t receive the union’s benefits is less transparent than the counterfactual world in which grad students abstain from union activism.

There are social costs to consider as well. Union activism, particularly the type of dedicated commitment necessary to create a strong local, takes a lot of time. Almost all of the elected leaders at graduate unions volunteer for their positions, meaning this time comes in addition to the other activities (like teaching) that pay their salary. With only 24 hours in the day and sleep already foregone, this means that the time comes from research and dissertation writing. This rightfully frustrates advisors and departements as commitment wanes and time-to-degree increases. Stipends, and at some institutions TA positions, are a scarce resource; just as the advisors and department administrators have difficulty seeing the benefits accrue to graduate students from the union, I think that graduate students can sometimes fail to see the cost departments bear for their activism.

Since activists tend to comprise a large proportion of sociologists, sociology departments and faculty end up bearing a large amount of these costs. I completely understand why sociology faculty would, as Jeremy puts it, “feel ambivalent” about graduate student activism. I also see how, given this ambivalence, union activists fear talking to their advisors about their activism and think they can do it all. Problems arise because of a failure to communicate expectations. I actually find a helpful parallel to coauthorship: tension, while a natural byproduct of the process, is reduced by setting clear expectations at the beginning of the process.

For those in this situation, I can offer a few suggestions. I would suggest that students speak candidly to advisors about career plans (including doubts and changing plans) and advisors be receptive to the fact that an academic job like theirs need not be the only destination one seeks with a Ph.D. I think that advisors should be candid with students about what accomplishing those career goals will take. Devoting one or even two years to activism alongside scholarship should not seriously derail one’s trajectory and activism could continue longer as long as clear expectations and deadlines are established and being met. If activism frequently eats into deadlines and students don’t meet expectations, then the advisor and student should both re-evaluate.

Finally, another helpful tack in my own career was to treat activism as “service.” The potential pitfalls and advantages of this serve mirror those I experience committing to faculty service now: I developed a strong knowledge of the academic hierarchy through my activist work (I learned what a Provost actually is!) and came to meet colleagues across the university. Most beneficially, I learned to balance my academic work with my “service” work; a skill I learned in no small part due to the warnings of one of my advisors to keep my eye on what needed to get done to obtain a faculty position.

This is by no means complete, but this post is already extraordinarily (and probably unnecessarily) long. I am sure, even as long as this post is, that there is much that I missed and I ask others who found themselves working through these problems to write more about their experiences in the comments below. I hope, however, that it helps provide at least one perspective on the matter.

13 thoughts on “structure and agency of graduate union activism”

  1. Great post!* I think you might also turn this question around: what is the cost of *not* having a union, and of people not being active within it. As Western and Rosenfeld pointed out in their ASR piece, between 1/5 and 1/3 of the recent growth in inequality can be explained by declines in unionization rates. See;

    Now of course we can’t take that as evidence that grad student unions are a collective good. But I also don’t think we can ignore it. It raises all kinds of more uncomfortable questions as well. Like those who succeeded in part by being free-riders. We may find a “net negative” impact of union activism (though I think selection effects would be strong and difficult to deal with). But I ask what the net negative impact would be on all grad students (even those without unions) without them.

    *Kindly forward the part about my being a “star on my way to tenure at Columbia” to my senior colleagues. Haha.


  2. Good post. Random reactions.

    I also was an activist while in grad school, although a feminist activist, not a union activist. I also learned a lot of sociology from being an activist, and learned some university ropes through feminists in other departments. Having an identity crisis about being a “good student” rather than having an inner drive slowed down my career a lot more than activism did, and several of the women in my group ended up as pretty high-powered academics.

    I think everybody owes something to “the community” consistent with your own politics and principles,and I don’t see any particular merit in working all the time. Having children also takes a lot of time. Doesn’t mean you should not do it, nor that you should brag about how you are so committed to your writing that you dump child care and house work on others.

    I agree that learning how institutions work is a very good thing to do.

    One possible minus I’ve seen to the union is that its “workplace issues” seems to have left our students rather unorganized about collective orientations to how they are treated as grad students. And the students seem quite unwilling to use the union structure for individual issues like feeling over-worked in a particular position.

    Whether grad student unions in particular have a net advantage for grad students is a complicated issue to resolve. My best guess is no, because I think market pressures for good grad students are a stronger force. This is not an anti-union statement, just an analytic opinion. By contrast, I DEFINITELY think adjuncts need to unionize and tenure-track faculty need to support this in a serious way.


  3. One more thought on the hazard function. I’ll bet it is curvilinear. People who don’t “connect” with a program tend to founder and quit, and I’m guessing the students with a 0 on union involvement (net of one being available) on average have worse academic outcomes than those with modest levels of involvement. I suspect having at least some involvement improves outcomes. And, to repeat, I’ve seen a lot of union leaders who were just highly effective people who could manage multiple commitments and get things done. But I would agree that above modest levels of involvement, at some point you run into the hours in a day problem and the coefficient theoretically just has to turn negative.

    What complicates the analysis is that an ability to get things done ought to make one more likely to get elected to a leadership position and, conversely, a general tendency to founder, waste time and leave jobs undone tends to make one both an unpopular candidate for leader and a poor student.


    1. OW: Couldn’t one be involved in the program and generally invested in the identity of an academic but feel that participating in a union at the student level isn’t likely to have much personal benefit?

      Benefit to others is all well and good, but everyone is telling the students when they arrive that it is in their best interest to leave as soon as possible. I don’t mean to sound down on unions (or organized labor), as I am quite the opposite; it is just an odd situation given the itinerant population of grad students in general. Particularly in the last year or two of the program (for most students).

      By that same reasoning, if a union was already well established, students with a “get out of here fast” mindset might participate at a minimum to get benefits, provide input into union goals, etc. The problem is there are very likely a great deal of external factors that would cloud results: how motivated are they, generally? How up (or down) on unions are they? How long do they plan on sticking around? How happy are they with their own funding situation, etc? How effective do they perceive the union to be?

      I suppose the worst case scenario would be a bright eyed young grad student who confuses union participation with professional socialization, and misallocates time.


      1. “Couldn’t one be involved in the program and generally invested in the identity of an academic but feel that participating in a union at the student level isn’t likely to have much personal benefit? Benefit to others is all well and good, but everyone is telling the students when they arrive that it is in their best interest to leave as soon as possible.”

        You have given a very clear articulation of the collective goods problem.

        You seem to be upset at my speculation that people with zero participation in an existing grad student union will have lower success rates than those with modest participation. My speculation is based on a selection model, not a normative exhortation. That is, I was speculating that disconnected drifting people who don’t do well in grad school would also tend not to go to union meetings.

        However, students who think that academic success entails only doing their own work and doing what professors tell them to do are making a big mistake. Part of the profession is building network ties with peers. If your peers are in a union, you may be missing out on tie-building if you avoid union activities. There are exceptions, of course. The ones I can think of involved driven people who did other kinds of service but avoided the union because of political disagreements. And even in these cases, there is some continuing fallout from not having formed positive bonds while in grad school. Additionally, as Mikaila notes, if the faculty where you are going are unionized, a history of union involvement is seen as a plus.

        Remember: the origin of this thread was some speculation that union participation was counter-productive. Although union activists think what they do is a good thing, the bottom line isn’t that everyone ought to be a union activist regardless of their own beliefs or proclivities, it is that union (or other) activism should not be interpreted as evidence of lack of academic seriousness.


  4. I also thought of my union activism as service, and six months walking the picket line at NYU and attending meetings did not make it any harder for me to finish my Ph.D. I was not in any sort of leadership role; I can imagine that had I been my time to degree might have been extended by a year, but that’s not always such a terrible thing (I might have had more published in the extra year). But what I think is particularly important is to point out that union involvement can actually be a benefit on the job market. Many public community and four-year colleges have heavily unionized faculty and seek job candidates who will contribute to the life of the union. My GSOC button stayed on my bag for every job interview I had, and the approval it got at my current institution was just one way that both the search committee and I knew we were a good match.

    The advice I would give to a graduate student now? Be who you are and live the commitments you have. Try to make sure you are still getting work done. But beyond that, life is life. And if you care about the union, don’t you want to end up in a life that validates that care?


  5. This is a very interesting topic. I’ll offer my own experience as just another data point (though one that jibes with several thoughts presented here).

    I worked on an (ultimately unsuccessful) union drive when I was in graduate school at Cornell. While not the same as administering an existing union, there is a lot of overlap in terms of the need to mobilize a lot of volunteer hours from graduate students.

    I remember early on in my drive asking a full-time UAW organizer if it made sense in recruiting organizers to avoid grads who were working on their dissertations, since they would obviously be too busy to help out. He said that people tend to assume that there is a negative relationship between the amount of time grad students put into their research and the number of hours they are willing to dedicate to activism, but that in his experience (covering drives at least ten or so universities) the relationship was actually positive. I.e., the students who worked the hardest at research were also more willing to take on significant organizing work. This wound up being my observation as well. When I think about the research productivity and job placement of the sociology graduate students who worked on our drive, it was probably above the mean for our program. Likewise, our organizers from other departments included some of the rock star grad students of their respective programs. Indeed, I would put our “program’s” placement record up against that of any Cornell department I am familiar with during the same time period.

    Why would this be? My guess is that a third variable, something like “work ethic/commitment/goal-direction,” drove the positive correlation. Graduate students who worked their asses off on research tended to take that same approach to union activism.

    At the same time, while I perceived the correlation between research and union hours to be positive overall, I do think the causal effect was negative. I committed about 15 hours a week to union organizing for a year and a half and there’s no question it cost me work hours. It wasn’t a one-to-one trade-off by any means, but there was a cost. I’m sure the same was true for my colleagues.


  6. All, thank you for the great comments!
    @shamus – tell me where to send it (not that they would actually listen to me anyway).

    @OW – I think that you are right about the curvilinear relationship between union involvement and time-to-degree. But, I don’t see that unions could be a net negative just because market pressures for good graduate students are strong. I think that both can exist; while salary is tied to competitiveness for graduate programs (and arguably less a reflection of collective bargaining power), working conditions are not. We got a 20-hour work-week for teaching assistants in our contract while grads at other universities were subject to the good will of individual instructors.

    @Mikaila – Congratulations on getting a great job and thank you for your work at NYU! I agree that many public universities have supportive faculty, as do many private. That said, I do know graduate students who suffered on the market because they were involved in the union. I think that sociology departments, while not immune, tend to have less anti-graduate union bias than other departments. It is something to know before one goes on the market so that they can make the informed decision that you did about whether to openly admit it.

    @jmir – You are right, and I agree with what OW wrote in response. But, I also think that the “get out of grad school as soon as possible” advice might not always be the best advice. It is certainly true you don’t want to spend a long time there, but there are advantages to being in grad school and real advantages to being involved in the union.

    @robbwiller – Thank you for your work at Cornell, and sorry that the effort was unsuccessful. From my experience, I think that the people who get involved in recognition campaigns differ — not substantially, but noticeably — from those who get involved in leadership of existing unions. There are also different skills necessary, as is well developed in the social movement literature (of which I do not know enough).


    1. Minor clarification: my “market forces” argument was meant to imply a zero coefficient on unions for graduate student wages (per one of Jeremy’s initial remarks) not a negative coefficient.

      I agree in theory about a union and working conditions, but observed that despite the 20-hour limits on the books, students who felt overworked rarely used the union apparatus to deal with the situation. In fact, I talked to quite a few students who complained privately to me but resisted even letting me give feedback to the supervising professor that they felt overworked. There were two reasons. First, they felt vulnerable with respect to individual professors for all the reasons grad school makes you vulnerable, and a union can’t help that. Second, they feared that their sense of being overwhelmed was more due to their own inability to do the work efficiently and well than to being asked to do too much, and that complaining would reveal their incompetence. Fact is that a stack of 100 essays can be graded faster and better by someone with a good system than by someone who hasn’t figured out how to do the job. Ditto running a bunch of regressions.

      Where the union rules matter is in setting limits on class sizes and in a normative climate among faculty for those who pay attention and are swayed by such considerations about what a “reasonable” work load is.


      1. OW – thank you for the clarification. That makes much more sense now.

        I agree that unions help in a minority of cases. In my experience, where it really helped was in departments with chronic offenders (either a particularly bad individual or a general department climate). The reason it helped, even though we pursued a minority of cases (i.e., all the cases brought to us, which is a minority of actual violations), was because the union caused policy changes at the department level. In no small part this was because department chairs hated meetings with the union, so would work to fix it to avoid future meetings.

        Also, if we could show a pattern of consistent bad practices, the University’s HR department would intervene and tell the unit to shape up. Not doing so opens them up to lots of problems if we could show a consistent pattern of violations that was not addressed.

        But, in the end, I agree that it often took brave individuals to come forward to help make these cases. Their agency helped improve the structural conditions for other grad students, even if they were riding along for free.


  7. Coming late to this discussion – I’d just say that I was not very involved in my union while a grad student, but was definitely a member and enthusiastic supporter. In general, faculty were pretty hands off – I think the attitude was that they didn’t want to discourage participation but also wanted us to focus on professionalization more than current status. I don’t think many, if any, of the activists suffered much professional setback from participation.

    Here in NC public employees do not have the right to collective bargaining to begin with, so in practice it’s not an issue, but I would be very supportive of an independent graduate student advocacy association if students were to build it.


  8. As an activist at UAW Local 2865 in Berkeley, I have to say I’m a bit dismayed by the rational choice subtext of many of the comments (and the original post). This kind of cost/benefit mentality about unions — i.e., what have you done for me lately? — is, in my opinion, a key cultural component of the decline of the American labor movement and movements of the left in this country more generally.

    Activists in Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) and in the UC student movement more broadly have articulated a critique of this very logic. Instead of asking ourselves what we stand to gain or lose as individuals by participating, we instead level a more profound critique at the university (and the broader society), which structures the field in such a way that we are constantly forced to think in these competitive, individualistic terms instead of in terms of collective goods and community. We see our work in the union as not simply addressing bread and butter issues, but as an attempt to transform the logic of capitalism that the university imposes upon us as students and workers through our collective struggles.

    A final issue that jumped out at me and that I’d like to flag — we should be careful not to naturalize the apparent dichotomy of academic and activist. Instead, it’s important to see this as culturally and historically specific. These are choices that intellectuals in many other parts of the world do not have to make (and at other times in our history, have not had to make). Again, a more profound critique would argue for transforming the field in such a way that academic/activist no longer appears as a dichotomy or a contradiction, but instead follow naturally from one another.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: