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.