without unions, universities neglect grad issues (until they explode)

The following is a guest post by Marcel Knudsen, a graduate student at Northwestern.

Why have a graduate worker union?

Recently, I read Susan Fowler’s blog post on sexual harassment at Uber. It’s a depressing story and a necessary read. I was struck by how everyone else at Uber did their best to tune out her experiences. Speaking up made her an irritant. Even after multiple colleagues had reported similar problems with the same supervisor, her only recourse after being ignored by HR was to leave the company.

The story shows what happens in an environment where workers don’t want to voice their concerns, where they focus on their own specific jobs and keep their heads down. What’s striking is that even these high-earning tech workers don’t think that they have any rights or ability to change their workplace. The individualization of people’s struggles, a lack of willingness to be involved or even to talk about Uber’s problems, made Fowler’s situation possible.

As graduate students, we also feel disempowered and individualized. We may hear about problems that our colleagues face, but the best we can do is hope that they don’t happen to us. We have little information and practically no say over the larger changes happening in our universities. Northwestern’s approach is paternalistic: they are the ones in charge of making decisions and figuring out grad students’ needs. Practically speaking, this means that changes only occur if there is a real sense of crisis, Northwestern’s reputation is threatened, and enough grad students talk to chairs/deans/administrators. Having witnessed some of these decisions first-hand (a stipend increase, parental leave policies), I’ve found that grad students are simultaneously necessary for moving things forward, and constantly marginalized in this process.

Rather than write a bullet point list of the problems grad students face at Northwestern,* I want to point to the larger context of the graduate experience. Graduate students feel our temporariness strongly (although 5-7 years would be considered a long tenure in many organizations). We are invested in future roles as professors/researchers/scientists, but most of us will not get our dream jobs. The anxiety that we feel about this uncertainty lead us to seek to improve our individual positions, to seek reassurance about the future through publications, professional development, and other signs of a better future. Every graduate student knows that there are things Northwestern can do to improve grad lives. But we think our energy is better spent on our own struggles. And this is an attitude that academics maintain throughout their careers, because when we gain new jobs we also acquire new goals and concerns.

After a recent march against Trump’s Muslim ban, I was in a room with members of various graduate organizations. The groups discussed the constant pressure that seemed to be required in order to create positive change. They were frustrated always having to reinvent the wheel, at having to start anew with advocacy any time a new issue came up or a new group of students was marginalized. And, we wondered, what about those students and problems that fall outside activist networks? How would they be heard? Some proposed creating an umbrella group/website that could be used to advocate on a mix of issues.

It’s not just that a union at Northwestern could improve grad student experiences, amplify our voices, and raise awareness of issues. It’s not only that we could reduce the workload on activists to advocate for the rest of us. It’s that the university could no longer wait to ignore issues until they reached a crisis point. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to go the better part of a decade without a stipend increase, parental leave policy, or adequate approach to sexual harassment. We could call attention to issues that “only” affect dozens of students, or that create problems but not catastrophe. But most critically, this effort requires us to take some ownership of the university, even when we are being encouraged to keep our heads down and focus on our own concerns.

So I challenge readers to become more active in improving your own workplace. Learn more about local campaigns at Northwestern and other institutions. If you’re in favor of unionization, or are somewhat in favor but have  questions you want to talk out, have a conversation with a friend/organizer/colleague.** Every card is critical! Unionization and other change will only happen if people decide that they will not be silent.

* I’ve left out many specific issues because, ultimately, priorities will differ by student and department. Within Sociology and many of the social sciences, the contradictions of high time-to-degree and Northwestern’s funding policies for 6th year and beyond are the most pressing problem. But there are many things to improve in the grad experience, and it will be an ongoing effort.

** Support from at least 30% of the grad population is required to call an election, so every person left on the fence is unfortunately counted against the total. Many unions (including NUGW-AFT) aim to file with over 50% of grad students in order to go into elections/bargaining with a broad base of support, but this means we will ultimately need cards from over half the student body. This is the first step in a process that is somewhat confusing but specified by employment law.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

5 thoughts on “without unions, universities neglect grad issues (until they explode)”

  1. Thanks, Dan. I’m not a student and won’t be organizing a grad student union, but I do think collective organization is important. The only thing I’ll chime in on is my considered opinion that a grad student union would do better to avoid the NLRB rules and organize as a student organization rather than as a “union” under US law. First, as you note, US labor law under the NLRB is not particularly favorable to workers, and unionization in the US has declined precipitously in the past decades across all sectors precisely because of this. Second, the specific situation of graduate students, which you outline so well, involves and intertwining of academic and work issues and the particular vulnerabilities of mentoring relationships. Universities need graduate students. They need them both as students and as workers. A threatened graduate student strike or action as students would be just as effective as a strike as workers, or even more so if the issues/actions/statuses are intertwined. Collective organization, collective representation, grievance procedures, better stipends for grad students (which on many campuses are officially not even wages)– all of these could be demanded under the framework of a student organization. If a student organization just starts doing useful things, it can gain adherents and strength from successful action, without bothering with cards and elections. Not saying there are not arguments on the other side about going down the NLRB-type union path, but I thought I’d put this out there for your consideration.

    Grad students should also educate themselves about the structure of the academy, as should professors. There is a built-in oversupply of PhDs because professors want grad students, not only as workers (research and teaching assistants) but as students in seminars in their specialties and to build their reputations as trainers of PhDs. Professors want to attract top graduate students to enhance their own prestige, and professors lobby for higher graduate stipends when they lose top recruits to other institutions, as they also lobby for more graduate student lines if they can’t fill their seminars or don’t have enough research or teaching assistants. Grad students and professors (and administrators) do not have the same interests, but the interests are not entirely opposed, either.


    1. As a veteran of the 2005-2006 NYU graduate student strike, I strongly disagree. I saw first-hand how much less power a graduate student organization has than a union. It is true, of course, that labor rights in this country have been eviscerated, but preserving the shreds that are left requires us to take worker power seriously. Unions create a voice within a recognized legal process. Furthermore, graduate student organizations do nothing to highlight the economic exploitation graduate students at many universities face, which is at the core of the labor movement. I would also point out that–at least for now–the legal protections for striking workers are somewhat preferable to those for people who engage in other forms of collective action.

      As a faculty member who is involved with a faculty union now, I know that it is our union which gives us voice and power. We have faculty governance institutions other than the union, which do important work of various kinds. And we have the protections of tenure. But faculty governance and tenure are much less useful in a context in which there is not a strong and vital union to protect the interests of faculty and fight back in circumstances where academic freedom is threatened.

      Finally, to your point about the need for graduate students to educate themselves about the structure of the academy: how better to do this than through a union? Unions can do an excellent job of providing such education, and they do not have the incentives that faculty, departments, and institutions have to sugarcoat the very real truths graduate students need to be aware of as they consider their futures.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. unions are important, especially if you’re in a closed shop state. when i was at uva in the 90s, my last TA gig paid the same as my first TA gig (9 years in between). we had no health care, no benefits, no rights. completely at their mercy as workers. that’s why you need a union. but the union also has to be savvy when negotiating, which i think the recently formed ones are. my faculty union at long island university-brooklyn — not so much.


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