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.