Commentary

Graduate-Student Unions Mean Good News for Professors, Too

September 18, 2016

Pui Yan Fong for The Chronicle
The National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision that graduate students are employees who have a right to unionize has produced a predictable bout of hand-wringing among university administrators. Elite institutions, like Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University, have issued warnings that unions suppress the individuality of graduate students under the weight of "collectivist" solutions.

Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, expressed in a letter to the university community his concern that graduate-student unionization would undermine the professor-student relationship. Yet, if anything, there is good reason to think unionization will lead to modest improvements in relations with professors. Administrators are not being honest about where the most substantial changes will lie: between graduate students and their administrator-employers, not their professors.

There is a solid economic case for graduate unions. In their classic book, What Do Unions Do?, and in follow-up research, the economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff discussed two roles of unions. The first was promoting improvement in bargaining power and wages, important in its own right. But they also stressed the second role, wherein unions improve productivity by giving workers an institutionalized voice so they don’t have to change jobs to improve their working conditions. True, this role can involve burdensome rule-making and wasteful featherbedding; however, it also improves retention, makes recruiting easier, lowers turnover, and improves morale.

This is particularly important in the academic context because of the high costs of training and turnover and the high social value of academic labor. We want people to stay in academe: It is a great and socially useful enterprise to produce and communicate knowledge. To retain people that love and excel at research and writing, universities should provide the material resources that let students sustain themselves and their families so that they don’t feel obliged to abandon their studies for the private sector.

If administrators are looking for impediments to graduate-student education, they might consider the consequences of losing a visa because you had to change research groups, or of having a child while lacking adequate parental-leave benefits, or of being paid so little that you have to teach extra courses or work a second job. These bread-and-butter issues are not controlled by professors but by the many layers of administration that govern wages, job postings, health coverage, workload, time allocations, and visa conditions.

But wages and benefits are not the elements of some finely tuned intellectual relationship between mentor and mentee. They are terms of employment. Unions will change those terms by changing the nature of graduate-student relations with their employers: the administration.

No organizations, even private universities, like paying their employees more or giving up even small measures of power, and that is why they are hiding behind the worries about professor-student relationships. Administrators know that the biggest threat unions pose is to their untrammeled control over the logistics behind university life. But that does not mean there is nothing to say about what this means for professors. One of us has been a professor at a university with graduate-student unions, and the other was a member of two United Auto Worker unions through graduate school. Our experience is consistent with the NLRB’s view: It is difficult to detect any meaningful difference in the mentor-mentee relationship between those positions and our current work for nonunion employers. That fact is easy to explain: By becoming union members, graduate students do not suddenly forget why they went to graduate school, nor do they lose the academic impulse that drove them there. It is just that they are also employees.

This doesn’t mean that there may not be a few necessary changes to the professor-student relationship. Administrators are the current employers of graduate labor, but faculty members write the recommendation letters that are vital for the students’ future employment. This power can be abused, and graduate unions rightfully take some (but only some!) of these prerogatives away from professors. Like every group whose privileges come under threat, some professors will complain. But we suspect the complaints will be almost all over the teacher-assistant relationship, and very few over the mentor-mentee relationship.

Professors will lose the discretion to favor teaching assistants with better appointments, to punish less-favored graduate students by giving them harder and educationally irrelevant classes, and to require assistants to work longer than is reasonable. Those changes sound beneficial for graduate-student education.

What’s more, collective-bargaining agreements liberate professors from having to administer the labor contract. University administrations tend to see professors as lower-level managers, and, under current circumstances, that is not entirely wrong. But academics should not be in the business of working out contractual issues like how to deal with family leave. Using up mentor-mentee time trying to chase down a visa or begging a provost for a teaching exemption is a waste of everyone’s time, and it is an invitation to favoritism.

Indeed, the interpersonal cluelessness pervasive in academe becomes downright destructive in the professor-assistant context. We have both had to deal with the fallout of graduate-student ill-treatment by other faculty members, hardly what we have been trained for. A union would provide a formal grievance procedure, decide whether the case warranted bureaucratic escalation, and deal with it institutionally, a much better channel than seeking out the ill-equipped junior faculty members. Taking all of this out of professors’ hands is not only fairer to graduate students, it gives the professors more time to focus on the primary task: educating their students.

If graduate students can form and maintain a democratic union, many of the results will serve the educational mission. Graduate students should not be content to take temporary, low-paying employment with uncertain future job prospects; they come to the university to start a career of mastering the cumulative best of the stock of human knowledge.

With unionization, it is possible that fewer of them will have to teach classes of no relevance to their education or fulfill onerous and precarious teaching responsibilities, freeing time for research and dissertation writing. Their interest in fostering relationships with their advisers and peers, who actually matter for their research, will be preserved. No union of graduate students would want to tear those bonds apart — and no professor should want to.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Suresh Naidu is an assistant professor in economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University.