Graduate student unions are long overdue

The National Labor Relations Board issued a decision last week granting graduate students in private universities the right to unionize. The case originated at Columbia University, where a group of students filed a petition to join the United Auto Workers, an action vehemently opposed by Columbia and several other universities in a joint brief to the NLRB. The ruling overturns a 2004 precedent that graduate students were not considered employees, a reversal with far-reaching implications for student-athletes and undergraduates on work-study.

In response, Columbia officials sounded the alarm over the academic repercussions of the ruling, citing concerns that union negotiations would intrude upon academic issues such as class size and degree requirements. They argue that the ruling degrades the student-faculty relationship by equating it to an employee-employer relationship. Despite these lofty ideals, however, it is an insult to academic freedom to scapegoat it in favor of perpetuating a system of modern indentured servitude.

Private universities’ hand-wringing over unionization is surprising, given that graduate students have been allowed to unionize at public universities in many states for decades — and the sky still hasn’t fallen. In a 2013 Cornell University study, researchers analyzed the effects of graduate student unions on public universities, and found that unionization often improved student-faculty relationships both personally and professionally and had no effect on academic freedom. Giving students a voice in their working conditions only enhances job satisfaction and motivation.

The shadowy arrangement between graduate students and universities has long served as justification for universities to deny graduate students the rights afforded to employees. Generally, graduate students are given free tuition and a stipend in exchange for work in the classroom and in the lab. However, Ph.D. students typically only take classes for the first couple of years, rendering free tuition hollow, and their stipends are inadequate for the essential, highly skilled work they provide. Graduate students are tasked with much of the work that allows universities to function, including grading, teaching and supporting faculty research. In fact, graduate students do much of the same work as university faculty, albeit at a lower level.

The work that graduate students are expected to perform also runs counter to the central purpose of their academic program — to conduct their own dissertation research. Heavy teaching and research assistant workloads distract from the process of earning their own degree. Few people would argue that teaching experience is necessary for a doctorate, and doing menial tasks for a professor’s own research is no substitute for learning to become an independent researcher. The work that graduate students do is entirely separate from their academic training. The reason that graduate students serve as research or teaching assistants is not to “gain knowledge and expertise,” as a Columbia spokesperson claimed, but to earn money. In other words, graduate students are employees.

Collective bargaining makes it possible for graduate students to be adequately compensated for the hard work and long hours they put in. New York University, the only private university to voluntarily recognize graduate student unions, saw a dramatic improvement in the status of graduate students after unionization. At NYU, where graduate students were previously expected to live on just $12,500 a year — in New York, no less — collective bargaining led to the university eliminating health care premiums and doubling graduate student stipends.

It is disgraceful to see so many prestigious universities — not only Columbia and Stanford, but the entire Ivy League — oppose unionization solely to avoid fairly compensating graduate students. Universities have long exploited the gray area between academia and business for their own gain. When USC raises tuition far beyond what families can afford and pays its administrators like CEOs, it’s because college is a business and students can’t expect colleges not to maximize profit. But take that principle further and suggest that graduate students or college athletes should be able to unionize, and immediately universities turn defensive and claim finances are corrupting academia.

Allowing graduate students to unionize is an important step, but progress shouldn’t end here. If universities are willing to profit off student labor, then there must be some mechanism to correct the power imbalance and protect students. The services that students provide are too lucrative for universities to be expected to protect their students’ worker rights without leverage. Like it or not, college is a business — it’s time we treated it like one.