Thoughts on the NLRB grad student unionization ruling

The National Labor Relations Board today issued a long-awaited ruling that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at private universities are allowed to unionize. The issue at hand has long been one of semantics: are graduates on paid assistantships more like students, or more like employees? Are the assistantships more like a fundamental training component of a program of study, or more like jobs done by the students to support themselves financially?

My opinion is that the ruling is a good one, and I want to give a few thoughts as to why I think it’s a just ruling, on balance.

I just heard on the radio in the car a discussion of the story, and someone on the university administrators’ side of the debate was being quoted. I didn’t catch who it was, but it’s probably for the best since I’m about to say some mean things about them. Their claim was that this ruling will cause tuition increases for undergraduate students. Hm.

We’re talking here about assistantships that typically pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-20k per year, depending on role and institution. Even at the generous end of that spectrum, for the private institutions covered by this ruling, the impact on tuition will be hardly worth writing home about. Even if this ruling leads to pay increases for graduate assistants, a bump for a TA responsible for, let’s say, 50 students (and, by the way, providing the labor that allows courses to run in the first place) is a drop in the bucket of academic expenses.

Scapegoating irreplaceable graduate assistants for rising tuition is, to me, a particularly appalling new tactic in the de-professionalization wars that have already adjunctified something between a half and three quarters of teaching labor at U.S. colleges.

There is a distressing parallel with the established huge public misconception of the composition of the U.S. federal budget. When politicians rail against “waste” or foreign aid, they divert attention from the truly large categories of expenditure. Similarly here, blaming administrative costs, graduate assistantships, or adjunct faculty for rising tuition rates is a shameless diversion from the most significant factor: declining public funding for higher education. This is before we even get to the fact that this ruling applies to private institutions, a category not exactly known for low, low sticker prices for undergraduate tuition rates.

We in the academy must resist these divide-and-conquer diversions and remain focused on the real debate of public funding for higher education.

How can assistantships break the bank? It’s certainly true that, on average, graduate students are likelier to come from more privileged backgrounds than a randomly selected person from the population, and certainly more privileged conditions than the typical person who earns the kind of wage we’re talking about here. But I can assure you that all kinds of financial circumstances are represented. Some graduate students support partners and children, some don’t. Some are prevented by visa rules from accepting any other work, some aren’t. Some have financial support from family, some don’t. Some have private savings or wealth, some don’t. In sum, though, for many grad students, an increase in wage would have a real, meaningful impact on reducing financial stress.

Beyond pay, we have working conditions. I’m sure anyone who is or has been a grad student will be able to share a first- or second-hand tale of a student worked beyond the norm by a demanding boss. How to balance assistantships with coursework, study, and conducting research—let alone with non-academic obligations—is often a question without a clear answer. The ambiguity is amplified by precisely the gray area that this ruling seeks to clarify: is the assistantship more like a job, or more like training?

It may seem silly to advocate for the right of graduate students to bargain over hours and conditions, but, again, these are things that could make a meaningful difference. There’s a reason why these are often the focus of collective bargaining in the first place, and I see no reason why the typical arguments for them to be collectively bargained don’t apply here.

In some important senses, graduate students are in fact about as ideal a population for unionization as you can find.

First, their labor as assistants is often non-optional, either required in their program, irreplaceable for professional development, or the only form of labor that can be fit with their other obligations. Second, the typical argument that unionization entrenches insiders at the expense of potential outsiders is moot here, since by its very nature a graduate assistantship is a transitory position. Third, and related, since the duration of the appointment is short-lived, there is little incentive or chance to engage in individual advocacy without the backing of a union that will outlive its members and their relatively brief interaction with the system. Inherently high-turnover occupations are perhaps the most in need of strong union protection.

In sum, in my opinion there are clear potential benefits to the affected population from unionization, and costs that are unusually low, and low in absolute terms. Sure, all else being equal, most would agree that we would like to avoid disruptive labor disputes in the industry, but even if they do arise, I don’t think they are sufficient reason to deny collective bargaining rights.

One potentially tricky question on the horizon might be how to square the rights of graduate student assistants with the rights of undergraduate assistants performing similar roles. I experienced a strike by teaching assistants first hand when I was at the University of Toronto. There, the same collectively bargained agreement applied to all teaching assistants, graduate and undergraduate alike.

Here’s the aspect that I found particularly tricky to think through. Take a graduate student, financially supporting themselves with an assistantship, as is typical. They work year round, de facto salaried by the combination of working hours expectations and a promised total stipend for the year. Contrast with an undergraduate student. Typically their assistantships are more casual or transactional, and not framed or understood to be a sole means of financial support.

The problem that arises is this: the annual stipend agreed to be satisfactory for a self-supporting graduate student implies an equivalent hourly wage when combined with working hours expectations. The resulting confusion was the grounds for a dizzying array of framing and reframing of the terms of the dispute by both sides. To say that a graduate student makes $15,000 a year connotes one thing; to say that an undergraduate assistant makes $42 per hour connotes quite another. The differences between the two groups, and between those two figures, is a quandary.

So it is right and proper, I think, that in general and in specific cases, good and agreed-upon data collection on the variety of roles, circumstances, and expectations of assistants, both from the graduate and undergraduate populations, should—maybe this is obvious—be a prerequisite for individual debates to proceed. Nevertheless, the right to collectively bargain need not be contingent on these details. Instead it can be treated as the NLRB has ruled today: a right that should be afforded to those people who perform valuable work in higher education, no matter what job title they labor under.

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