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Madeleine Elfenbein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. You can find her on her website and at @maddy_e.

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




Welcome to Part II of our discussion of graduate student labor and the benefits and concerns related to unionization! Two GradHacker authors, Madeleine Elfenbein and Patrick Bigsby, have agreed to continue discussing their experiences and views related to graduate employment and explaining some of their feelings on graduate labor unions. Be sure to catch up with Part I!


Let’s meet our panelists!


Name: Patrick Bigsby

Employer: University of Iowa

Union or Labor Advocacy Group on campus: COGS (UE Local 896)

Relationship to labor union: nonmember


Name: Madeleine Elfenbein

Employer: University of Chicago

Union or Labor Advocacy Group on campus: Graduate Students United (GSU).

Relationship to labor union: proud member


Beyond your current employment, is there a particular experience or governing attitude that shapes your thoughts on graduate student labor unions?


P: I have a tough time justifying the need for union representation. Prior to working at Iowa, I was a graduate student employee at a private university where I received a higher salary for working fewer hours and enjoyed a more flexible healthcare plan. Whatever negotiation took place to reach that offer didn’t involve a labor union and, in my view, was already influenced by market forces. Given that universities are competing with their peers for the same labor force (i.e. attempting to attract the most desirable students as graduate employees), they already have an incentive to offer favorable working conditions. I definitely understand the importance and effectiveness of labor unions - I was even a dues-paying member during my first year as a graduate employee at Iowa - but I don’t see it as applicable to my current employment situation. My current stance on the labor union at Iowa later can be boiled down to my belief that the union isn’t a good representative of my wants and needs. Even if my wants and needs are atypical of the graduate student workforce, I still have no reason for participating in a body that can’t address those wants and needs.


M: I see. I guess I’m more inclined than you are to see unions as a good thing. I do see them as a way of advancing my wants and needs, plus those of my comrades -- excuse me, colleagues. I’m from a pro-union family, where I’ve seen unions make a big difference in wages, working conditions, and the ability to enjoy the dignity of having a say in how your workplace is run. That said, I didn’t come to grad school planning to join a union. I assumed that my working conditions would be tolerable, and that, as a member of the university, I would have other ways to have a say.


There were two things I underestimated. Thing One: The fact that wages and working conditions are so variable and uneven for graduate students, in a way that is terrible for us but doesn’t seem to particularly bother upper-level administrators. At my university, assistant language instructors are paid half as much for the same position if their classes draw fewer than 12 students. Some of us have great professors who act as mentors, while others are subject to harassment or neglect. Some of us have U.S. citizenship and can work off-campus, while some of us don’t and so can’t, unless their job is pre-approved. Some of us have (or develop) depression, lupus, or children while in grad school. Contingencies like these are precisely the sort of accident that can lead to new intellectual directions and enrich our scholarship and teaching, but universities rarely treat them that way. Instead, they tend to view “nontraditional” students as a risky bet, so they admit fewer of them, and when someone struggles, they’re regarded as an administrative nuisance. After watching so many friends drop out of their programs for so many bad reasons, I’ve come to appreciate how much we all, even “traditional” students, need policies -- reliable employment, livable wages, grievance procedures, healthcare, childcare, humane leave policies -- that allow us to succeed as scholars and fulfill the commitment we’ve made to our profession.


Thing Two is the fact that universities are increasingly undemocratic institutions. There are more administrators and fewer voting faculty running universities today. Your institutional mileage may vary, but the general trend at American universities is toward less meaningful participation by instructors in university governance. And as for student participation, well, after participating in my share of student councils, advisory committees, and so on, I’ve come to view them chiefly as mechanisms that siphon off the energies of student activists in the guise of “student input.” These are not democratic institutions.


And finally, there’s a third thing. It’s something I sort of knew when I started, but sort of didn’t: that my interests and administrators’ interests are different. Not opposed, but different. To the extent that our success is mutually reinforcing, that’s where we’re aligned. When I win a prestigious outside fellowship, we’re both happy. When the institution’s ranking inches upward, we’re both happy. But when it comes to the conditions under which I perform labor for the university, we’re liable to see things differently. They want me to do it cheaply, quietly, efficiently, whereas I want more of a say over what I teach, how I teach, and how I’m paid for it. And if I don’t organize with others in my position, I’m never going to get that say.


I understand the reluctance of many academics to view their work as labor, lest they become alienated from it, reduced to cogs in someone else’s machine. But as I’ve come to see it, we already are laborers in the research-teaching complex that is the modern university. And once I saw that, joining my campus union was the only logical response. It was a way to reduce my alienation by investing myself in improving the university where I work.


P: I can’t possibly understand why someone, in academia or otherwise, would be reluctant to consider their work to be ‘labor.’ I’m absolutely ‘laboring’ when I’m on the job. Since I’m not the DEO, the dean, the university president, or the regents, I’d be delusional not to recognize I’m a cog in someone else’s machine. I’m an experienced, high-performing, hard-to-replace cog who gets a lot of satisfaction from his work, but I’m still a cog (something COGS members and I might agree on!). The department I work for and classes I teach existed long before I was hired and will exist long after my contract has expired. All of the policies you mentioned are great, but they don’t require a union to create. The University of Chicago is one of the best institutions in the world; if it wants to attract the top graduate students away from Harvard, et al., it needs to offer competitive working conditions. For a place like the University of Iowa that doesn’t have Chicago-level caché, there’s even greater pressure to create an attractive employment environment because, generally speaking, it can’t compete with Harvards and Chicagos on the level of institutional reputation.


I’m glad you mentioned the disparity in wages because I wish graduate employee wages were more variable, or at least more flexible, at my institution. The union-negotiated contract mandates that all graduate employees with half-time appointments (like me) are paid the same amount, regardless of how much work is involved or the tuition rate of the employee’s degree program. Graduate students teaching two different courses are paid the same as graduate employees who are only graders, only computer lab monitors, or only teach one section of one course. It’s discouraging to sit in staff meetings with co-workers that are entitled to identical compensation for non-comparable labor, but the union agreement prevents the university from accurately valuing our work.


M: I can see how frustrating that must be. It sounds like we both face working conditions and wage scales that strike us as unfair. The question then becomes, how much institutional power do we each have to do something about it? If you think it’s clear that some grad employees do more work than others, and that they should be paid more, then you can join your union’s bargaining committee and use this democratic mechanism to push for a change in the next contract. I wish we had that ability. I wish we had a contract.


For me, the dream is to be a cog in a machine that I also get to help run. Come to think of it, “machine” isn’t quite the right metaphor for a creature like a university. “Organism” suits me better, because it’s alive and changing all the time. Sure, my university existed before I came along, and I’m sure it will endure long after I do, carried along by its massive endowment. Even so, this university and I need each other. I want the university to recognize that and include me as a partner in shaping the institution I serve. And the best way I know for that to happen is through a labor union.


What would you like to see happen with the organized labor situation on your campus? Would that impact your participation?


P: I have three principal objections to the labor union on my campus and they would all have to be reversed for me to even consider joining. I couldn’t resist describing my first objection earlier: the union is so worried about fair pay that it has created a situation where my work teaching two courses is considered the equivalent to guarding a room full of computers. It’s a bizarre Harrison Bergeron-esque scenario where the employees who are most successful are held to the pay rate of those who are least successful. For example, the highest-performing teaching assistants (those who can teach the most courses and receive the best evaluations) never receive jobs guarding computers because they’re too valuable to demote and never receive raises because the union agreement sets a uniform pay rate.


My second objection is that the labor union on my campus devotes far too much time to student issues, rather than worker issues. The union purports to represent my interests as an employee, but then proceeds to fight tooth-and-nail to reduce student fees - charges for various campus amenities assessed to all students regardless of whether they are graduate employees. I don’t object to the fees (they fund a lot of great resources and programs) but, even if I did object, the fees are a cost to students rather than employees. The fight against fees is on behalf of the wrong constituency.


Finally, the union on my campus is very politically active. Most unions, if not all unions, court the support of and foster relationships with elected officials, but I seem to be at ideological odds with the leadership of UE Local 896. It routinely endorses, supports, and demonstrates candidates and causes I find wholly unpalatable and, to me, this is just another example of the union failing to actually represent my interests. Until the union is willing to admit that not all TAs are created equal, is ready to devote itself to labor issues rather than student issues, and isn’t actively working to enact policies that I oppose, I don’t anticipate giving it any more money.


M: It sounds to me like you’re not at all happy with your union leadership! Am I missing something if my response is to say it seems like it would be a good idea for you to get on your union’s Coordinating Committee and try to build support for a narrower focus on wage issues? I just visited the website of your union to find out how it’s structured, and it seems there’s no shortage of ways for rank-and-file members to get involved. Do you think you would have more say over your wages and working conditions if your union were gone?


P: You hit the nail on the head. While I am occasionally tempted to engage the union, I’m a realist and I’m well aware that my views place me in a comically small minority, particularly among union membership. The people who are most influential in the union are the people with the most time to devote to union activities and the people with the most time to devote to union activities typically aren’t the people working the most hours and the people who aren’t working the most hours are the people reaping the greatest benefit from the union-negotiated uniform pay rate.


I can’t guarantee that I’d have more say over the terms of my employment if the union disbanded overnight, but I have virtually zero say now because my employer is locked into an agreement that prevents it from bargaining with me as an individual. My say amounts to my decision whether to continue working for the University of Iowa. The union, which, for the reasons above, does not represent my interests, has much more say than I do. I would conjecture that an employee who, through his outstanding performance, has made himself indisposable to his employer, has also improved his bargaining position because his employer has an incentive to retain him. I work hard in hopes of increasing my ‘indisposability.’ Even if I succeed at becoming more indisposable, my bargaining position remains terrible because my employer is barred from making my terms of employment different from those of any other graduate student employee.


M: Huh. It sounds like you’re inclined to think that you would do better as a free agent than as part of a class of workers represented by a union. I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s suppose it is. Let me put this question to you: what, if anything, do you owe your fellow grad employees in the way of solidarity? Suppose -- just suppose -- that having a union contract makes things a little worse for you and a good deal better for grad students as a whole. Is that not a bargain you’re willing to strike?


I don’t think I’ll ever be economically indisposable. I’m highly trained and pretty good at what I do, but there’s nothing I do on this campus that can’t be done by someone else. (The only thing that comes close is my research on the connections between Young Ottoman thought and European liberalism, and I know that’s much more important to me than to anyone else on this planet -- at least until my book comes out and blows everyone’s mind ;) But the fact that I, as an individual worker, am not economically indisposable doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to make demands of my institution. Just the opposite: my very “disposability” is a reflection of the shared nature of my condition. I may not be unique, but my work is still valuable. The work that I do -- that we do -- is honest, good work that enriches the world, not to mention our institutions, and it should be decently paid.


That said, I can imagine how frustrating it is to see people who do less work earn the same wages as you. And I take your point that these folks end up with more free time in which to run the union and fight for contracts that advance their interests, perhaps against your own. I don’t know what the fix is for a union that lopsidedly represents its members’ interests. But I know I’d rather have that problem than the problem of no union at all.


Please join our discussion the comments below. What have your experiences with graduate employment been? Have these had any impact on your interest or participation in a labor union?


[Image by flickr user The U.S National Archives and used under Creative Commons license]