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I find it quite striking: the most successful unionization efforts have shifted from the traditional working class to the educated class. At tech firms rather than in warehousing. At Starbucks much more fruitfully than at Amazon. Among undergraduates at Kenyon College rather than at Tesla. Yes, and among graduate students at Brown, Harvard, MIT, NYU and, most recently, Yale.

Union membership rates are lowest in financial activities (1.9 percent), leisure and hospitality (2.2 percent), and professional and business services (2.2 percent). In contrast, about 25 percent of college faculty and staff are unionized or covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Labor activism has surged at universities since 2013, adding about 120 new faculty chapters. Prompting this gush are hiring freezes, program cuts, enrollment declines, increasing reliance on adjunct faculty and threats to tenure and academic freedom.

Perhaps most striking is the formation of 16 graduate student unions and a dozen for postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers between 2013 and 2019—a trend that has persisted since the pandemic struck.

There’s an interesting Twitter exchange about graduate student unionization that was prompted by Yale’s Nicholas A. Christakis, who is an M.D. and Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Sciences.

Several days earlier, Yale’s unofficial graduate workers union submitted union authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board, which triggers a vote on unionization.

The Yale petition for an election follows successful graduate student unionization votes at Harvard, Brown University, Columbia, MIT and NYU.

Dr. Christakis touched off the Twitter exchange with this remark:

“Graduate students are primarily students and trainees, not ordinary workers. Academia is a calling. I suspect unionization will tip the balance so faculty prefer, at the margin, to hire post-docs to do research in their labs rather than students.”

Dr. Christakis noted that the median employed 25-year-old in the United States earns roughly $35,000 and that Ph.D. stipends range from $23,000 to $33,000, plus free education, with STEM stipends somewhat higher.

The Yale professor adds that he’s not a knee-jerk opponent of unionization and expresses his support for adjunct unions. But “getting a PhD (which is tuition-free at most places, unlike an MD), is a distinctive experience,” he writes and later adds, “To me, the fact that one can enroll in a PhD program and get both a stipend and an education is amazing. When I got my MD (and I worked as hard as you did), I had to pay for the privilege.”

Dr. Christakis speculates about whether “PhD students are simply [going to be] told to pay for their education, like MD, JD, MFA and other graduate students. This will have the effect of raising inequality, as only the rich or those willing to borrow would be able to get the education.”

The Twitter exchange raises several questions: Why, given the fact that many graduate students at state universities have been unionized for years, has unionization at private universities been such an explosive issue? And why now? NYU agreed to a union in 2013; what explains the delay elsewhere?

Then, there are the biggest questions of all: Will unionization fundamentally alter graduate education and the mentor-student relationship and make those relationships more adversarial and transactional? Or is unionization itself the product of a fundamental shift in the treatment of doctoral students and the job market?

Let’s take the key questions raised by graduate student unionization at elite private universities one at a time.

First, why now?

I have often wondered why my cohort in the 1970s, consisting almost exclusively of people on the left, never considered unionization. The best answers that I can come up with are that we were somewhat more optimistic about getting academic jobs; that cost pressures involving housing, food, health care and other living expenses weren’t as extreme; and that we didn’t feel as exploited or disrespected or powerless as many doctoral students do today.

Certainly, the unionization drive is, first and foremost, about stipends, benefits, work protections and grievance procedures. But it also reflects the fact that some faculty members have been allowed to treat their students incredibly poorly—and too many graduate schools have failed to effectively manage or discipline these bad actors.

Given the extraordinarily challenging academic job market, unionization campaigns may well reflect the profound frustration many doctoral students feel when they try to envision their post–graduate school future. And I don’t think we should discount a broader loss of trust in university administration, indeed in any formal institutions and in the responsiveness of administrators to graduate students’ quality-of-life concerns.

If the elite graduate schools had wanted to stave off unionization, they needed to put into place a real system of shared governance that gave doctoral students a far greater voice in shaping institutional policies, especially involving stipends and benefits. They needed to institute a grievance system that was truly responsive. These institutions should have read faculty mentors the riot act and fired bad actors, tenured or not.

In addition, the campuses needed to be much more proactive in raising stipends and improving benefits. After all, it is indeed the case that some doctoral programs were severely underpaying their doctoral students relative to the cost of living. Yes, that’s you, Columbia.

What difference will unionization make?

It will address some of the problems that most concern doctoral students. It will raise stipends, by a lot at some campuses, by more modest amounts elsewhere. It will also improve benefits and result in more formal grievance procedures. All genuine gains in doctoral students’ quality of life.

Whether unionization will successfully tackle non–bread-and-butter issues only time will tell. Will it accelerate the process of hiring a more diverse faculty? I’m skeptical, given tenure and the slow pace of retirements. I fear it will be a decade or more before the faculty at the most elite institutions begins to truly reflect the makeup of the student body. Unfortunately, the campuses are also unlikely to fix the decades-long urban housing cost crisis or the paucity of tenure-track jobs, especially in the humanities.

It strikes me as possible that many of the bitterest sources of future conflict will involve academic issues, such as timelines to degree completion and access to housing and stipends during student leaves and the ability to shift advisers or move between departments. These conflicts are likely to be especially fraught, since these truly touch on control of the curriculum.

Unionization will certainly exact a cost. Some of that cost will be monetary. Unionization costs the institution a lot of money and staff time—and students will not see any material benefit from those expenditures. New HR systems have to be put in place. Lawyers need to write brand-new employment policies. New systems have to be built to track everything. This process will take years and will have little to do with the kinds of concerns that students want the union to deliver.

But some of the cost will be nonmonetary. It is likely, at the margins, to change the way that some faculty members interact with their doctoral students, and not necessarily in a good way. Don’t be surprised if some treat their mentees more like paid employees than their responsibility.

What are the long-term consequences likely to be?

I suspect that Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, are likely to shrink, irrespective of unionization. I expect some programs to actually close. And I think Dr. Christakis is right: the desire of some faculty members to invest in doctoral students is likely to fade. They’ll instead rely increasingly on postdocs and research staff.

The sad fact is that many of the elite graduate schools should have cut back on the number of Ph.D. students a decade ago or more and moved to terminal master’s. These institutions should have integrated more professional development and career preparation into their degree programs. These campuses should have paid Ph.D. students much more and not allowed any student to pay out of pocket for a Ph.D. or go into debt over their training. Of course, this would have required the graduate schools to significantly shrink their programs’ size and rely more heavily on a paid research staff.

The Ph.D. system has been broken for quite a long time. There are faculty welcoming students into programs that are dying, especially and sadly in the more specialized areas of the humanities. There are mentors who are training students exclusively for the very few jobs that exist in their field. Research funding is no longer sufficient to support the number of doctoral students at the elite private research universities. Even those fortunate enough to receive a tenure-track job are often in their late 30s or even 40s.

These are the biggest problems facing graduate program—but these are not the issues that are at the top of the agenda either for the faculty or the graduate student unions.

Difficult decisions and tough choices can’t be put off forever. The existing state of affairs is not sustainable. It may well be that graduate student unionization will bring this reality to a head.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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