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Graduate student unionization is very much in the news these days, with the National Labor Relations Board expected to rule soon on whether graduate assistants may unionize at private universities. New York University on Friday offered a deal to the United Auto Workers unit organizing graduate students at the university under which NYU would accept a vote on a teaching assistant union but not a research assistant union. The debates over unions frequently deal with whether the nature of the student-faculty relationship deteriorates with collective bargaining, and whether unionized graduate students earn more.

Currently, there are no private universities with graduate student unions. But many public universities have them, and the authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.

The paper (abstract available here) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University.

"These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees," says the paper, by Sean E. Rogers, assistant professor of management at New Mexico State University; Adrienne E. Eaton, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University; and Paula B. Voos, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers.

For their study, the researchers surveyed graduate students at four unionized and four non-unionized universities. Each unionized university was paired with a similar institution, based on geography, size and research spending. The unionized campuses all had been using collective bargaining since at least 1983, so they were campuses were the culture of graduate student relations had not recently been changed by a union election. The graduate students interviewed crossed disciplinary categories -- with 695 graduate students providing enough information for the project to use.

When controlling for a range of factors (discipline, campus, etc.), the study found unionized graduate students earned more, and were more likely to report that they were paid fairly.

Much of the study focuses on student-faculty relations, and whether -- as union critics fear -- the presence of collective bargaining turns a mentoring relationship into an adversarial one. The graduate students were asked to respond to a series of statements about their professors as a measure of how they perceived their relationships. On many issues, there were not statistically significant differences. But on a number, the differences pointed to better relations at unionized campuses. Unionized graduate students were more likely than others to say their advisers accepted them as professionals, served as role models for them and were effective in their roles.

Via e-mail, Rogers said that even if many ratings of professors were the same in union and non-union environments, that backs the idea that collective bargaining need not end supportive student-faculty relationships. And he notes that past studies have made similar findings with regard to professors' experiences. He said that NYU professors may well view unions negatively, but that this study suggests the potential for long-term positive relations.

Rogers currently teaches at a university without faculty unions. But he was a graduate student at Rutgers, where his co-authors teach, and where grad students and faculty members are unionized. "We simply wanted to test what the NLRB and others have been projecting about grad unionization for 30-odd years." he said. The researchers are now doing a larger study to see if their findings hold when more campuses are included.




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