Last night I attended a great panel hosted by the Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU), a union of research and teaching assistants. The union is currently working towards holding its first election and becoming certified with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency which protects employees’ rights to organize and oversees related laws.
Those of you immersed in academic life may have noticed a recent increase in organizing efforts among graduate workers at many institutions – this is due to a 2016 ruling by the NLRB that “student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.”
In other words, graduate employees have the right to organize.
Those not immersed in academic life, or less familiar with graduate education, might find this somewhat surprising. As someone said to me when I told them about this panel, “wait, you’re an employee? Aren’t you a student?”
Well, yes. I am an employee and a student. These two identities and lives are complexly intertwined and can be difficult to distinguish – when am I a worker and when am I a learner?
Often I am both simultaneously.
But I think about the perspective of the student program staff at the college where I worked for several years before starting my PhD. Collectively, we made a lot of student employment decisions – hiring student workers to help around the office and selecting paid student fellows to work at local organizations. Those students – primarily undergraduates – were workers, too, but every decision we made was centered around the question: how will this improve the student’s education?
That is, their student identity was always centered. Work expectations always deferred to course expectations. We looked to hire students who were prepared to learn a lot from their experiences, and we created structured mentorship and other activities to ensure student learning was properly supported and enhanced. The work was good work which needed to be done, but the primary purpose of these opportunities was always to create space for students to learn.
Graduate student work is…a bit more complicated. I have been fortunate in my own graduate experience, but I couldn’t even begin to enumerate the horror stories I’ve heard from other graduate employees whose work is most definitely work.
Even assuming good faculty members and good departments, the entire structure of American higher education is designed to exploit graduate students as cheap labor. Their labor may serve to enhance the undergraduate experience, but is rarely designed to enhance their own.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that graduate student workers have virtually no power while the faculty, department, and administration they serve have a great deal of power over them. For graduate workers it is often not a possibility to simply “get another job” – a difficult undertaking for any vocation. International students are particularly vulnerable, as their Visa status could be taken away in a heartbeat.
As several of the panelists mentioned last night, many graduate students simply try to “keep their head down” in the face of this power imbalance. Stay quiet, don’t complain, and do your best to keep focused on the research you’re passionate about.
This is a reasonable copping response, but the reality is that silence never fixes a problem, and sometimes trouble will find you no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
Nearly all of the panelists had a story of someone who was unfairly targeted for termination, who was entirely taken by surprise when a department in which they “had no problems” suddenly had a serious problem with them.
Without a union these become the isolated stories of isolated individuals. They are personal problems to be worked out and ignored at the local level. In the absence of clear rules and expectations, they will happen again, and again, and again – in good departments and bad – with very little recourse for the individuals involved and with no resulting structural change to prevent it from happening again.
Unions build collective power. They build the ability of a people to come together, to share their ideas and concerns, and to work together with a common voice in order to achieve mutually-agreed upon outcomes.
As one of the panelists from a faculty union described, forming a union was a clarifying experience. It brought the community together and generated a clear, shared understanding of common problems and collective solutions. It created venues for enabling structural and policy changes that had been deeply needed for years.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it is important to understand that a union is not some abstract outside, thing. It is a living thing. It is the workers. It is a framework which allows us to work together, learn together, and build together. It is formed from our voices in order to address our concerns and to protect our interests.
We are the union.
And graduate student workers need a union.