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The graduate students at my university (a relatively large state school in the US) are considering joining a union. To help decide whether to sign a union card in support of joining the union, I'm interested in more information about how unions have helped graduate students at other universities. What are some improvements to graduate life gained by graduate students at other universities upon joining a union?

I'm also interested in information about how unions have hurt graduate students at other universities. What are some detriments to graduate life caused by graduate students joining a union?

I'm primarily interested in student-body-wide benefits/detriments, instead of student-specific or faculty/administrator-specific claims (e.g. "my advisor treated me better with the union behind me" or "my students have stopped working since they joined a union" is not what I'm looking for).

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Never heard of these until you posted this here. The first few hits of a google search leads to a lot of interesting results, though. –  eykanal May 8 at 16:52
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Not answering because I have no concrete experience to share, but I would have the impression that PhD students are exactly the kind of workforce that unions make sense for: the ones that are deeply dependent on their superiors to the extend that they basically don't have alternatives to negotiate with. That being said, I live in the german-speaking area, and around here some unions have gone horribly wrong lately. –  xLeitix May 8 at 20:59
    
The University of Michigan went through this recently, with it polarizing grad students along those that do more teaching vs. research. You might look at how it shook out. –  Nick T May 9 at 20:30

6 Answers 6

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I went to graduate school in mathematics at a university with a TA union. I think the main effect was to level off graduate student compensation across disciplines -- so, the union was apparently a great boon to those in the humanities, but I heard that compensation for math TA's would likely be higher if not for the union.

Another benefit to the union was that it instilled (for many) a sense of camaraderie and common cause. Union events were fun, and they served beer. It was a good way to get to know your fellow graduate students.

The main disadvantage was that dues had to be paid, around $200 a year (most of which went straight to the AFT). This is not a lot, but on our salary it did mean something. Dues were mandatory, even if you opted out of the union -- although state politicians have since seen to it that this is no longer true.

Another potential disadvantage is that union dues went (in part) to political contributions to union-friendly politicians. I didn't mind, but this tended to alienate graduate students who were more politically conservative than me.

There was occasional heated rhetoric when I was there, and even more after I left, but overall the union didn't seem to do much good or harm. Mostly, I remember the beer.

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"Mostly, I remember the beer" - Sounds more like a social group than a politically effective tool for ensuring rights, which honestly doesn't surprise me. –  eykanal May 8 at 16:55
    
But if they did increase salaries for some TAs, that's a politically effective outcome. –  Suresh May 8 at 19:58
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The point about math vs humanities matches my experience. From what I've seen, math/natural science grad students get treated better than social science grads, who are treated better than humanities grads. The grad union that was being proposed at my school wanted to smooth that out in that everybody gets treated more equally. This means humanities and social sciences grads can see big benefits, but math/natural science grads might actually see some drawbacks. These are gross generalizations of course. –  KAI May 9 at 19:34

I don't have first-hand knowledge of specific details, but I am aware that at my university the graduate student union has successfully negotiated items like:

  • Basic health care coverage for GAs, RAs and TAs, with full coverage provided to 0.5 FTE assistants.
  • Tuition payment deferment so that earned stipends can pay tuition fees not covered by tuition waivers.
  • Paycheck deductions in installments for parking permits for graduate assistants.

I have also been told that they negotiate assistantship salaries and minimum and maximum working loads for assistants, and that the union will represent assistants should a grievance arise.

I've never discussed the graduate student union with anyone in my department – professors and other students alike – and am aware of no negative impacts of my membership.

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I was a postdoc at an institution with unionized graduate students. One specific consequence was that graduate students weren't allowed to ever lecture in place of a professor.

This is an annoyance to the professor, but more relevantly, it's a mixed deal for graduate students. When I was a graduate student, getting the chance to lecture was an opportunity---at some schools it's one of the few chances to get that experience while still in grad school. On the other hand I have heard stories (in other fields) of professors abusing this and passing a large part of their teaching load off to their grad students. (This, I assume, is why the rule was negotiated in the first place.)

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Strongly agree with this. Unions can often result in "across-the-board" rules that are well-intentioned, but bad for some departments. –  ff524 May 8 at 20:57

You ask about student-body-wide benefits, I think you need to ask this question across schools. Unions at some schools have more bargaining power than others, and at some schools the field is already more level than others. But when you look at things like tuition waivers and health benefits, I don't see how they would be as common as they are now without TA unions pushing the fight for the last 40 years. Non-union schools are under pressure to match the compensation at union schools. Now other battles loom at many schools regarding international student issues and mandatory fees. I was involved in my TA union as an elected leader for three years, and I heard lots of complaints about how the department wants to give us this, but the union won't let us, the schoolw ants to may us more, but the union won't let us, etc. But I personally investigated every case and the most common explanation is that the school administrators starting these rumors did not understand labor law or the union contract. In no case did the union prevent a TA from being paid better, etc. Also, I heard complaints about union dues going to liberal politicians, this is also not true, and is against the law. Unions do help some politicians, this is true -- but it isn't with dues money. And the reason unions do help is because unions have painfully found out that what is gained at the bargaining table can be taken away at the state capitals very easily.

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I suggest structuring this answer better. It is a bit of a "wall of text" now. (I like the content, it is just not easy to parse for me) –  xLeitix May 9 at 6:05
    
Thanks for the answer! I'm curious if you have any specific cases in mind where non-union schools have increased compensation/benefits/etc. to match unionized schools. It seems to me that graduate students would not pick their graduate school based on the peripherals, but rather based on the faculty they would work with. This would seem to reduce the leverage of grad students at non-union schools and reduce the incentive of the school to match the unionized school's benefits. But of course, I don't have any specific cases in mind so I can't take my own advice! :-) –  darthbith May 9 at 12:52
    
@Frank, I wonder if you have any specific cases of TA unions that have existed for 40 years? My impression is that in the US, the very first TA unions have begun in the last 5-10 years. I would be surprised if graduate student unions have been responsible for increases in salary, benefits for grad students over the time period you mention. –  shane May 9 at 13:41
    
@shane Wikipedia has a nice article explaining the timing, which can be verified at the UW-Madison TAA website: taa-madison.org/taa-history As for the actual benefits... that's why I asked the question! :-) –  darthbith May 9 at 14:04

This is a huge over simplification, but it is worth noting that Universities, unlike companies, are closed systems that generally do not make a profit. Giving additional benefits from someone means taking them from someone else. For a company it is usually the share holder that loses out. For academic departments added benefits to graduate students hurts professors.

There is no question in my mind that while graduate student unions may provide a short term benefit to graduate students, those students who wish to continue on in academia are effectively shooting themselves in the foot. Those increased benefits come directly from departmental budgets. This means heavier teaching loads and less discretionary money for academic staff. To offset this you need either high grant overheads which will make getting a grant even more competitive or higher tuition. Basically if you support graduate student unions, you lose your right as a faculty member to complain about high teaching loads, not having a grant, and high tuition.

As a graduate student in response to "threats" about unionization my university increased the PhD student stipend. The stipend was above the NIH recommendation. This means that any student funded by an NIH grant needed to find an additional source of non governmental funding. This essentially boils down to PIs using their overhead accounts to supplement the stipend, but PIs did not get a bigger slice of the overhead pie to cover this new cost. At the same time the University got a site license for Matlab. To cover the cost the PI slice of the overhead pie was reduced. Universities take, but rarely give.

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I very very rarely downvote (except for spam), but I did here. I second (and upvoted) Nates comment below. No offense, but your answer is nuts. –  Faheem Mitha May 8 at 19:55
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It is indeed a huge oversimplification to suggest that grad students and faculty are playing a zero-sum game. Student and faculty salaries combined are a relatively small part of a university's budget. There are many other players: administration, facilities, athletics, student services. The game isn't even zero sum: the university could raise tuition, increase fundraising, or (for public institutions) convince the state to increase funding. I don't agree with your characterization at all. –  Nate Eldredge May 8 at 19:56
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I had to downvote this as well. Basically, the same argument is always brought up against unions in any context ("you might be helping in the short run, but it's bad in the long run"), and I am convinced this argument never holds water. –  xLeitix May 8 at 20:54
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@ff524 you mean the university didn't cut the football team's budget to offset the increased salary costs in your department :) –  StrongBad May 8 at 21:00
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@StrongBad ok, I misunderstood. To be honest, that seems like an even worse argument, given that most PhD students will never be professors. –  xLeitix May 8 at 21:01

A good thing in unions is that you get to interact with others, specially your seniors, who can guide you in your academic life because they are one step ahead of you.

A drawback is that you will have to be a part of parties, meetings, and gatherings etc. which could be disturbing for some people who are not into much socializing.

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This doesn't make much sense. Nobody forces union members to come to union meetings. –  Ben Crowell May 9 at 23:31
    
To be part of union you have to be a part of their gatherings. No body forces you but it makes a lot of difference if you actively participate or don't participate in meetings and gatherings. –  user19404 May 10 at 3:35

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