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I'm curious to ways professors might support or resist efforts by gradate students to unionize. The only reason I can think of, is the concern that grant money could hire less students if they were paid more. Is this a valid concern?

What if the reasons for unionization aren't about pay? Are there any other reasons professors might not want a union forming? Are there any reasons why professors might prefer to work with a unionized student body?

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    Are you looking for concerns other than that they won't be able to exploit their graduate students as effectively? – Tashus Feb 20 at 18:43
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    Not an answer, but most US professors aren’t particularly involved in labor policy issues at their university. Even when I was a department chair I had very little knowledge of the terms under which our graduate students were employed (such matters are handled by my university’s Graduate Studies unit). So, to a first order approximation I’d guess the answer to your question is “none”. – Dan Romik Feb 20 at 19:10
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    @Tashus [Citation Needed] – anonymous Feb 20 at 19:44
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    A lot depends on what the concerns of the grad students are, at least initially. If they think they will magically double their pay or something, well, that seems unlikely to happen even in STEM areas that have grant money. Unionizing to have some recognized say in university decisions is quite different, although the desire and motivation to do so likely will fluctuate dramatically over time. When I was a grad student I would not have voted to certify, and I certainly would not have gone on strike - I was well compensated and not exploited in the least. – Jon Custer Feb 20 at 23:41
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There is a study on the effects of graduate unions on faculty-student relationships:

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001979391306600208

As they state in their abstract, "Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect....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."

One explanation for how a graduate union can improve faculty-grad student relations is because a union allows graduate students to offload certain bureaucratic issues that may typically be dumped on their advisor. Suppose, for instance, a graduate student has a labor-related issue of some kind (e.g. being assigned an unreasonably high number of students). In the case where the department or undergrad chair is unsympathetic, the grad student would typically ask their advisor to fight the issue on their behalf. In an ideal world, this isn't the sort of thing that advisors should have to deal with, but often advisors become a sort of catch-all advocate for their students in various respects. Were there a dedicated body such as a union for dealing with labor-related issues, the advisor's relationship with their graduate students becomes more solely academically focused.

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I don't really have an opinion about this one way or another, but would like to point out the following:

As a professor with external funding, I run a small business. I bring in money from a customer (for example the Federal government) and spend it on salary for myself, postdocs, and graduate students. I get in trouble if I have contracts for which I have no employees ready to do the work. And I get in trouble if I have employees but don't bring in enough money.

If this was a regular business, it would be my choice to set and negotiate salaries. I would also have flexibility in hiring and laying off employees. I would budget as much money as I think it takes to complete the work.

But this is not how it works in academia: graduate student salaries, for example, are set by the university and not me as the employer. And at least in some disciplines, graduate students are hired by the department and only leave when they graduate. As the one who pays their salaries, I have little flexibility to set the terms.

This is occasionally an awkward position to be in. Unions would complicate this because it means that issues such as labor relations, salaries, etc. become even less predictable to me. I already have no real input into their salaries and terms, but at least I know that they are predictable because they are set by the university or department, and I can anticipate what they will be 2 years from now. I might not be able to do that any more to the same degree if there were unions. That matters because I may have a contract that runs 3 or 5 years, with a fixed amount of money and work to be done.


All of this is independent of the moral question of whether employees should be represented by a union. Having grown up in Europe, my take on that is that unions are good.

  • "I already have no real input into their salaries and terms, but at least I know that they are predictable because they are set by the university or department, and I can anticipate what they will be 2 years from now. I might not be able to do that any more to the same degree if there were unions." Isn't the precise opposite of that the case? Surely you can more easily anticipate what salaries will be if graduate students had a contract, no? – Marcus M Feb 21 at 4:57
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    @MarcusM the institution effectively enforces a contract on the students- once the university policy is set and a grant proposal has been approved a PI can be sure of what a graduate student will cost. This would also be true once a union had negotiated a long-term contract, but there could be a substantial disruption in the period when the union is first negotiating a contract. – Brian Borchers Feb 21 at 5:03
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Actually, and this is just opinion, I think you should support the students in their effort, though perhaps not actively, as you choose. Professors should support their students in all things IMO.

Making it about "more research for less money" is predatory and I advise against that. It isn't even necessarily true. Happier grad students may actually perform better.

One reason for preferring a unionized student body is that some arguments that arise in academia might better be handled if the rules were more formalized as might happen under a contract. More important, you might wind up, in a conflict situation avoiding arguments directly with the students but with a union rep instead. This might make for better relationships.

I'm not a big fan of academic unions actually, as I've never seen the need in my life. But I'm willing to admit that there are situations in which they are needed and the people involved should have a say in whether they feel that a supportive organization is needed. Given the poor support given by State governments to most state universities, it may well be needed, not as a check against the university, but against abuse from higher powers.

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    On the other hand, there are also situations where arguments are better handled if the rules are less formalized, because the rules have to be designed to cover a broad range of situations and hence won't apply quite as well to any specific situation. – Alexander Woo Feb 20 at 19:11
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    Saying that professors should "support their students in all things" is kind of a blank check for mayhem. – anonymous Feb 20 at 19:46

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