Recently, my state has declared graduate students as employees giving them the right to unionize. The students in the Engineering School are very well compensated. The benefits that we get are

  1. Minimum stipend of 29k$ (which was increased ~3 years ago).
  2. Top tier health insurance plan fully paid for by the University and Engineering School
  3. Deans that largely respect student needs and actively address current issues
  4. Plethora of funding for student lead activities
  5. Free services like legal council, psychiatrist, campus clinique, campus shuttle buses, etc.
  6. TA opportunities are always available for those that need them.

Additionally, my department has a very high standard set forth for us. We have nice offices, the Chair actively addresses our concerns and complaints, funds for student activities and community building, computational resources, and more. The quality of life for students in my department (Applied Math) is quite high.

Lately, we've had outside people dropping by to advise us to join a union. The humanities students are largely in support of this movement since they are not compensated as well as the engineering students. In my point of view, there are very few reasons why I can see joining a union will benefit the Applied Math graduate students. Given how well we, the graduate students in my department, are currently treated, what are the advantages and disadvantages of unionization?

Edit: There is a similar question here, however, does not specifically address STEM students.

I am a naive graduate student and will like to be better informed about the advantages and repercussions of joining a union. Whenever administrative University personnel have approached us to dissuade the effort, their tone has been extremely diplomatic and ambiguous about why they are advising against unionizing.

A brief summary of the responses is as follows.

  1. Advantages of unionizing

    • Security of current benefits
    • Bargaining power to timely address current, new, and growing needs of the entire bargaining unit
    • Guaranteed minimum pay
    • Improving circumstances of students in other schools who are not as well compensated
    • Human resources like representation for students facing abuse, harassment, or other adversities from their advisors
  2. Disadvantages of unionizing

    • Partisan representation
    • Clarifying the distinction between student and employee (though some may argue that this is an advantage)
    • Paying dues (though contracts usually negotiate higher stipends to offset this amount)
    • Deterioration of student/administrative relationship

Additional STEM specific points that I'd like to add are

  1. Advantages

    • Incentives to address issues such as a single student having to monitor experiments running for 8+ hours
    • For international students, alleviating fears of not being able to find an advisor which prevents them for settling to the 1st person that says yes regardless of their interest
    • Some departments in the Engineering school offer things like funds for all students in their 3rd year to purchase a new laptop. Adapting this or similar policies universally would be appreciated.
    • Guaranteed funding beyond X years as set forth by the School, especially when the average is just slightly below X.
  2. Disadvantages

    • As funds are rerouted into increased stipends, there may be
      • Decreased support for professional development (conferences, workshops, etc.)
      • Decreased supplemental resources (rented compute nodes and hours, new lab equipment, etc.)
      • Fewer graduate student and postdoc hires

Thank you all for your comments; it is all very much insightful. I'll continue to look out for new responses.

  • 24
    What happens when you have a change in chancellor and they decide these benefits are just too straining on the budget? Poof, all gone.
    – Nij
    May 24, 2017 at 19:05
  • 22
    In my opinion, one should always avoid the "I've got mine, Jack" mentality. E.g., the fact that I might "luckily" not find myself in a randomly/historically disadvantaged group is not a reason to passively advocate continuation of any such disadvantage ... privately thinking that to do otherwise might diminish my (accidental) advantage. May 24, 2017 at 22:36
  • 3
    I tend to think of it as insurance or health care. Sure, you may not feel you need it... But if push comes to shove and you end up in a situation where you do, then?
    – Clement C.
    May 24, 2017 at 23:02
  • 5
    One possible disadvantage is that unions can be political and side with the side you are against.
    – Pharap
    May 25, 2017 at 2:51
  • 2
    @Nij Perhaps poof, all gone, but STEM grad students aren't exactly people looking for somewhere to fund their fingerpainting for three years. Poor compensation will generally mean that poof - all the good graduate students will be gone too; off to somewhere that will give them better opportunities. And perhaps top professors will also go poof - to somewhere where they can attract better students.
    – J...
    May 26, 2017 at 10:52

8 Answers 8


The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 2016 set a minimum salary of $47,476 for professional employees to be exempt from paid overtime. in response to this, the NIH changed its postdoctoral salaries.

While the NIH says

NIH is fully supportive of increased pay for postdoctoral researchers and has proposed to increase the NRSA postdoctoral stipends to levels above the threshold

their behavior suggests otherwise. What they did is simple increase all postdoctoral salaries below the minimum to slightly higher than the minimum. While historically a year 1 post doc made 4% more than a year 0 postdoc, after the adjustment they made the same. There was no increase in the predoctoral salaries. In FY 2016 the NIH predoctoral salary was $23,376 so slightly less than what you are currently being paid.

While you may believe you are well compensated, some would argue that $29,000 a year is not a fair salary if you are expected to perform unpaid overtime (and what graduate student doesn't work overtime). A union can help fight for things like fair salaries.

  • 16
    Technically, at most universities, graduate students are actually classified as 50% employees, the idea being that they only spend 50% of their time on work for the university and the other 50% on their own education. The $23k or $29k would then come out to be $46k or $58k as a full-time salary. I don't find that inappropriately low. May 25, 2017 at 14:52
  • 4
    @WolfgangBangerth then a union can help fight for being classified as a full time employee and not a 50% time employee. Imagine if a company said we only pay for half time employees because the rest of the time is spent learning skills to enhance their CV.
    – StrongBad
    May 25, 2017 at 15:52
  • 21
    Well, getting a PhD is an education after all. I don't think that classification is unreasonable. May 25, 2017 at 16:54
  • 15
    @ScottSeidman That's how we're classified (R1 university in the US). They actually went through and reduced us further to 13 hours/week to make sure they didn't have to provide us with certain things. They also lump our "tuition" into our "total" compensation, and so technically we're paid something like $56k, but only $26k of it is stipend. All the rest of our time -- thesis, classes, etc is considered our own time for education and is "unpaid." All of my friends/family at other universities are classified the same way. It is probably more common than you think.
    – tpg2114
    May 25, 2017 at 17:15
  • 2
    @ScottSeidman But for all practical purposes, RAships and TAships are the only senses in which graduate students are considered university employees. (My university also has something called "general assistantships", for clerical work and the like, which are also capped at 20 hrs/week.)
    – JeffE
    May 26, 2017 at 16:38

Some of the answers already raise good points, but I would like to add something:

Although you feel that the treatment you get is good, perhaps some of your colleagues with different situations or background have issues. For example : Do you have parental leave? Or politics concerning work-family balance?

A union could help represent minorities in their revendications, if there's any. And as someone stated, all this is very dependent on the chair you currently have, which can leave/die/change his mind.

The relation between an union and the university officials does not need to be acrimonius. They can have good relations, working both in the same direction, safeguarding the rights of students.

  • 2
    "A union could help represent minorities in their revendications" Or in other words, a union allows the OP to gift his own negotiation capital to someone else. For example, resources that would have gone to his engineering department might instead be redirected to humanities.
    – NPSF3000
    May 26, 2017 at 2:08
  • 1
    @NPSF3000 Thats called empathy and caring for the weaker.
    – Leon
    May 26, 2017 at 6:24
  • 3
    @Leon: It’s also called solidarity and strength in numbers. OP may not benefit directly now, but they might well benefit a few years down the line.
    – PLL
    May 26, 2017 at 8:31
  • @Leon It's also called inefficiency. If OP reduces resources to his department (that may very well merit them, and use them to help millions) and funnels them to a department that does not merit them (and helps only thousands) does that ultimately 'care for the weaker'? There are pro's and cons to every decision, blindly crying 'empathy' does not necessarily lead to the best outcome for anybody (his department, the humanities department, the university, or humanity as a whole).
    – NPSF3000
    May 26, 2017 at 14:20
  • 2
    ... but then that would only happen if the union is dominated by humanist members. So one of the benefits for OP joining is that their field is better represented within the union (though chances are in my experience that in the end humanities will be overrepresented). May 26, 2017 at 20:09

From a practical point of view, you rarely gain anything by joining a union or other similar lobbying organization. You either join if you feel that the cause is right, or you don't if you feel otherwise. Edit: I mean joining a union should be a moral choice, not a choice based on weighing the advantages and disadvantages.

As a member, you have to pay for the lobbying the union does, but the benefits usually go to all employees. Hence it is more cost-effective to just take the benefits and let the others pay. This assumes a legal environment where the employer has no right to know whether an employee is a union member or not. If the employer has the right to know, union members can have higher salaries and better benefits, but their relationship with the employer may suffer.

  • 5
    I'm not going to downvote, since this does answer the question, but there seems to be a bit of a paradox in the answer. You say, "From a pratical point of view, you rarely gain anything...", but then in the next paragraph, you write, "...but the benefits usually go to all employees." Doesn't this imply that you do gain something from joining?
    – tonysdg
    May 24, 2017 at 21:07
  • 7
    It might be injudicious to advocate that decisions about moral or ethical issues be made on game-theoretic grounds. May 24, 2017 at 22:52
  • 4
    Another common structure is that non-union employees of a particular company are required to have fees equivalent to union dues deducted from their paycheck (and sent somewhere besides the union); this is negotiated precisely to combat the free-rider problem. May 24, 2017 at 22:53
  • 3
    And in the specific case of graduate workers, at least in my university, once the vote to unionize goes through everyone becomes part of the union.
    – Clement C.
    May 24, 2017 at 23:10
  • 4
    @ClementC. Interesting. That would be a blatant violation of the constitution in many European countries. The usual interpretation there is that the freedom of association includes the freedom to refuse to join an association. May 24, 2017 at 23:31

When I was in graduate school, my stipend was 19k. As the economy got worse, I had more trouble than usual making the ends meet. Yet, it was not this reason that made me consider joining a union. It was the climate in my department. Long story short, some of the faculty were extremely abusive and kept threatening to fire students, although everyone was working as hard as they could. In the end, we organized and pushed back against some measures our faculty thought about such as not allowing some people to TA simply because they had been PhD students for too long.

Around the same time, some union people came to get us to join their union, but nothing really happened in the end. I can only speculate why they didn't succeed, but I think it was because things weren't bad enough.

Going back to the question, joining a union benefits workers only if they need protection against their employer's abuses. In the case of graduate students, they aren't treated as workers, but as students. This opens the door to many abuses such as no overtime payment, unexpected firing, 12 hours workday, and so on. The faculty advisor has almost complete control over their student's life and many take advantage of that. Things like delaying forever student's graduation date simply because the faculty could use the cheap qualified labor were common at my graduate school. When I graduated, the average PhD duration at my university was 6.5 years.

To give an idea how things can go bad for graduate students, one needs to look at the famous NYU student strike in 2006. The striking students faced retaliation.

  • 2
    Good point, however, things are not guaranteed to turn bright by joining a union. NYU joined a union and achieved "historic gains," however, still had to compromise with a weak contract. Universities are funded through grants, endowments, tuition, and state if public. When a union steps in and increase pay, the repercussions include lower admission rates (as is NYU's case), less economical diversity, etc. NYU had a great need for a union. Unlike NYU, my University compensates STEM students well. I'm unsure about humanities students; they get smaller stipends and partial health care coverage.
    – namu
    May 25, 2017 at 18:21
  • Seems like more of a comment than an answer. May 26, 2017 at 23:21
  • @aparente001 Do suggest some improvements beyond "look at SE guidelines". I merely wanted to state that students need unions for all the reasons regular employees need them: to protect them from abuse from bad employers. And there is no shortage of that in academia. This website alone is full with questions on what to do when you have a bad adviser, or you happen to work in a toxic department environment.
    – user21264
    May 28, 2017 at 6:41
  • What you say is interesting, no doubt about that, and if someone had asked why the unionization effort wasn't successful at your school, what you wrote would definitely qualify, for me, as an answer, not a comment. // I suppose it might be helpful to edit your answer to bring into a more primary position your analysis that the urge to unionize can be boiled down to wanting protection from abusive employers. (Hope I understood you correctly.) // I disagree with that, by the way; I think there are other reasons to want to unionize, besides protection from abuse. May 28, 2017 at 13:23

There are several huge disadvantages you missed.

Because student employment is not like a normal employer/employee relationship, the benefits of unions are diminished. The employment relationship is by nature limited in duration so long term contract changes not only don't benefit you, they don't benefit any of the students in the union.

But it's worse than that, with special consequences for several STEM fields. Power is placed in the hands of representatives who have no obligation to your academic progress, only to your employment. If you are in a field where experiments must go uninterrupted (monitoring disease states in virology and immunology, growing cell cultures in microbiology, and note that work in these fields is not limited to majors -- statisticians may be studying effects of drugs, mechanical engineers may be doing tissue engineering, etc) then having the union call a mandatory strike may ruin your ongoing projects and set research back half a year. Even when the projects aren't as long term, you can be forced to miss submission deadlines for conferences and journals.

It just isn't worth putting your education -- which is the primary form of compensation you are receiving -- at risk for some employment terms that may never benefit anyone but the union itself. How much would your salary have to increase to counteract the opportunity cost of a one-year delay in graduation (not only you lose the real world salary for that year, but you have a year less experience for the rest of your career)? The same moral argument that you need to subjugate your own needs to the best interests of the whole group, demands that you not place all the students who could suffer ruined projects at the mercy of the union, even if your own projects don't need that intradaily care.

In your case the decision seems especially simple: you (and the larger group of students you are most obligated to) already have the lion's share of everything the union could possibly negotiate for on your behalf.

  • 2
    I've never heard of mandatory strikes. In blue collar sectors, Union reps might try to prevent you from breaking the picket line, but even there they can't force you not work. This might be country specific, but I feel you are describing an edge case.
    – henning
    May 26, 2017 at 8:57
  • @henning your comment applies to the UK too (though some reasonably polite attempts to persuade you to stay outside the picket line may be expected even in academia; this often isn't a problem unless you work in the same building as the executives). The US is rather different on labour matters.
    – Chris H
    May 26, 2017 at 9:05
  • 2
    This is a common straw man argument against unionization. But in fact, there is no simple syllogism if union ==> there will be strikes. May 30, 2017 at 2:42
  • 2
    @aparente001: Your observation is correct, but dismissing my point as a strawman is just your failure to examine the situation in depth; I've already considered that fact. "There will be strikes" is advertised as an advantage of a union (see academia.stackexchange.com/a/90000/8705 for just one example). And the fact that a union might not do harmful things is not a rationale for giving it the authority to do those harmful things in the first place.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 30, 2017 at 2:46
  • Once you begin logical reduction of the predicates involved, you find that the case "union without possibility of strikes" is just not an interesting case, its cost and benefit are both close enough to zero that it doesn't affect the expected overall utility.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 30, 2017 at 2:55

Another advantage: A union can help your department extract more funding from your university, or your university extract more funds from your legislature (if you are at a public school). "We would like to pay our TA's better" is less persuasive than "If we don't raise TA pay, they'll strike!".

  • 1
    How does department specific funding work? I thought that majority of the funding always comes through from overheads on grants.
    – namu
    May 25, 2017 at 18:22
  • 2
    @namu My understanding is that RA's (research assistants) are mostly paid by grants but TA's (teaching assistants) are usually from the departmental budget. I'd be glad to hear from someone more knowledgeable. May 26, 2017 at 12:42

Instead of a direct answer to your question about unions and as to why supporting the "plebs" from human resources is to your best interest even though you re already far ahead from them, here is a quote from a poem that suits your "predicament" perfectly

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Haha, I'm speechless.
    – namu
    May 25, 2017 at 18:23
  • 3
    This argument cuts both ways. You also have an obligation to all the other STEM students whose benefits the union would bargain away in exchange for "equality".
    – Ben Voigt
    May 26, 2017 at 3:07
  • @BenVoigt Equity and equality are two strategies we can use in an effort to produce fairness. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Talking about equity here.
    – Leon
    May 26, 2017 at 6:25


  1. It is harder for lazy workers to be fired, so if this is your goal in life union is good
  2. Much more effective to get more money from employer if 1000x people are negotiating with the employer than if you do it personally.


  1. Morality (this depends on you personally so this could go into pros also), but for example some capitalists would say that it is unfair that employees can organize to fix wages while it is illegal for employers to do that.
  2. Union leaders are like politicians - they do not care about long term problems caused by popular short term actions or about non voters(non union members). For example unions preventing people from getting fired seems nice, until you realize that there is a guy that works 12h/week and he can not be fired, although there are 5 qualified candidates for his place.
  3. As mentioned in 2. Union leaders are populists, so for example they might pursue policies that would make salaries of STEM and gender studies employees equal if the number of gender studies employees is 4x STEM employees even if the private sector salaries would justify the discrepancy.

  4. Unions can make work atmosphere toxic: like politicians they need to energize the voters/members and they do that by appealing to emotions so after a while part of the voting/union population really believes that other candidate is Literally Hitler/ or that employer is evil exploitative...

note that I know this A will be downvoted due to political bias of academia.

  • 7
    I'm sorry, but this is an unhelpfully superficial appraisal of these situations. Yes, if one grants certain ideological/political assumptions, then it is "canon". But it is not explanatory, since it only reiterates canon/mythology. May 25, 2017 at 23:05
  • 1
    Employers don't have to organize to bargain lower wages, the 'market' works in their favor by producing unemployment and giving them a bargaining advantage over the employees even without having to organize. Moreover, what you call 'lazy', I call a decent work-life balance.
    – henning
    May 26, 2017 at 9:00
  • -1 not 'due to political bias of academia' but because this is is just a rant. May 26, 2017 at 19:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .