Who’s the Boss?

University administrations set the conditions of graduate employment, not professors.

Graduate workers protesting at the University of Chicago in 2009. Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

On August 23, the National Labor Relations Board finally conceded what graduate students at private universities like the University of Chicago have long known: that we are workers and should have the legal right to unionize.

This ruling is a tremendous and long-awaited victory, and will improve the lives of graduate workers and their families, and it will help academic workers more broadly to confront the crisis of casualization in academic labor. Critically, this ruling and the wave of unionization that is sure to follow will positively impact another key aspect of academic life: the faculty-student relationship.

Relationships with faculty members are one of the most cherished aspects of the graduate school experience for many of us. Ideally, our faculty advisers are mentors who facilitate intellectual growth, prepare us to go into the job market, and provide us with a combination of support and challenge that helps us become the best scholars we can be. Meanwhile, faculty often dedicate enormous amounts of time to the students they advise, from meetings, to writing letters of recommendation, to helping shape opportunities for intellectual growth in all areas of academic life.

Unionization will only improve this foundational intellectual relationship of the graduate education experience.

It will more clearly define the relationship between faculty and their graduate student advisees as one of intellectual development rather than as the management of employment. It will improve the living standards of graduate students, thus allowing them to dedicate more time to their own scholarship and professionalization. It will provide a mechanism for graduate workers to challenge the corporatization of higher education.

And most importantly, unionization will end the unilateral power of the administration in determining the future of graduate education and employment at the University of Chicago.

Empirical research supports our claims. Hewitt studied the attitudes of faculty members toward graduate worker collective bargaining at large public research institutions and found that 88 percent of faculty did not find collective bargaining to inhibit graduate student education. Rogers, Eaton, and Voos demonstrated that unionized graduate workers report better relationships with faculty advisers than nonunionized graduate workers.

They also found that unionization was linked with improved educational outcomes because improved compensation allowed students to focus on their work toward their degree, rather than outside employment.

In addition, graduate workers at three of the nation’s leading public research institutions — the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley — have been unionized for decades while maintaining their elite standing.

Indeed, the weight of this evidence was a prime consideration in the recent NLRB decision, which ruled that opponents of unionization “failed to demonstrate that collective bargaining between a university and its employed graduate students cannot coexist successfully with student-teacher relationships, with the educational process, and with the traditional goals of higher education.”

The premise that graduate employee unions were bad for higher education, the Board ruled, had “no empirical support for those claims, even though those assertions are empirically testable.”

More broadly, we know that unionization is the best way for workers, especially those in the private sector, to improve their working conditions and standard of living. We are joining a long tradition of working people uniting to defend their rights and improve the quality of their lives and the dignity of their labor.

University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer, on the other hand, does not appear particularly concerned with the weight of this evidence despite his proclaimed admiration for scholarly inquiry.

He claims that unionization “could impede” graduate workers’ “opportunities for intellectual and professional growth . . . and as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers,” even though this claim directly contradicts the conclusions of scholarly research on this very subject.

He suggests that graduate student “flourishing is not a simple or easy process,” thus retreating from scholarly and empirical studies which demonstrate the benefits of graduate worker unionization into a mysticism that only serves to hide the disparities in power which characterize academic labor in today’s university.

President Zimmer also paints Graduate Students United, a labor organization comprised of graduate workers, as an outside party to the faculty-student relationship. But actually it is the administration which is the outside party.

The picture that he paints, of one-to-one faculty-student relationships as the basis for university employment, is a myth. In fact, the university administration and the board of trustees currently exerts unilateral power over the conditions of our employment.

University policy has not only run roughshod over the needs of graduate students, but has also at times countered the wishes of the faculty. President Zimmer claims that faculty-student relationships need the freedom to “move . . . across established responsibilities,” yet his own administration established work-hour limits that resulted in many graduate students losing meaningful employment.

Graduate workers need a collective voice so the administration, which is currently unaccountable for its actions, cannot impose arbitrary work rules in which we have had no meaningful say.

The actual experience of unionized graduate workers tells a different story than President Zimmer’s baseless scaremongering. Joseph Helfer, a recent mathematics graduate student from McGill University, said the union “made us conscious of and critically minded about our employment,” and “engendered mature and intelligent conversation. I remember in particular speaking about [workplace] issues with my lab-mates and our adviser . . . It encouraged an openness about our professional relationship which may have been otherwise lost.”

Unionization’s fostering of faculty-student collaboration is a persistent theme which often emerges when faculty and students describe their experiences at unionized universities. As Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer, a unionized graduate student in the University of Washington’s political science department describes, “Being in a union is about solidarity and respect between students, staff, and faculty. A union . . . fosters democratic engagement around issues that matter in the workplace and in the broader community.”

Faculty, including at the University of Chicago, also support unionization on similar grounds. The American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter, which is organized by tenured faculty on our campus, stated that “As professors at the University of Chicago who value, on the one hand, the special relationship between faculty members and graduate students, and, on the other hand, the important work done by all those who teach and do research on our campus, we welcome the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board.”

Part-time faculty have also been supportive; members of the newly formed Faculty Forward union have marched alongside us as we struggled to be recognized by an intransigent administration.

And, while most graduate workers build positive relationships with their faculty advisers, sometimes things do go awry: graduate students are fired from their positions, subjected to discrimination and sexual assault, and grievances about expected workload arise. Unionization would provide us with the tools to handle these situations effectively, knowing there were clear and enforceable expectations in these areas and an established procedure to deal with conflict, discrimination, harassment, or any other problem that may arise in the term of our employment in labs and classrooms across campus — one which we had helped craft.

Graduate Students United will improve the living standards, working conditions, and educational experience of graduate workers at the University of Chicago. Collective bargaining will allow the faculty-student relationship, so central to our intellectual and professional development, to thrive — despite a university administration that seems determined to undermine it.