Thursday, April 28, 2005

State of the Union.

In 1886, the AFL-CIO led by Samuel Gompers constituted a union targeted at improving the lives of skilled workers. It's central goals included fair wages, improved working conditions and protection from corporate abuse. Today, the AFL-CIO is a flourishing enterprise with over 13 million members.

Here's the topic du jour -- Should graduate students be permitted to unionize? Given that universities and professors have demonstrated little ability to police themselves, shouldn't graduate students have some form of advocacy? Graduate students are currently operating under conditions similar to those of workers during the Industrial Revolution -- we are poorly paid, overworked and often the victims of abuse. Moreover, many academic institutions operate much like industrial complexes did in the late 1800's, with little regard for these students. Universities argue that graduate students are apprentices, not workers. As such, they should not be granted the ability to unionize.

A friend recently sent me
this outstanding article detailing the unionization effort at private institutions, notably Columbia University.

Where do you stand on this issue? Should graduate students be permitted to enter collective bargaining agreements with their respective institution? What are other ways you think abuse at the graduate level can be stopped? How else could the standard of living for America's young thinkers improve?


Blogger boabhan sith said...

I wish we had more of them in this state...but I doubt it.


Oh, well...I don't do a lot of voting anyway, LOL!!

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only problem with the unionization efforts is that to be effective graduate students from all departments need to be involved and since the treatment and pay of graduate students vary greatly between different fields it is hard to get the higher paid ones to help the lower paid ones if it might involve some loss of their own low salary.

1:02 PM  
Blogger FantasticAlice said...

Overhaul the entire job force.

Hey, I mean I am not trying to be a ball buster to anyone....but communism -equal work, equal pay-was a good idea... it just never panned out....

Just be happy you don't live in Missouri. This place is going to hell when it comes to any kind of employment.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Raine said...

Yes, they should be allowed to unionize. I don't understand what is preventing them from choosing to do so, unless they lack the numbers needed. At my university, graduate students working as TAs or RAs, including myself, were well paid relative to those working a part-time job at the library or the snack bar, for instance. What union would they be organized under, and how would the current members of that union feel about having their dues also be used to help college students? Also, I think about research assistants who often are doing work that will benefit their own educational endeavors. I don't think their long hours could be called abusive.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Z said...

Now that would be a fantastic, if idealistic, measure. However, chances are good it won't be addressed seriously for at least another 150 yrs, as universities are some of the most change resistant institutions around.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

As a graduate student, I'm against being unionized. For starters, I like making my own schedule and I like the idea of self-management. I know what I have to do, and I like doing it within my own time frame. When I think of unions I think of inflexibility, punching a time clock, and I wouldn't like working under those conditions. In those types of situations, people are generally told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. I think graduate schools should be training professional and not just employees.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

anonymous: Unions already work in environments with salary stratification. How would this be any different?
Cynthia: Interesting perspective. I'm not claiming everyone should join the union. My only interest is that it is an option made available to grad. students. As with most unionized organizations, flexibility may be an issue. I'm sure things of that nature could be worked out, though.
Raine: Yes, it's complicated. Work hours should be by choice, not forced. Those wishing to work longer will indeed be rewarding their career. You're right, in that case it is not abuse. As far as snack bar jobs etc., they can pay dues and join the union just like others do in corporate entities.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Friengly Neighborhood PhD said...

As a veteran of graduate school, I hope never to see unions break onto the scene in any meaningful way. Most student unions are examples of the United Auto Workers (Yes, the UAW) taking advantage of students for union dues. They set up a closed shop so that students can't negotiate their own wages and MUST pay dues. It's a load of crap.

Plus, in most cases, science students outnumber humanities students, and the science students would see their salaries frozen and the overhead go up on their grants until the humanities students got equal wages. You get hit twice; first you work hard to raise money and have a larger share go to people who can't get funding, and second your pay doesn't reflect your value on the open market. That's a really bad deal. Graduate schools should pay whatever it takes to attract students and that's all. Any graduate student could always go get a job like any other college graduate if this isn't what they want to be doing.

People from NYU and Columbia and UAW tried to unionize us when we were in graduate school. The effort was torpedoed by scientists, and I strongly stand by all of my efforts to discourage the movement.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Friendly with a g: If not unions then what? Who can work as an effective advocate for graduate students? It's certainly not universities...

11:50 PM  
Blogger An80sNut said...

I've seen the positive and negative sides of unionization and am currently still in one. As strong as a union can be in leveling the playing field among graduate students, it will only be as strong as the union stewards. I also wonder how easy it would be for a professor to find a scab worker that knows they need the job. It'd be interesting to see what sort of contract they'd be able to work out.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Friendly Neighborhood PhD said...

Unions will not improve the situation with graduate students and poor advisors. A union can not ever interfere with an academic decision. The professor will decide what work is to be done, and the professor will decide when a student graduates. The professor will fire the student for making insufficient progress toward degree. There will not be recourse, and even if there were, a Ph.D. is only worth as much as the recommendation. Unions can dictate salary and safety, but they can not intrude on the intellectual side of graduate school nor can they constrain a professor's research or behavior. Graduate school is a fluid market; people can change schools or get a "real" job whenever. They can even change groups. It's hard work and as such isn't always pleasant.

1:14 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: So I guess your approach is that professors should be allowed to do whatever they want to their students. I know of a particular chemistry professor at an Ivy League school that is known for causing his students to commit suicide. Using your reasoning, his students could just switch schools or groups. Wait, they're dead... oh well, they could still get industry jobs. Wait, they're dead. I believe that your approach is what's wrong with a graduate education these days (no offense). You have bought into the model that professors should be all powerful. Chances are, you had a great graduate advisor that supported you. If that's the case, I'm truly happy for you. However if your current advisor were to torpedo your career I think you might change your tune. Do you really believe that there should be no means to safeguard graduate students? If so, I'm shocked.

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Friendy said...

I'm all for safeguards. In each department, students must have dialogs with the faculty such that the faculty agree on safeguards and an advising system that works. That's the real key. A union won't do the trick.

It's important to have multiple advisors so that no one person holds all the keys. ...but no advising system will work if the professors don't sign on. Otherwise, meetings won't happen and professors won't ever tread on one another's domain. Jason Altom suggested that approach. I'm sure Mike Lam would have agreed. You could ask them, but they're dead...

1:58 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: Berkeley tried your approach with multiple advisors not too long back. It didn't work out b/c professors simply wouldn't stand for interference in their group's business. Final question -- Given the failure of your advising model at Berkeley, what else do you think could help the situation? Just curious.

2:16 AM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

I don't think the model is the problem. It's all in the implementation. I don't know too much about Berkeley per se, but the powers that be in the department have to keep tighter reins on young professors and they have to value the collegial atmosphere enough to allow other professors some oversight. It's a top down problem.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: Check out --
You'll find Djerassi wrote a pretty good piece about grad student protection (In line with the Altom approach). I'd point you towards Djerassi's Nature article, but this link summarizes it nicely.

2:34 AM  
Anonymous FNPHD said...

I agree with him. I think that approach would work very well, especially in large groups. I shudder to think what would happen in a group of 4-5 where everyone's opinions might be known. It could get ugly. I also think that the most valuable part of feedback and surveys are the individual comments. Similarly, a professor might very well recognize someone's writing; even if the comments were typed, writing styles can be readily identified.

2:39 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: Do you honestly think that a body of 3 professors could effectively prevent the actions of one of their own? Recall, these professors often support one another in the name of collegiality...

2:44 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

All: friendly and I are refering to the death of a graduate student at Harvard University in 1998. To learn more about this tragic event go to:

2:50 AM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

That article is somewhat revisionist. The better one is in the New York Times Magazine, Late edition, Sunday November 29, 1998, section 6, page 120.

However, it will only be available to those of you with Lexus-Nexis, an NYT subscription, or a pair of scissors and a lot of foresight.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: I avoided that article for the following reasons:

3:03 AM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

Avoiding the NYT piece was probably a wise decision given that analysis of it.

I guess such issues would have to be adjudicated by those who knew Mike, Jason and their cohort or those that knew the atmosphere at harvard at the time of the incidents.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: If a graduate student union were optional, would you support it?

3:23 AM  
Blogger thc said...

I'm with PhD, Norma Rae. Unionization would create more problems than solve. I'm not clear on how it would solve *any* problems.

Why does Jennifer Washburn think universities are, or should be, democracies?

8:33 AM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

I also agree with PhD. I am doing a PhD myself in science and I think it would be hard to get those who are getting a competitive stipend, those who are only required to do minimal teaching and a host of other perks to go along with unionization. The quality of life for science students is not bad. Maybe this is selfish of me, but I wouldn't support this issue. In our program, the stipend increases yearly, they pay our health insurance, we go to yearly conferences, so I doubt if anyone else in the program I am in would support unionization either. I accept the fact that graduate school is not a democracy, and I looked at the whole package before making my decision.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous little john said...

Damn V, you hit a nerve! Unions have their own problems. Have you thought about a less formal grouping? Possibly something along the lines of a mutual society. You could act in a collective manner, but without the formality of a union. Possibly this society could influence your advisor's bosses. Just a thought, hell I was lucky to get a liberal arts degree from a state school!

8:59 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

All: FYI, we have a union here at Berkeley and I'm not in it. My argument here is that people should be given the option to join. If you don't want to join the union then don't. However, it is wrong to claim that no one should have the opportunity to join.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

Here's the berkeley union:

Now, I'm betting that the TA salaries aren't so competitive because the entire UC system has the same salary, and you are stuck with it even if you aren't in the union. Moreover, there has a been a 7 year deadlock on salaries because of the union. You are being screwed by the union even though you aren't in it. I suspect you may also pay some union dues whenever you teach.

Without a union, I find it unlikely that top academic institutions like UC Berkeley would offer the same salary as UC Compton (An example chosen not to pick on anyone's alma matter.)

11:08 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

friendly: No, they only pull dues if you sign. I checked into that. Again, would you support a union that had voluntary enrollment?

12:08 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

I should amend my prior statement, it is voluntary during your research assistantship.

12:28 PM  
Blogger mindful said...

I agree with vavoom that it is unreasonable to expect universities to effectively police themselves. But perhaps unions are not the best solution to the problem of professorial mistreatment of graduate students. Maybe standards of professorial conduct could be enforced by the granting agencies (an idea that vavoom suggested to me in another debate). Hit 'em where it hurts: take away their money and they'll listen.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

mindful: As always, you are the voice of reason. I agree 100%. I'd gladly drop my union shenanigans if granting agencies developed a better means of policing profesorial misconduct. What do the rest of you guys think? mindful and I have often kicked around the idea that the NIH, for example, could hear grievances directly from students. They'd investigate and if the professor is found to be in violation of policy then their funding would get cut.
Sounds like a very reasonable solution. Thanks for bringing that to the table, mindful.

12:54 PM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

I like this idea of holding people up to scrutiny (without a union). However, what happens to the fourth year student responible for the funding cut? "Sorry, I have no money, you'll have to write up what you have and see if your committee will sign off?" or maybe just "You're fired." No student with any semblance of intelligence would run to the NIH and tattle; it would be a strategic blunder.

I think it has to be done with peer pressure inside the department. Let NIH mandate that anonymous evaluations be done at a departmental level and that all funding to the department will be subject to some constraints if the surveys come back too negative. That will force an infrastructure, a safety net and some peer pressure.

I am entirely alright with a voluntary union so long as the department is free to compensate non-union students differently should they see fit to do so.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Anandi said...

Honestly, I think it's a silly idea. You are a *student*. You're choosing this lifestyle, and while the stipend or your wages may be your livelihood for those 4-7 years, you are getting a degree out of the experience which will presumably land you a better, higher paying job in your field. And in a lot of cases, your tuition is waived, you have health insurance and you're being *paid* to focus only on your research. Yes, it sucks that you are a professor's slave, and maybe there should be "oversight" or "grievance" committees where you could turn to another prof or an adviser if you were having major issues with your own boss. Grad students trying to unionize just seems like a bunch of privileged people complaining - it's such a different situation from a minimum wage worker slaving at McD's because they can't get any other kind of job and need some kind of protection from "The Man".

5:31 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Anandi: Perhaps you're right. I went through a rather harrowing situation with my old advisor -- you know, one for the record books. With time, perhaps I will agree with all of you. For now, I certainly don't feel privileged and no, getting a PhD certainly holds no promise for a higher paying job.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous FNPhD said...

For the first time, I have to agree with Vavoom on this topic -- a PhD is not the first step on the road to riches.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Rattie said...

There are some Canadian universities who allow research assistants and teaching assistants to unionize but there are very few. I was told that some supervisors view graduate school as a form of boot camp for academics. I feel it's all about power and control for professors with big fat egos. Supervisors should be evaluated and held accountable for their actions, even tenured professors. I remember the huge battle I had with my supervisor and a mediator (who was the graduate officer) had to be brought in which solved the problem but didn't heal the relationship between my supervisor and I.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Anandi said...

Sorry to beat a dead horse, and having been a science grad student, I know you don't "feel" privileged, but it is kind of a luxury being able to pursue a field you love so intensely for 6 years, don't you think? Many, many people just have to go to work to support their families and can't even make it to college let alone grad school.And yeah, I guess a grad degree isn't an automatic path to riches but it definitely allows you to continue pursuing that field as your paying job. A phD is almost a requirement to be a researcher, even in industry, if not a PhD + more years of postdoc work. I do think there is an inordinate amount of power given to one adviser, and that can really screw up your career. Most corporations have a lot of oversight for stuff like this. For examlpe, if I don't agree with the performance review score my manager gave me, I have several options to contest it, get it changed, and/or write my own rebuttal, etc. There just isn't enough of that support in grad programs and *that* is what needs to change. I don't think unions are the answer tho'.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Anandi: Thanks for your input here. It is appreciated, as is everyone's take on the issue. I've never equated my position with privilege considering that I worked so hard to get where I am. Also, when doing experiments I'll typically work 100 hrs/week. Let's say I'm getting $400/week (a typical grad salary). I'm getting paid just $4.00/hour. That's not really the pay of anyone working under the auspices of privilege. It's nice that I get paid, true. Also it's great that I'm learning new things everyday. However, the extent of abuse that grad students face these days is absolutely bizarre. True story: A female graduate student in chemistry at a very well known technical institute in the New England area was badly sexually harassed by her advisor. He told her that he wouldn't sign her thesis unless she had sex with him. She complained to the department and their response was, "Well, there's not much we can do about this. He is your advisor, after all. If he says you're not ready to graduate, then you're not ready to graduate." She sued and 5 years later received her PhD. Her career was shattered. I guess we are all privileged to live in a country where we can receive payment to get a PhD. That privilege feel quickly dissipates once placed on the receiving end of inhumane treatment.

My main purpose for this post was to explore ways for grad students to have some way to grieve and obtain support. Perhaps you, FNPhD, Paul, LJ and others are correct. It's a very difficult issue and there are no easy answers.

All: Any other thoughts on how to improve the situation. What are variations of mindful and my NIH funding based proposal that you think can work?

2:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I know you don't "feel" privileged, but it is kind of a luxury being able to pursue a field you love so intensely for 6 years, don't you think? "

As I am right now figthing to finish the last month of those six years I am not sure how much I love it after all that I have gone through. While my problems are no where near Vavooms. It does really eat away at you.

7:17 PM  

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