Cui Bono?

Should UChicago Ph.D. students in the Humanities join a union?

By Jason Merchant

Unions have often been agents of salutary and laudable change, and union activity has been at the heart of many of the most important labor achievements of the 20th century: the five-day, 40-hour workweek; overtime pay; sick pay; occupational safety laws; child labor laws; healthcare and retirement benefits; and dependent benefits, among others. Every educated person understands the importance of unions and collective bargaining in the struggles for fair pay and workplace safety. Recently, some graduate students have been seeking to create a union for doctoral students here at the University of Chicago. It is important to discuss what concerns and issues are at stake, whether a union is the right mechanism for addressing these specific concerns, and if so, whether the positive aspects of having a union would outweigh potential negative ones: in short, what the pros and cons of having a union representing grad students would be.

Earning a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in the Division of the Humanities is an intense experience, demanding long hours of study and reflection, years of coursework, faculty mentoring, and pedagogical training and experience in the classroom, all over several years. Our departments and the Division they are part of are committed to helping students succeed from the moment we admit them—and only 8 percent of all applicants to Ph.D. programs in the Humanities are offered a place here—to well beyond the moment we proudly place the doctor’s hood over our advisee’s head. We strive to be the best professors we can; to teach and guide research; to have world-class facilities (libraries, labs, studios, etc.); to support a robust cohort of like-minded graduate student peers; and to train graduate students to be teachers by giving them classroom experience with outstanding undergraduates.

All these things require time and money. That’s why the University created the Graduate Aid Initiative (GAI), which provides direct and indirect support for five years of graduate study: indirect support is a scholarship for tuition ($51,624 in 2015–16), and for a student in the first five years of a program who receives a summer stipend, direct support is the nine-month stipend (a minimum of $23,000), the summer support ($3,000), and the health insurance premium ($3,432). This direct support totals $29,432 this year, and, together with indirect support, the Division and the University invests a total of $81,056 annually in each student’s education. In addition, many students also get funding for conferences, research travel, and other field-specific training necessary from their departments, the Division, centers, and other internal sources.

The University also devotes significant resources to students who are beyond the GAI. Students who have advanced to candidacy by the end of their fifth year receive full health coverage ($3,432) in years six and seven. All students receive scholarships that discount their tuition: post-GAI students are responsible for only $784 of the $6,768 per quarter Advanced Residency tuition, the equivalent of an annual scholarship of almost $18,000; though tuition has gone up, the $784 has remained frozen since 2009–10. For those students in candidacy who teach beyond their fifth year, TA stipends will be increased next year to $3,600 from the current $3,000 per course and Instructor stipends to $6,000 per course (from the current $5,000). And the departments and the Humanities Division have secured funding for a substantial number of dissertation-year completion fellowships (DYFs), making it possible for many students to secure a final, sixth year of full funding support.

A small but vocal group on campus calling itself “Graduate Students United” (GSU) has claimed credit for almost all of these things, writing that “Since it was founded in 2007, GSU has won a number of significant improvements in graduate student life” and listing the increases in TA and instructor stipends, the freeze in Advanced Residency tuition, and other things. These claims are not accurate, and in part confuse temporal coincidence with causality and advocacy with agency. All of these improvements and changes came about in fact through the active engagement and planning of faculty and administration, particularly through the efforts of Deputy Provosts for Graduate Education Cathy Cohen (political science), Deborah Nelson (English), Vice Provost Sian Beilock (psychology), and their colleagues, working in close consultation with deans, department chairs, directors of graduate studies, deans of students, other faculty, and with students. The GSU didn’t “win” any of these things: these are accomplishments of a faculty and University that are committed to making it possible for graduate students earning a Ph.D. to be supported as students and to be prepared to become scholars and professionals in their chosen fields.

It’s not possible for me to know why the GSU is claiming credit for these advances, for the work done by others (particularly by women, in this case). It does a great disservice to the hard work of the faculty and staff women and men who actually conceived of and implemented these changes, including making difficult budget choices to pay for them, for the GSU to claim that it was somehow involved. It wasn’t.

These positive changes have happened without the intermediation of a union, and while it may be unclear whether the majority of graduate students would benefit from forming a union, we can still ask: cui bono? Well, the union will collect dues in the amount, typically, of two percent. It is not clear what the base is for these dues: next year, when GAI stipends in humanities will increase to $24,000 for the academic year, a doctoral student in her first five years also receiving a summer stipend of $3,000 will receive a total of $27,000. Two percent of that is $540. That’s a significant amount for an individual but even more significant when every graduate student in the humanities has to pay it: with about 700 current doctoral students, students in the humanities alone would contribute about $378,000 to union coffers. When one considers also the doctoral students in the social sciences, physical sciences, biological sciences, molecular engineering, and divinity (leaving aside the doctoral students in the professional schools, who may or may not be included), a union stands to collect as much as $2 million annually from Ph.D. students.

And it is important to know that every current and future doctoral student would have these dues payments deducted from their stipends. This will be true whether a current student votes in favor of being represented by a union, votes against it, or even chooses not to vote at all. A union is certified by a majority of the votes cast, not by a majority of eligible voters. It is obviously in the union’s interest to collect dues from graduate students. But is it really in students’ best interest?

To answer that honestly, every doctoral student must ask questions about what she or he most wants to change, if anything, what the costs and consequences of such change might be, and how best to accomplish it. Collective action doesn’t have to happen in the context of a union. Any group of students concerned about an issue can organize an e-mail campaign, hold a teach-in, write editorials, hold a protest, or even go to the dean’s office hours, to advocate for a desired change. The University is deeply invested in the success of grad students: we want grad students to learn, to become experts, to complete their degrees, and to commence careers. The entire structure of our graduate programs is designed with these goals in mind, which are subscribed to not just by every faculty member, but by every level of the administration. A union may well make it harder to realize these goals. At a minimum, a union would add a layer of cost and bureaucracy between students and their departments. It may lead to longer times to degree—and hence to greater costs to the University and to every student, and to diminished life-time earnings. It may be more difficult to appoint students as grad student lecturers. It may be harder to work in the kind of research environment necessary in order to have a competitive CV for academic or non-academic employment. Even if union negotiations were to lead to higher individual stipends, it is likely that they would be paid for at least in part simply by reducing the number of admitted doctoral students: and anything that curtails opportunities for higher education would endanger the ecology of teaching and research that is crucial to the success of our Ph.D. programs.

There are other questions that every doctoral student should have answers to in order to make an informed decision whether to support a union or not:

  1. How might the departmental process for teaching assignments be affected? Would it make it harder for a student to request to teach a particular class or section? Would the union have to sign off on every assignment? If so, who at the union would be responsible for approving job assignments?
  1. Could the union require that a student be replaced by a more senior graduate student if that more senior person had lost their teaching assignment at the last minute? Would the union have a voice in Core teaching assignments? Would the union have a say in Stuart Tave Teaching assignments?
  1. How would GAI teaching be handled differently from post-GAI teaching?
  1. What happens if a union negotiates terms that improve conditions for some students but in fact are worse for others? Is there a line-item veto or vote on the contract?
  1. What graduate student contracts has the union successfully negotiated at private research universities? Are those negotiated terms better or worse than the conditions for graduate students here at UChicago currently?
  1. Would pay from non-teaching employment at the University (working at the library, at a center, as an editorial assistant, a lab manager, a research assistant) be subject to the union dues?
  1. Would the 2 percent union dues be calculated on pretax (gross) income or net?

Any vote on unionization that current University of Chicago doctoral students may be asked to take will be binding on all future doctoral students as well. It is all the more crucial, therefore, to consider whether a union will make it easier or harder for departments to admit and enroll the best graduate students and to help them succeed. Can the environment for graduate student education be improved? Of course, and every professor and administrator is invested in such improvements. Would a certified union be the best way to secure such improvements, and would the costs of the union outweigh potential benefits? That’s the question every graduate student must consider, and it’s the question that all of us who strive for the success of graduate programs at the University have a duty to develop an informed opinion about as well.

Jason Merchant is a professor of linguistics and the Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.