January 21, 2005

Graduate students debate the merits of unionizing

Sometime in the past two decades, graduate students stopped simply being students and became university employees. At least that's the view of Gabe Kirchner, a staff organizer for the American Federation of Teachers.

Kirchner's highly controversial opinion is at the center of a debate currently taking place on university campuses across the country about whether graduate students deserve the right to form unions.

Kirchner said universities often take advantage of their unrepresented, unofficial workforce of graduate students by increasingly calling on them to teach college classes, monitor labs, and grade assignments without giving them the benefits that employees typically receive.

"Maybe in the romantic history of academia, graduate students who taught were really doing this in service to themselves, but nowadays more of the teaching load over the last 20 years has shifted to graduate students," Kirchner said.

"Universities want to treat them as employees up until the point where they demand the rights that employees in this country deserve, then they want to treat them as students."

Unfortunately for Kirchner and the graduate students he hopes to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) disagreed. In a three-to-two ruling delivered last summer, the NLRB said graduate students at private universities are not employees and thus do not have the right to form unions.

Though the ruling specifically refers to a labor dispute at Brown University, it sets a national precedent. It also overturns a 2000 NLRB decision that determined graduate students at New York University to be workers who were entitled to utilize collective bargaining in contract negotiations.

Fourteen graduate student unions exist nationwide, but most are at public universities, which are under the authority of state employment relations boards rather than the NLRB, Kirchner said.

As a private institution, the University of Chicago falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. Yet despite the ruling, Kirchner said the approximately 8000 graduate students at the University could still form a union if they won the consent of administrators.

"If graduate students at the U of C wanted to form a union, the University could allow that and deal with them in collective bargaining situations," he said. "However, getting a university to voluntarily recognize a union is rare. Without unions the graduate students have no power, and the universities are quite content to have absolute control."

Kirchner said University of Chicago administrators would probably only consider permitting the creation of a union if a vast majority of graduate students went on strike in protest and made it in the University's best interest to meet their demands.

Steve Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University, does not view unionization as an imminent issue. "I am not aware of any historical attempts at unionization on the part of graduate students, nor am I aware of any labor issues relative to graduate student employment on this campus that would lead them to move in that direction at this time," he said.

It is unclear whether a vast majority of graduate students even agree on the issue, let alone feel partisan enough to go on strike.

Keeping in line with University tradition, there is both debate and dissent.

Benjamin Storey, a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought, said graduate students are not primarily employees but students. "There are many people in the world who work in difficult conditions for terrible wages and have very hard lives," he said. "To the extent that unions help those people without inadvertently harming their economic opportunities or the economic opportunities of others, unions are to be praised. But graduate students are not those people."

By complete contrast, Carrie Hritz, a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, described some graduate students as "struggling to survive." She said graduate students in her department receive no benefits and must pay 20 percent of health care costs up front.

"Most graduate students are forced to work full time to pay these fees and take longer than the average eight years to complete Ph.D.'s as a result," she said. "There is absolutely no question that this treatment is wrong and graduate students at the University of Chicago deserve more than this."

Hritz said despite the efforts of student groups, benefits have decreased and costs have risen during the eight years she has studied at the University. "A union is the next logical step," she said. "We are being taken advantage of wholesale. Graduate student research forms the backbone of a research oriented institution such as the University of Chicago and graduate students need to be given the basic means of support to continue this research."

Falling between the divergent viewpoints of Storey and Hritz is Adam Kissel, another graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought. Kissel said that while a union would help graduate students garner higher stipends and improved health care benefits, he does not envision an overwhelming majority of his peers agitating for representation in the immediate future.

"I predict that the graduate student health insurance organization, once it has successfully effected a small change in health insurance benefits, will provide some energy for a union," Kissel said. "But a lot of the energy for campus organizing will remain focused on health insurance and other topics for some years."