Academic unions - Rectifying myths based on frontline experiences

Early Career Scientists often find themselves in vulnerable situations, so it's important to put systems in place for their voices to be heard. Danny Doucette explains how academic unions provide such a platform, but also how unionization is at times hindered by bureaucracy or lack of confidence.

5 min read
Academic unions - Rectifying myths based on frontline experiences

The Future of Research (FoR) is a nonprofit working to improve the structure and culture of academia. FoR supports academic unions and has launched an initiative through its Labor Task Force to survey academic organizers on their struggles and triumphs during their union formation to aid others in the process. We asked Danny Doucette of the University of Pittsburgh to overview the common misconceptions that discourage unionizing...and what to do about it. Names of students changed to protect anonymity.

Grad school is a pretty decent gig. Not only do you get to study advanced topics and engage in scholarship to push the bounds of human knowledge, but you can also get paid to do it. On top of that, grad school promises a gateway to a rewarding, respectable, lucrative job as a university professor. Sure, not everyone makes it, but it’s worth a shot, right?

This is grad school's promise, and pact, for many STEM students in the USA. We agree to working long hours in the lab, library, or field. In exchange, we get to live the dream of engaging in real, cutting-edge science and, maybe, have a chance at turning that dream into a career. For many grad students, the salary covers rent, bills, and store-brand groceries. That is, if you carefully budget everything out, don’t mind having roommates, and don’t travel or encounter any unexpected expenses. Meanwhile, the promise of a career “in industry” or as a well-paid professor makes it feel like grad school is an investment of time and labor, surely to pay off upon graduation. Grad school, in this view, is less a job than it is an opportunity, earned by dint of good grades and GRE scores, to transcend the school-to-workforce pipeline, at least for a few years.

The fantasy that grad school is neither education or labor is convenient fiction for university administrators who oppose grad student unionization efforts. During our organizing at the University of Pittsburgh, the administration argued in court that grad students were *not* employees, but students, and should not even have the opportunity to vote for union representation. Ultimately, they lost that argument, as grad students are indeed employees. However, when our union election came around, we received daily emails from the Vice-Provost of Graduate Studies, arguing that the conditions of our employment were so good that there was no need for a union.

In the Physics department, it was a message that resonated. The Physics department had enough TA assignments, and professors brought in enough external funding so that nearly all grad students were funded year-round. The health care plan was good, and public transit was free. Many of the grad students in Physics had full bellies. What more could they want? A union could only threaten those benefits, the Vice-Provost insisted in his daily email missives.

Let me provide a few examples of students who did need more protection, contrasting with the views of institutional leadership. When I first talked with Marcus, he expressed fear that union dues could eat into his paycheck, reducing the amount of money he was able to scrape together and remit to his parents back home. We looked together at what happened at other universities where a grad student union was elected. In every case, stipends increased, more than enough to cover the cost of union dues. That means earning a few extra dollars each month, which could make a big difference for his family overseas.

Union representation is about more than negotiating salaries. Another important goal of unionizing a workplace is to get contracts for workers. In my department, we trusted that the professors would take care of us, but no-one ever knew for sure where their stipend was coming from more than a semester in advance. The lack of a contract also meant that sudden, unexpected changes to benefits could be dropped on us without warning. Jackie, a parent of three children, found out on the afternoon of August 31st that the grad student health insurance was going to jack up the cost of her family health care plan by $200 per month, starting September 1st. One of her children needed ongoing medical care, so she had no choice but to swallow the cost and dilute the family stew. A contract would prevent universities from arbitrarily changing benefits.

More than the financial burden, what administrations seem to fear most from unionization campaigns is a loss of control over grad students as relatively affordable academic labor. Unfortunately, harassment, mistreatment, and abuse by faculty continues to be a defining feature in the academic pathway of too many grad student workers. Many grad student unions have negotiated enhanced grievance processes and external legal support for grad students who need it. But when (non-unionized) grad students at my university reported instances of sexual harassment to the Title IX office at my university, they received little support, and none received a resolution that would allow them to continue their research without taking a substantial hit to their scholarly progress and academic career prospects. Unlike university systems that exist to protect the university from bad publicity or lawsuits, the union is there to stand up for grad students when they need it most.

In short, unions provide equity and protection - for grad students who support dependents, for grad students who experience mistreatment, and for grad students with different cultural backgrounds. Many international grad students have important holidays that don’t align with the academic calendar in the USA. Why can’t they take time off to visit family during the Lunar New Year, Eid Al-Fitr, or Diwali? When I talked to fellow international students about the possibility of taking time off during these holidays, they explained how much it would mean to them. Flexible time off could substantially improve work-life balance for international grad students during the times when they miss home the most.

Unionization benefits not just grad students, but both academia and science as a whole. We know that the best science gets done when diverse teams of well-supported scientists are able to devote their time and energy to it (read more here or here). Improving the support grad students receive, union representation levels the playing field; providing proper working conditions allows access to scientific research even for students who might otherwise be unable to participate. Thus, by promoting equity, unions indirectly lead to more creative and better science.

In the end, our grad student unionization campaign at the University of Pittsburgh wasn’t successful. A large part of the reason we weren’t able to make a successful case for unionization was that many grad students had full bellies, and didn’t see how a union would help them out or maybe simply didn't want to "rock the boat." In the two years since then, annual raises have stagnated, the health care plan has been cut back, and more grad students than ever have been frustrated by an inadequate internal grievance process. Perhaps it’s time to start organizing again.

Cover image: Photo by Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash

About the author: Danny Doucette is a teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 with a PhD in Physics.

FoR's Labor Task Force: To achieve fair and equitable working conditions, academic workers at every level are unionizing at rapidly increasing rates all across America. The Labor Task Force creates and distributes resources meant to bolster the efforts of established and campaigning unions to support unionization of early career academic workers. Amanda Hurley, Emily Ackerman and Zachory Park are the co-leads of the Labor Task Force

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