Getting Organized: Graduate Students across the Country Are Flocking to Join Labor Unions for Better Pay and Benefits. Are You Ready to Deal with a Labor Movement at Your School?

Article excerpt

Life for graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania is not what anyone would call easy. First, there's the workload: The school demands so much from its students that few, if any, of them complete their dissertations in fewer than seven years. Next, are the commitments: After their rookie years, UPenn graduate students are required to teach breakout sections for lecture and lab courses, commitments that can eat up as many as six hours per week for each class. Finally, there's the pay and benefit structure: For their full-time services, grad students at the privately funded school earn roughly $15,000 per year, not too far from the poverty revel calculated by the federal government.

Given these realities, it came as no surprise when, in the spring of 2001, graduate students at the Ivy League school launched Graduate Employees Together of the University of Pennsylvania (Get-UP; getuponline.org/isc.shtml), a formal effort to organize a union. Today, nearly three years later, administrators have yet to recognize the group, and while the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; www.nlrb.gov) has still not tabulated the results of an election to formalize the union, the fight for a formal union at the school rages on. Administrators allege that graduate students are not employees but apprentices, and therefore do not deserve the right to organize at all. Graduate students, on the other hand, complain that they have more physical contact with students than tenured professors, and are therefore employees who should be compensated accordingly.

"[The University of Pennsylvania] is the prototype of a corporation that uses cheap and casual labor and treats [those employees] poorly," explains J. Dillon Brown, Get-UP spokesperson and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in English. "All we're asking for is some respect and a say in our working conditions."

Brown and his colleagues at UPenn are not alone; at institutions across the country, graduate students are organizing in increasing numbers for better pay and a fair shake. To date, New York University is the only private university to formally recognize its student labor union, but at schools such as Yale University (CT), Brown University (RI), and Columbia University (NY), students have pushed for formal unionization, as well. At public institutions including the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, the University of Oregon, and the University of Florida, graduate students have organized to grapple with administrators over contract issues such as healthcare and family benefits, and have seen varied results.

None of these cases is clear-cut for either side. For graduate students, managing heated labor battles and dissertation work can be challenging if not downright impossible. For administrators, the chore can be even more difficult--a tenuous endeavor that pits their political and moral opinions as educators against their fiduciary responsibilities to their institutions overall. Think you're ready to deal with a labor situation at your institution? According to John Stepp, a labor consultant with Washington, DC-based Restructuring Associates, Inc. (www.restructassoc.com), academic officials at all schools with the potential for unionization must understand the paradoxes of the issue and prepare for the worst.

"Most university administrators today believe it would be the end of Western civilization if a union was to get a foothold on their campus, and yet these same administrators would most likely philosophically argue that unions are a critical component to democratic society," he says. "Therein lies the irony of this question, and the key component that makes the entire issue so complex."

ON THE HOT SEAT

It doesn't take long to get familiar with the history of student labor unions in this country. At public schools, graduate student workers are governed by state labor laws and have been unionized for years. …