Tangles in the Tapestry: Cultural Barriers to Graduate Student Unionization

By Lee, Jenny J.; Oseguera, Leticia et al. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Tangles in the Tapestry: Cultural Barriers to Graduate Student Unionization

Lee, Jenny J., Oseguera, Leticia, Kim, Karen A., Fann, Amy, Davis, Tracy M., Rhoads, Robert A., Journal of Higher Education


The cultural landscape of graduate employee life in the research university faces significant change. Ten years ago just a handful of recognized graduate employee unions existed. Today, more than two dozen campuses have recognized unions and another two dozen or so are in the process of organizing graduate student employees (Rhoades & Rhoads, 2003). There are indications that graduate student unions have reached a critical mass, tripling their membership to almost 40,000 students (Smallwood, 2001). Consequently, unionization among graduate employees, especially teaching assistants, shows no signs of slowing, with numerous mobilizing campaigns under way at the time of finalizing this article (Smallwood, 2001; Van Der Werf, 2001). Additionally, although union activity has taken place mostly at public research universities, graduate employees at private institutions such as Yale and NYU have also had some success in unionizing. At NYU, for example, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and gained official recognition from the university in March of 2001.

Nationwide, graduate student employees have demanded the same rights accorded to other unionized workers: collective bargaining, reasonable workload, pay increases, health benefits, and grievance procedures (Barba, 1994b). Graduate students now gather regularly at the Coalition of Graduate Employee Union's (CGEU) annual meeting to discuss work-related issues and advance collective action. Also, long-standing graduate unions at the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and University of Oregon serve as valuable contacts for more recent organizing (Rhoades & Rhoads, 2003).

Despite the obvious strength of the movement, graduate student unionization efforts have encountered significant resistance. This should not be too surprising given that conflict is inevitable when introducing change to the academy (Tierney, 1993, 1999). Perhaps Nathan Glazer's words three decades removed remain quite compelling: "In the end, it is rather easier to change the world than the university" (1970, p. 193). Indeed, structural components of the academy, including academic departments, are seen as difficult if not impossible to transform (Birnbaum, 1988; Tierney, 1999).

Resistance to change efforts not only arise from structures within an organization, but also from members who support them, including administrators, faculty, and students (Astin, 2001). However, the actions of organizational participants need to be understood within the larger framework of culture. The norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes embedded in the daily lives of institutional actors give meaning to an organization and, in part, represent what has come to be known as "organizational culture" (Tierney, 1988). Consequently, it is difficult to understand change and resistance without taking into account the culture of a particular organization.

As an emergent phenomenon, graduate student unionization may be understood as a form of change that challenges the cultural fabric of the academy. Arguably, making sense of how unionization interacts with the norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and so forth existing within the academy is imperative to understanding the phenomenon itself.

With the preceding in mind, we seek to better understand cultural barriers to graduate employee unionizing. This is important for two reasons. First, knowledge of cultural barriers may be helpful to graduate students and university officials who seek to facilitate collective organizing. While it is the exception and not the rule for universities to openly support graduate employee organizing, certainly lack of information should not be the reason for such resistance. Second, more advanced knowledge of cultural barriers to unionization is likely to expedite university compliance if a graduate employee contract is collectively negotiated between a union and a particular institution.

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Tangles in the Tapestry: Cultural Barriers to Graduate Student Unionization


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