Are Graduate Students Workers?

Here’s a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the unionization of graduate students at private universities, an issue soon to be decided by the National Labor Relations Board.  It seems that the whole matter comes down to a definition: are graduate students students or employees?

The American Council on Education says, “Students enroll in graduate school to complete their higher education, not to work for wages. Their relationship with the university is fundamentally one of a student and teacher, not master-servant.”  But the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the United Auto Workers argues, “There is simply no reason why one cannot be both a student and an employee at the same time.”  In 2004, the NLRB decided against unionization at Brown University, but last year an NLRB official shifted the other way, saying that “a dual relationship” exists which is “both academic and economic.”

Brown argues that the latter undermines the former, producing mistrust and antagonisms between students and faculty.  NYU agrees, the story continues, stating that “the collective-bargaining agreement in place there before 2005 led to the filing of multiple union grievances threatening its academic autonomy.” 

If NLRB comes down on the side of graduate-students-as-employees, it may do so not because of abstract definitions, but because of actual practices in graduate programs.  How many of them regard their graduate students as professors-in-training, and how many regard them as warm bodies to fill freshman classrooms?  How many graduate students teach service courses for years only to finish their dissertations and find no tenure-track jobs or post-docs waiting for them?  We may assume that if graduate students saw their peers who are two or three years ahead of them eating dirt in the department for a few years but winning a plum post once they hit the job market, those graduate students wouldn’t mind doing the same and they wouldn’t insist on unionization.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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