NYU’s New Graduate Student Union

As Judah mentioned on Thursday, graduate students at NYU have voted 620-10 in favor of unionization. This is not the first time that grad students at NYU have voted to do so. In 2002, grad students there became the first graduate student union to negotiate a contract with a private university, before the National Labor Relations Board reversed their decision in 2005. Graduate student unions already exist at a few dozen public universities across the country, but are actually banned by the NLRB at private colleges. Thus, it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will respond.

Supporters of unionization consistently proffer the same argument: that students are merely wage-earners whom the university employs to save costs.  But what advocates of unionization don’t seem to realize is that they were admitted to a university as students, not hired as workers. In 2012, a group of university professional associations filed a brief with the NLRB which reaffirmed that “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.”

Secondly, many unionization advocates seem to speak with an outsized sense of entitlement. Check out these quotes from a cinema studies Ph.D. student at NYU:

“We should be a major investment for the school,” said Gharabaghi, whose son will soon be turning one. According to the agreement, NYU and union are supposed to immediately begin negotiating–they hope to have a completed contract by the end of the academic year–and one major priority for Gharabaghi is family healthcare benefits. He’s currently on a state-subsidized plan because NYU charges graduate students a 33 percent increase in dependent premiums. “I shouldn’t have to choose between my son and my PhD,” Gharabaghi said.

I can’t understand why Gharabaghi believes that a Ph.D. student in cinema studies – a field already glutted with pseudo-literary hacks – is an “investment” for the school. The school loses money on a Ph.D. student like Gharabaghi, and it’s not always clear what value graduate students bring to a school, besides their teaching workload. Additionally, having a baby is an expensive prospect, and a rare one for people in graduate school. Virtually every health insurance plan in America charges an extra amount for dependent coverage. Why should a graduate student’s health plan be any different?

Lastly, the argument that graduate students are compensated unfairly for their work is, in this case, just plain wrong. Let’s examine the financial aid package for a Cinema Studies graduate student at NYU: he already gets 36 credits of tuition remission (a value of tens of thousands of dollars at pricey NYU), and $20,000 stipend each of his first four years in the program. In reality, this is a pretty sweetheart deal to watch and write about movies. While many adjunct and grad students do work huge hours for next to nothing, it is not incumbent on universities to provide them with increasingly cushy benefit packages.


  • David Wilezol

    David Wilezol is the co-author of "Is College Worth It?" with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

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