State of the Unions: As Grad Students Organize, Tension Mounts

GESO_Rally_1
Photo credit: WNPR

Outside the Graduate School office space, four signs are prominently displayed:  

“$29,000 — minimum annual stipend for Yale PhD student”

“$332,635 — average cost of 5-year financial aid package for each Yale PhD student”

“$940,000 — parental relief stipends paid to Yale PhD students in the last 2 years”

“$0 — amount of tuition paid by Yale PhD students”

These signs have awakened controversy for some — and confusion for the rest of us.  When the administration posted them on bulletin boards throughout campus, oblivious undergrads asked:  Were they advertising Yale’s graduate program?  Flaunting their massive budget?  But for members of Graduate Employees & Students Organization (GESO), the intent of these posters was to undermine undergraduate sympathies for the graduate students who seek unionization.

The graduate student population here at Yale is one of many across America making efforts to unionize.  In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board, whose members were appointed by then-President Bush (Harvard Business Class of ‘75), struck down the classification of  graduate students as employees.  Under the Obama Administration, the standing Board has expressed an interest in reversing the 2004 decision, thereby classifying the graduate student teachers as employees with the right to unionize.  Recently New York University graduate students have tried to challenge the ruling before the board, warranting an overturn of their previous decision and thus setting a precedent for lawful unionization.  To preempt this possibility, NYU decided to recognize its graduate student union voluntarily, upon a graduate student majority vote to unionize.  NYU has since become first private university with a unionized graduate student population.  As it is, Yale is not legally obliged to allow graduate students to unionize, though  it may chose to follow NYU’s example.  The GESO demands are two-fold:  one, allow graduate students to hold a vote for unionization with a third party as arbitrator, without “intimidation” by the university administration or faculty;  and two, recognition of the union if the majority vote in favor.

The question of whether students can or should organize centers on  the nature of the work graduate students perform.  They manage labs, teach classes, grade, assistant teach, and receive a stipend (a stipend is guaranteed to all PhD students, including those who have not yet reached their “teaching years”.)  The University has characterized this pay as a “fellowship” or  “stipend,” and the teaching component is considered part of students’ graduate education.  It guarantees them valuable work experience in preparation for the entering the cut-throat, employment-scarce job market.  Should the stipend received for their work be recognized as “pay” the graduate students would be put on par with university employees, with all rights that accompany that designation – including unionization.  

I recently met with Aaron Greenburg, the head of GESO, at a local coffeehouse on Whitney Avenue, and in the moments we had before the live music performance scheduled that evening, he talked about the benefits that unionization offers.  As an example, he mentioned an email sent out by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) administration guaranteeing six years of funding, so a graduate student would be guaranteed a stipend regardless of whether or not they were employed, made possible in part by the reduction of stipends to upper year graduate students:  “Here was a decision, arbitrarily enacted, that neglected to account for our colleagues in the sciences, and did not guarantee security for years of study beyond the sixth.”  For Greensburg, the most perturbing thing about the policy was that graduate students had no say in its drafting, and did not include the science PhD students in its scope.

Lynn Cooley, the Dean of the Graduate School, has a very different take on the matter.  When interviewed, she stated, “The six-year funding was a high priority in every graduate student meeting I had last year.”  The enactment was a response to an overwhelming concern expressed by students about being unable to complete their degrees without the security and assurance of funding through their sixth year.  As for student representation at the decision making table, Dean Cooley pointed to the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) as vehicles for graduate student input in University policy.  Dean Cooley explained, “Students on the GSA steering committee communicated the need for sixth year funding in the context of our regular meetings.”

GESO’s other grievance is the pay cut for graduate students working beyond their sixth year from an annual stipend of $29,000 to $8,000 per course (with up to three courses a year.)  This was mentioned in the same email and was a measure presumably needed to offset the costs of the guaranteed stipend for graduate students who could not find work, and possibly to incentivise the completion of PhD’s in six years.  This is a significant pay cut — 17% cut for three complete projects, 45% for two projects, one for each semester — especially for many of Yale’s graduate population who have families to support.  Greensburg was quick to share the case of Michelle Morgan, a seventh-year teacher’s assistant who currently supports her 15 year-old son.  In an interview with New Haven’s Public News Service, she said of the pay cut, “It was effective immediately and there was no recourse around that.”

Even when considering Yale’s most generous policies, Greensburg expressed concern that Yale has no legal obligation to ensure that those policies would be put in place.  He objects, “There is nothing that protects you from the whims of the administration.”  For a graduate student starting a family, this lack of security can be terrifying.  Given the recent pay cut, financial stress and the lack of security could keep graduate students up at night.

Greensburg perceives a climate where public appreciation of academia is on the decline.  It is harder for academics of higher education institutions to stand with equity before the collegiate administrations.  And this is not just at Yale.  It is easier for institutions to dismiss the contributions of graduate students because they lack terminal degrees — even if their contributions are no less valuable.  By Greensburg’s account, the posters promulgated by Dean Cooley’s office is just another way through which the administration vilifies the graduate students and their valuable work on campus.  Establishing a graduate union at Yale would send a powerful message to the world:  a validation of the contributions of graduate students in a very real sense.  

As for the controversial posters, Dean Lynn Cooley had a different idea in mind.  She hardly sees how these could be “intimidating,” — as GESO’s counter campaign as characterized them — and claims that the vilification of grad students was not the intended purpose.  She states, “We felt that at the time, the majority of information was spread by GESO.”  It is true that GESO has been far more successful in distributing information and gaining much more sympathy for their cause from undergraduate students.  According to Dean Cooley, there is a valid case against unionization.  Her stance is that unionization of graduate students would be both improper and unnecessary.  Furthermore, she argues that unionization is against Yale’s — and even the graduate students’ — best interests.  

The first point of her argument was that unionization would be improper due to the fact that the students are, by definition, students.  They matriculated to learn, and the practice and training coupled with the “financial assistance” is not in place for students to make a profit.  According to her, the stipend is a mechanism for students to learn in a stress-free, academics-focused environment.  To characterize this as employment and to treat it as such would be to neglect its inherent academic purpose.  GESO is not at all swayed by this argument.  Calling the payments “fellowships” and the work graduate students do “training” does not change the net result, namely a mutual benefit between two parties akin to employment.

Dean Cooley’s second point centers around a question:  Is a graduate student union truly necessary?  Here the NYU case study becomes very useful.  In a faculty advisory committee meeting by NYU in 2005, the faculty evaluated the merits of the union to determine whether or not the school should voluntarily renew the union contract.  The faculty committee determined that the union had been beneficial in certain areas:

“The Committee judges there to be compelling reasons for preserving and indeed improving the the conditions in the current union contract that deal with stipend levels, health care coverage, sick leave, posting of positions, work loads, and grievance procedures.”  In those regards, the union had been a success.  In the end, though, the committee decided against renewing the union contract because it was “concerned that the [union] filed grievances over issues that have threatened to impede the academic decision-making authority of the faculty over such issues as:  the staffing of the undergraduate curriculum;  the appropriate measures of academic progress of students;  the optimal design of support packages for graduate students;  and the conditions and terms of fellowships….”  It went on, “The Committee is also worried by the willingness… to take such issues to arbitration and by the nature of the arbitration process, in which an outside arbitrator, who rarely has prior experience with the environment of universities, makes decisions that are legally binding on departments and programs.”  According to the committee, many union grievances were antithetical to graduate level education.  

I would ask:  is a union really necessary to make the improvements that both faculty and graduate students would like to see implemented?  Those who say “no” look to the GSA and GPSS — both powerful forces for change in addressing the administration.  Those who say “yes” include the claimed majority of graduate students — supporters of GESO.  While a union only needs a simple majority to win an election, and only 30% support to call for a vote under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), traditionally, prospective unions will hold out for 70% of the population to sign cards requesting a vote, especially since the percentage of card signers from the population can vary drastically from the results of the closed ballot election, depending on the aggressiveness of the campaign, and GESO has often been accused of aggressive campaigning in the past.

As it is, Dean Cooley’s office is already working to address the concerns that GESO has voiced, including the limitations of the student mental health plan and the lack of faculty diversity.

Dean Cooley expressed the concern that a graduate student union could be harmful to Yale as a whole and to graduate students themselves in particular.  Ironically, it could limit graduate students’ capability to make demands.  The administration’s attention would necessarily be focused on the demands of the bureaucratic union that can threaten a strike rather than on another democratic body such as the GSA.  Dean Cooley also mentioned the possibility of Union negotiations resulting in wage freezes.  Unionization also carries union dues.  This would be determined by members, but in order for the union to demonstrate a positive gain, an increase in stipend would have to show an increase greater than the union due rates, forcing students to join.  In the case of NYU, the stipend increase was 2.5% (increasing each year until 2019) compared to union dues of 2%.  So while the union profits with 2.05% the original stipend, the graduate students gain only a .45% increase in stipend the first year.  This would mean more university expenses as result of increased stipend that would be going mostly into the hands of the union rather than the graduate students.  But Greensburg is not out to make a profit; he is set to graduate in 2018.  And even if a union failed to significantly affect the quality of life of union members, surely it is their right to try.  Matters concerning their contributions to the University should be decisions in which they have a say (or at least, the protection to collectively bargain.)  If the graduate student population is aware of these downsides, and yet still wants the union, isn’t it their prerogative to choose for themselves?

I would like to dispel the notion that graduate student unionization does not affect the larger Yale community.  Dean Cooley talked of ways in which unionization might negatively affect academics.  She referred to the fact that at Harvard, the Graduate Student Union (their equivalent to Yale’s GESO) demands an end to shopping period, a staple of both institutions’ education.  Though it is not currently something on GESO’s demand list, the elimination of shopping period would be a serious blow to our undergraduate population.  Dean Cooley also suggested that unionization  would be detrimental to the mentor-mentee relationship between faculty and students.  Under the interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act, if students were recognized as employees, faculty would be technically classified as work supervisors.  Greensburg dismissed the idea that faculty should have concern over graduate student unionization, saying, “Our beef is with the administration, not the professors.”  GESO, Aaron says, would not attempt to use union leverage to seek academic gains.  Still, unionized students would be legally protected from university deadlines and mandates in strikes where the entire union complies and suspends all work.  This could be harmful to the academic environment of Yale, both for graduate and undergraduate students if graduate student negotiations got out of hand.  At the same time, Greensburg mentioned that undergraduates stand to gain from graduate student unionization: “my security of teaching affects [their] security of learning.”  In other words, happy TAs mean more As.

At the conclusion of my conversation with Dean Lynn Cooley, she told me that should the interpretation of the law change and should the students form a union, she would be happy to work with them to improve the quality of life of the graduate students population.

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