On Monday night, four panelists from NYU and Rutgers shared their experience with higher education unions and encouraged University graduate students to unionize.
Last October, graduate students voted to affiliate their union, Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Now, PGSU organizers are holding meetings and events to gather feedback on the union’s potential future. This will involve whether they continue with the process of unionization by holding elections for representatives, gaining recognition from the University, and negotiating a contract.
Disha Karnad Jani, a first year history graduate student, gave a brief opening speech on the purpose of PGSU. She emphasized that the union would give students the power to “negotiate as equals” and “build solidarity,” rather than impose an immutable “one-size-fits-all contract,” addressing fears that the union would not accurately represent all interests of graduate students.
Jani then asked the four panelists present to introduce themselves and summarize their experiences with unionization. Lauren Frazee, an ecology and evolution student at Rutgers University, said that she has had an “overwhelmingly positive experience” with her union, which she got involved in over her concern about distribution of funding.
She said that though “not everything was a happy, rosy experience,” the union provided her with a process to address her grievances and a community to support her. Frazee added that the union gave her a chance to meet people outside of her “academic bubble” and gave her new insight into politics and social justice, which she called a “great complement” to her study of science.
Two of the other panelists from Rutgers University, Wei-Chieh Hung and Dr. Adrienne Eaton, explained that Rutgers, which is also affiliated with the AFT, has a somewhat unusual unionization arrangement. Hung is a third year geography graduate student from Taiwan, and Eaton is currently the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Management and Labor Relations. They both explained that graduate students and professors are represented by the same union, a fact that all three panelists identified as a cause of greater solidarity between advisors and students.
Hung noted that graduate students occupy an “in-between position” between employees and students, adding that it was difficult to define the “boundary between [their] lives and the job.”
For example, Hung said that he enjoyed working with undergraduates, but that advising and teaching were also forms of labor that benefitted the institution that he worked for, and that he should therefore be compensated for them. Hung credited unionization with giving graduate students a “more democratic and transparent way” to discuss their needs and concerns with administration.
Eaton once served as the president of the faculty union and was involved in the union when she was a graduate student. Having experienced graduate student unionization from several perspectives, she has also conducted a study surveying graduate students at both unionized and non-unionized public universities, which was then used by the National Labor Relations Board.
The study found that graduate students at institutions with unions tended to report better relationships with their faculty advisors, lower levels of grievance filing, and more positive feelings about their compensation, even though their actual compensation was either the same or slightly better than their counterparts at non-unionized institutions. The study also found that unionized graduate students reported having a greater or equal degree of academic freedom compared to their non-unionized counterparts.
Shelly Ronen, a sixth year sociology graduate student at New York University, had a slightly different experience with unionization than the other panelists. NYU was the first private university with a graduate student union, which lost and regained recognition before negotiating its current contract. Ronen, who played a key role in regaining recognition for the union, said that the unionization process “may not always be easy.” Though she urged students to get involved in their union, she added that unionization “has caveats” and “requires being organized . . . especially to evaluate the diverse need of graduate students.”
Ronen said that despite the obstacles that she and her fellow organizers encountered, her union has had a significant impact on the lives of its constituents, including providing better compensation for international engineering students whose earning hours were capped, establishing a childcare fund, and increasing health care and dental coverage.
She added that improvements can be made after the initial contract is negotiated, noting that NYU students were able to remove fees for “ghost courses,” which had no standardized instruction or did not exist, in all departments through a formal grievance procedure. Ronen stressed that students should also be careful to maintain the benefits they already had rather than assuming they were “safe.”
The panelists responded to two pre-written questions, selected by the PGSU organizers based on the concerns that they had heard voiced most frequently during Graduate Student Government meetings.
The first question asked the panelists about their experience with union dues. Rutgers has a “closed shop” union, meaning that all graduate students are required to pay dues because they all benefit from the union’s collective action whether or not they are actively involved. Eaton, Hung and Frazee all mentioned that paying dues had never been a very controversial aspect of their own experiences with unionization. Eaton added that graduate students should “keep in mind” that dues are “democratically-determined,” and that those with concerns should become more involved in order to have a say in the kinds of fees they would be required to pay.
The second question asked the panelists to describe how unionization changes the relationship between graduate students and their advisors. Ronen acknowledged that some students may be “reticent” to discuss unionization with their advisors, but asserted that unions “take care of the discomfort” of directly asking an advisor for a raise or a change in working conditions, adding that unionized graduate students can file grievances without directly confronting “someone who has power over you.”
Eaton agreed, adding that unionization “depersonalizes and professionalizes” the material aspects of student-advisor relationships “in the most positive way.”
The panelists also discussed the benefits of graduate student unionization outside of compensation, noting benefits like improved health care with lower copays, subsidized childcare, and collectivized access to the national discourse on higher education policy. The panelists all agreed that unionization was the most effective way to negotiate with higher-level management, which all four people referred to as the people “behind the curtain.”
Ronen said that it was important that University students felt connected to PGSU.
“You are the union. We are the union. The union is not an ‘it’,” she said.