I recently decided to disaffiliate with Princeton Graduate Students United. The decision came after being told by representatives of the union that I was creating an “unsafe” organizing space. I was shocked by the accusation since, well, I don’t go to the union’s meetings, take part in their committees, or do much to regularly support their cause. In a short meeting, I was informed that an unnamed member of the union had accused me of an unnamed offense and that a determination was made by an unnamed committee to ban me from the union meetings — meetings I don’t actually attend. There was no opportunity to confront my accuser, state my side of the story, or resolve the matter. The situation signaled quite clearly that between the University administration and PGSU, the University administration remains the more preferable option for graduate students.
This is not to say Princeton is a perfect place for graduate students. Indeed, we students have a range of issues that need improvement, from establishing clear expectations for the progress of work, ensuring students have effective grievances procedures for dealing with faculty, and establishing protocol for students in the event they face an emergency. What’s troubling about PGSU is that as an organization, it has made zero attempts to show precisely how this might be done. It instead operates an ad hoc system with no constitution, no process for dealing with interpersonal issues between union members, and no process of accountability for decisions made in haste or that prejudice one member against another. It is, in essence, as bad as the administration, though in my own personal experience, actually far worse. Here at Princeton, the Graduate School handles interpersonal issues between students. When students have a problem with another student, they have a variety of procedures they can follow; these range from mediation of a dispute, to a formal complaint system in which a formal investigation is launched and a determination is made as to whether an accused student violated University policy. It’s not a perfect system, but it attempts to strike a balance between due process and fairness to both sides. PGSU has no such system.
It was ironically a conservative judge, Laurence Silberman, who pointed in out in my labor law class at Georgetown that a union’s strength was not in its ability to get workers better pay and benefits, but in its ability to ensure workers were protected from dismissal by establishing a fair and transparent grievance system. In the year that PGSU has been around, it has made no such attempt to articulate what that system might look like, and while talking big about fairness, procedure, and organization, it has ultimately failed to embody those values in their organizational practice. This is a bad sign for students, not only because it shows how unprepared PGSU is for the task of representing ALL students in a fair manner, but because of how it misrepresents the value of a union.
Instead PGSU has become a homegrown “Moveon.org,” with its organizing strategy revolving around the drafting of petitions and open letters that “call the university out” on its problems. The strategy has not been effective at improving working conditions for graduate students, nor has it been successful at galvanizing broad-based support among the graduate student community — particularly among well-established graduate student groups. In light of the prospect that the now Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board will overturn the Obama-era rule deeming graduate students workers, PGSU naively believes it can win a labor contract similar to the one achieved by students at New York University. But that contract isn’t so great. A quick read-through will reveal that NYU students still get a worse deal than Princeton students on issues of pay, childcare, and healthcare benefits. The one benefit that the contract establishes is that students are now subject to “for cause” rather than “at will” dismissal — something our very own PGSU doesn’t believe in as a matter of practice and principle.
At the moment the University is barred from making direct improvements on the working conditions of graduate students, since doing so would violate the National Labor Relations Act and subject Princeton University to an “unfair labor practice.” In essence, we students remain in a limbo, with PGSU holding us hostage until a contract is signed — a contract that will likely never happen and may worsen rather than improve conditions, especially if PGSU is at the negotiation table. PGSU's members’ lack of experience, combined with their sloppy organizing tactics, puts the future of graduate students at Princeton in jeopardy. Yet, by refusing to affiliate with PGSU and revoking any affiliation you may have given them, you can take a step in the right direction. PGSU dissolving can provide the space to start over, to build from the ground up an organization founded on principles of fairness and transparency. This means starting with a constitution and set of guiding principles before affiliating with an outside labor union. It means building coalitions with established student groups rather than “going it alone” and failing. I believe in the promises of a graduate student union, but I no longer believe in PGSU, and nor should you.
Brandon Hunter is a third year graduate student in anthropology from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.