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Labor unions are important organizations for economic empowerment and for workplace representation. For decades, graduate students have been unionizing around the country and are currently thriving in many of the nation’s leading research institutions, from the University of California and the University of Michigan, to many Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. Graduate students at Princeton are seeking to join this group, and more than half of the graduate student body signed a union card in support of Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU).
Given the unprecedented nature of graduate student representation at Princeton, it is natural that many members of our community would have questions. Luckily, both of us do research in the area of unions and labor policy — one of us from the vantage point of economics, the other from political science and law. We write this op-ed to explain why we welcome union representation for the graduate school community.
A large literature in labor economics demonstrates that union workers enjoy higher wages, more generous benefits, and better working conditions than non-unionized workers. Given the high cost of living in the Princeton area, higher wages will help more graduate students live near campus and reduce commuting costs. Moreover, many graduate students begin their careers at Princeton with families or start families during their studies and thus need access to more generous health and child care. Unions bargain on behalf of students for these economic benefits in a manner that is formal, procedurally fair, and open.
One common argument against grad student unionization is that, while unions might be useful for traditional workers, graduate students do not need unions. Indeed, the University itself makes this argument in its online FAQ on unionization: “At Princeton, union staff members include, for instance, dining personnel and members of the Department of Public Safety. These positions differ in numerous ways from those of graduate students.”
While graduate students may not seem like the stereotypical union worker, they in fact face unique vulnerabilities that collective bargaining can help address.
One of the few sources of power that even non-unionized workers typically enjoy is the ability to quit and find a better job. Graduate students, however, are much more limited in this respect, especially if they want to continue to pursue an advanced degree within their field. Ph.D. programs rarely take transfers (in fact, in our many years at Princeton, we have never met a transfer Ph.D. student) and very often graduate students are admitted to a Ph.D. program to work with a single professor. Indeed, foreign-born graduate students (who constitute 42 percent of all grad students at Princeton) typically lose permission to remain in the United States if they leave their Ph.D. programs.
Further, as professors must approve dissertations, a graduate student essentially cannot finish their Ph.D. program until their advisors give the green light. Especially for graduate students who wish to continue in academia, a positive letter of recommendation from and often co-authorships with their advisors are essential. Letters are confidential, so the process has little transparency. This arrangement — where graduate students are effectively trapped in their current institution and depend on a single or small number of advisors for career advancement — creates massive power imbalances between grad students and their superiors.
With this in mind, another key difference between unionized and non-unionized workplaces is grievance procedures. Whereas workers at non-unionized workplaces may be able to informally present complaints about work conditions, scheduling, or conflicts with other co-workers to their boss, there is no official mechanism by which to do so. At unionized firms, trained individuals within the union can present workers’ grievances to management in a formal (and often constructive) process, usually via arbitration. Yet if a graduate student’s employer isn’t interested in addressing students’ grievances, the only recourse the worker has is to change jobs. But since graduate students do not have the option to simply find another job, a grievance process would be especially vital to their wellbeing as workers. Currently, many graduate students, when faced with a conflict with an advisor, are left with few options.
Those who express concerns with graduate student unionization, like the University does, also frequently worry that it will change the nature of the professor-student relationship. This may be true in certain ways, but we would argue that much of this would be for the better from the sides of both the students and the professors.
First, as professors, though we are not trained as HR professionals, we are often put in that position because graduate students will approach us if they have a conflict with their advisor. We would much prefer that our students have professional guidance from their unions in these sensitive matters.
Second, the power imbalances in the current advisor-advisee relationship open the door to all types of abuse (e.g., sexual harassment, overwork, or bullying). While union representation is not a cure to these problems (unions have more power to address grievances related to teaching instead of research), it is a step in the right direction. We trust that most of our colleagues will not abuse their power, but addressing the imbalance is a better solution than merely hoping for individual virtue.
Still, another argument against organization is that graduate student unionization would put Princeton at a disadvantage among its competitors. But as graduate students at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Columbia have recently unionized, it is hard to make this argument today. Given the enthusiasm young people have shown for unions in surveys, we instead might worry that Princeton’s lack of a graduate student union could hurt our ability to recruit top Ph.D. candidates.
Like any institution, unions are imperfect. There are unions that are inclusive and supportive of their membership, and there are those that are less effective, less diverse, and less helpful. Historically, some unions have excluded women and racial and ethnic minorities; others have struggled with corruption, stagnation, and ill-served entrenchment. Once unionized, graduate students will have to continue to invest in their union with their time and ideas to make sure it represents their aspirations. But, in some ways, all of this is beside the point. What is critical is that a large majority of graduate students have expressed their desire to be represented by PGSU. Princeton educates its students — as its informal motto goes — to be in the nation’s service and the service of humanity. What better way to help graduate students aspire to and learn the meaning of this commitment than to establish a democratic organization with representatives of their own choosing?
Ilyana Kuziemko is a professor of economics. Paul Frymer is a professor in the politics department.