The claim that grad unions undermine the relationships with faculty advisors or otherwise negatively affect the quality of graduate education is a common anti-union propaganda, used by university administrations for many years to undermine unionization of graduate workers. Such scare-mongering tactics are yet again deployed against grad workers, following the historic NLRB decision recognizing graduate workers in the US private universities as workers.
As is commonly the case with anti-union talking points, there is absolutely no basis for such a claim! There are now more than 60 recognized grad unions in North America; check out what graduate student workers in already-unionized universities have to say about their experience!
-“Union protection eases many of the anxieties that inevitably arise when trying to maintain a collegial relationship in the context of power imbalances, which makes it possible for me to have more authentic relationships with professors. Union protection also makes it possible for workers like me to challenge any unfair or harmful practices if they occur, so that we can constantly strive for even more productive and friendly relationships between professors and grad students. Indeed, the effects of unionization on my professional relationships have been so unambiguously positive that I would be skeptical of any “special relationship” that insists on one set of participants maintaining its disadvantaged position as a precondition for that relationship to continue, and would wonder whether that kind of relationship is worth preserving in the first place.” – Paige Sechrest, University of Washington, Department of Political Science
-“When I worked at the University of Arizona, a so-called “right to work state,” I had no representation in the drafting of contracts and negotiating of wages, had no job security, and knew without a doubt that my colleagues were making different wages for the same work. Now that I attend the University of British Columbia, all of these issues are handled through my union, CUPE 2278, and in getting involved with the union personally, I have learned so much about the ways unions can support graduate students… the union worked to solve issues, correct injustices and defend students who were caught in terrible situations complicated by the unequal power dynamic inherent in graduate/supervisor contexts… In ensuring that everyone plays by the rules, unions allow grad students to spend less time worrying about where or when their next paycheck will come or how they will be treated on the job so that they can spend more time gaining experience teaching and researching and finish their degrees.” -Trish Everett-Kabut, President, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2278 at the University of British Columbia
-“Being in a union means more than access to better benefits and wages. Being in a union is about solidarity and respect between students, staff and faculty. A union helps level the playing field and fosters democratic engagement around issues that matter in the workplace and in my broader community. I would hope that all institutions of higher learning would support these principles.” —Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer, University of Washington, Political Science
–“Belonging to a union with a strong contract actively protects my time, energy, income, and benefits, allowing me to focus on my academic work even when teaching. The faculty and administrators in my department also tend to view GEO-UAW2322 and our contract favorably, as many were union members, supporters, or organizers at their own graduate institutions– my adviser included. Since beginning graduate work here, I’ve seen faculty and grad student-workers bond over their experiences with the labor movement on a whole range of occasions. Some professors even come out to GEO rallies.” – Anna Waltman, GEO-UAW 2322, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, English
-“Since the formation of our Union in 2014 and the start of our first contract in July of 2015, we have seen tremendous improvements in our quality of life as GAs at UConn. Not just through the economic benefits and workplace protections we won in bargaining, but also in the peace of mind that comes from the stability of having a contract and also from the cross-departmental solidarity that now exists on campus as a result of our organizing… I just can’t say enough about how much unionization has improved conditions at UConn and I sincerely hope that our colleagues at countless other colleges and universities across the country will have the opportunity to experience these same improvements.” – Todd Vachon, GEU-UAW Local 6950, University of Connecticut
-“Through the union, I have met people from across departments and disciplines who are united in our struggles. This strongly impressed upon me that the “individual nature of students’ educational experiences” does not supersede our need to collectively fight to stand up to both individual and campus-wide injustices. Focusing on individual experiences serves to exacerbate systemic problems by isolating individuals into silence.
It is shameful that many university administrations would pull out the trope of a union causing a less collegial workplace. This ignores the inherent power that our institutions and our supervisors have over us as grad students and graduate workers and how that limits our abilities to advocate as an individual. Having a unionized framework to navigate workplace issues can diffuse a tense situation as there is a prescribed procedure to follow with expected outcomes. Collective organizing and action allows us to have a voice that is uniquely ours that sometimes has to be aggressive and loud in order to be heard by those in positions of power.
Having been a part of that fight has made my graduate experience richer. While at times the struggle was tough, we were able to make it through with each other. It has forever altered my worldview for the better. “ – Reagan Belan, Teaching Support Staff Union, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC Canada
-“Working as a unionised teaching assistant not only provided me with securer material conditions within which to do my work, as you might expect, but with the kind of security and safety that allowed me to do my teaching work better. Not just because safety typically comes prior to success on Maslow’s pyramid, but because union membership facilitated excellent personal relationships with the professors for whom I TA’d. With a clear framework of expectations and formal recourses available to everyone on both sides, and with the knowledge that those expectations actually meant something and could be enforced *by both parties* (and were not just the token ‘associations’ of a ‘benevolent’ administration), we were all able to get on with the business of trying to be excellent and mutually-helpful teachers. If my or my fellow TAs had begun to feel overworked, disrespected, and exploited, I’m not sure our relationship with the Prof, or our work, would have been anywhere near as good.” – Steve Eldon Kerr, McGill University, Political Science
-“Having a union guarantees that I work under fair, just, reasonable, and secure conditions. Without this I wouldn’t be able to give the same quality of instruction to my students. Undergrads know how much their education depends upon the labor of graduate instructors and they know that a union-led contract protects their interests as well as mine. This creates a greater sense of empathy, interdependence, and mutual support amongst undergrads and graduate students. As for faculty and staff, having a union-led contract pushes them to see and treat me as a fellow colleague. Opponents of graduate worker unions say that unions produce an adversarial relationship. The relationship of employer to employee is necessarily an adversarial one; having a union just provides a framework in which that tension is not devolved onto the personal and emotional relationships of the workplace.” – Will McKeithen, University of Washington, Department of Geography
-“As a graduate student in STEM, I work very intimately with my Principle Investigator (PI), and never once has my involvement with our graduate student union imposed any stress on this vital relationship. Ultimately, PIs and graduate students in STEM are working towards the same goals and are fighting vigorously together to retain the funding that supports both of their careers. Ensuring a graduate student’s financial security, the right to a safe and healthy work environment, as well as access to affordable health insurance through the power of collective bargaining offered by union representation only serves to increase the efficiency and productivity of graduate students, and as a result, strengthen the relationship between graduate students and their PIs. I firmly believe the support provided by my graduate student union has enhanced my performance in my intellectual and academic engagements, and in doing so further bolstered my relationship with my PI.” – Alexandria Wells, GEO-UAW 2322, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Molecular and Cell Biology Program
-“As an International student I can say how amazing is for me to have the union. Not only is a place where I can go precisely with the problems that can come from the relations with faculty and supervisors -and that without the union I wouldn’t have anyone to turn to- but also the union has had my back in other general issues with the university administration by making sure I know my rights and those are protected.” – Lola Loustaunau, GTFF – AFT 3544, University of Oregon
-“This past year, for the first time in decades, my department faced budget cuts that threatened graduate student positions. Many students faced the loss of healthcare, threats to their visa statuses if they were international students, and the possibility of dropping out of a program they’d devoted years to in order to survive. Undergraduates in my department faced the prospect of diminished educational outcomes due to the loss of instructors and class availability. Through a solidarity movement driven by student workers within our union, we were able to prevent many of these positions from being cut. This experience taught me that unionization is vital to both the economic well being of graduate students and the education of undergraduate students. Unfortunately, we live in a world where universities are encouraged to put their bottom lines ahead of the lives of their workers and the educational needs of the students whose tuition they depend upon. Unionization is an important measure we can take to ensure that universities maintain their core educational values without exploiting workers.” –Erin Adam, University of Washington, Department of Political Science
-“One of the greatest benefits of a graduate workers union is that becomes the centre point of interdisciplinary discussion. As a physicist, I’ve learned far more about Linguistics, Mathematics, Chemistry, History and Philosophy in the union than I was ever exposed to in any of my degrees. The argument that unionization interferes in academic pursuits is specious… The union is the heart of the University, a place for discussion, debate and action. I couldn’t imagine attending a University without one.” – Derek Sahota, Chief Steward – Teaching Support Staff Union, Simon Fraser University
-“I worked as both a unionized research assistant and teaching assistant for a Professor at McGill University while I was an MA student there. He will be attending my wedding.” -Jonathon Booth, JD-PhD Student, Harvard University