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Should Graduate Students Unionize?

As elections for unionization continue throughout the country, students find themselves not only at odds with their school administrations—but also with each other.
Students walking across the campus at Harvard University.

Students walking across the campus at Harvard University.

As soon as David Dunham answered the knock at his door on a cold March Saturday in Ithaca, New York, he felt a dread shoot up in his stomach. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having.

The two union representatives who stood before Dunham wanted to know if he would be voting "yes" in the upcoming election to determine whether graduate students at Cornell University would unionize. "I said yes to avoid any further confrontation," says Dunham, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of German studies. His tactic worked in the short-term—the union representatives left satisfied—but in the weeks leading to the election, he would get phone calls, messages, and emails, all containing a single, unifying message: "[R]emember to vote yes." When the time came to actually cast a ballot, Dunham voted no.

Nine-hundred-and-nineteen graduate students voted against unionization, compared to 856 who voted for it, in the election held from March 27th to the 28th. Eighty-one votes were challenged, and the result remained inconclusive. Cornell was the sixth university to hold elections after a National Labor Relations Board ruling in August of 2016 recognized student assistants at private universities as workers and thus made it possible for them to form and be represented by unions.

As elections for unionization continue throughout the country, many school administrations find themselves in the role of the antagonist. At Yale University, the union adopted a "micro-unit" strategy, winning the election in eight graduate departments. But the Yale administration has filed for an appeal challenging the "undemocratic" nature of the election, in which 228 of the 2,600 Ph.D. students in the graduate school voted yes. The last three weeks have seen students protesting the administration, culminating today in what is expected to be a massive disruption at Yale's commencement led by the graduate union, Unite Here Local 33. At Cornell too, pro-union students and some faculty members have accused the administration of interfering "with graduate employees' ability to freely exercise their right to vote."

Surprisingly, the reception of students across campuses to unions has been mixed. Duke's unionization drive failed in November last year. The vote at Harvard University was also inconclusive, with 1,272 votes for and 1,456 against, and 314 contested ballots. While the NLRB suggested the possibility of a re-election, Harvard's administration has appealed the decision. Columbia University, Loyola University Chicago, and, most recently, American University graduate students have voted to form unions, but contract negotiations haven't begun yet. Yet the lack of an overwhelming yes vote by the students is a testament to the challenges of organizing youth in today's world, especially graduate students.

In 2016, 9.2 percent of employed 25 to 34 year olds were members of a union, a drop-off from the 13 percent in both the 45-to-54 and 55-to-64 age brackets. The total number of union members has been falling in the United States as well. According to the Congressional Research Service, union membership was at its highest in 1954, at 34.8 percent. By 2015 it had fallen to 11.1 percent, and further declined to 10.7 percent in 2016. Despite recent trends, things might be changing. A Pew Research Center Survey in 2015 showed that Millennials are more supportive of unions than their parents' generation. As the labor movement strategizes to convert support into membership, one of its challenges will be to adapt its tactics to suit the young potential members.

The highlight of the NLRB decision was to confirm that graduate students could indeed be classified as "workers" who provide labor to universities. This ruling reversed a 2004 decision that had stated that graduate student assistants have a "predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school." Among the reasons for the urgency of unionization drives across campuses is the fear that two empty positions at the NRLB might be filled with Republican anti-union members by President Donald Trump. Pro-union activists have accused universities like Harvard and Yale of colluding with the Trump administration by using a stalling tactic. Amid this speculation, union activists are trying to push on demands ranging from dental insurance to declaring universities as sanctuary campuses.

The Cornell Graduate Students Union voted in 2015 to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers. For the AFT, this was the first private university vote, with two more upcoming at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. As the campaign gained momentum over the last few months, the CGSU, along with AFT-NYSUT, has employed a range of methods to get its message across and attract members: town hall meetings, phone calls, house visits, and so forth. All throughout, the group grappled with not knowing which of the methods worked best for the young electorate.

According to student organizers, convincing fellow graduate students that their struggles were akin to those of workers around the world was a difficult task. Michaela Brangan, CGSU's administrative liaison, says she had to make people see the worth of their work in the context of the benefits that the university was getting. "People would ask, 'Are we workers?' Making the argument that we are took some effort. Eventually, what did make an impact was convincing people that the labor that we do is what permits the university to garner benefits on the back of relatively low paid academic workers who have very little control over the benefits," she says.

Not everyone agreed that the university was taking unfair advantage of the students. This was one of the issues that Dunham did not bring up to the organizers who knocked on his door. "I value the teaching assistantship and it is important in my development as a scholar, so I don't really consider it as work, but an integral part of my academic training," he says.

The election this year was Cornell's second try after a failed attempt in 2002. Though much had changed between 2002 and now, one aspect that was similar was the presence of a group called At What Cost. Like in 2002, the group—also made up of graduate students—was asking why a union was needed at all, and wanted to know the costs and benefits of aligning with a large organization like the AFT. "If the election is successful, a large amount of money will go toward the AFT for their services, and also toward their political lobbying," says Mark Obstalecki, a sixth year Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering and one of the founders. "How can I be sure that the AFT supports our interests?"

Obstalecki was also unconvinced that the issues such as harassment by advisors, dissatisfaction about graduate salaries, and rigorous work demands brought up by the CGSU were reflective of the larger grad community: "I have been here for six years, and haven't experienced any of the issues the CGSU is talking about. They sound like isolated sob stories, and it's definitely not my story."

Obstalecki says his efforts to get the CGSU to host an open debate to discuss the pros and cons of unionization were ignored. For the CGSU, it was a matter of not sharing the power that they claimed to have built from ground up over three years. "We don't know what AWC's reach is. Being in the same panel as an anti-union group suggests that they have equal amount of power as us, which is not true. Sharing that power and giving a platform to them would mean undermining our own efforts," says CGSU member and part-time AFT employee Joshua Savala. This was a common sentiment shared by the leaders of the union, though there was a minority that saw value in engaging and facing criticism in a positive manner.

In an open letter to the CGSU leadership in October of 2016, one of the members, a physics Ph.D. named Ben Savitzky, flagged concerns about the organization's ignorant attitude toward AWC:

[AWC] has arisen because there is currently an information vacuum about what this union is and what it's doing. They are doing us the service of drawing attention to the sorts of questions many graduate students want answered, and that we must answer if we are to garner broad, full throated support. To dismiss the concerns of any graduate student who we aim to represent as "anti-union" and therefore unimportant is strategically foolish, and morally troubling."

AWC is not the only "anti-union" group to come into prominence in campuses over the last eight months. A group of students at Duke University came together to form Students Against Duke Unionization in November of 2016 when they felt that the pro-union organizers weren't presenting the full story. "We were constantly silenced, and it felt like they weren't open to debates. If this was just the beginning, we felt that we should not be represented by such a group," says Katherine Marusak, a SADU member.

In organizing students against the union, SADU member Michael Boyarsky learned that students' demand for democracy and transparency were clear. "We weren't forcing anyone to listen to us. We were merely presenting the two sides of the story," he says. Boyarsky also believes that, at Duke, students were paid reasonably well and, as such, the bread and butter issue of unionization didn't resonate. SADU members argued that physical science students might not need unions as much as the humanities students did, a perception also common at other universities as physical science stipends tend to come from research grants (physical science students are also mostly employed as research assistants; humanities grads are usually teaching assistants). In private conversations, graduate union workers at Cornell explained that it was difficult to convince fellow physical science students to vote for the union.

Even at Harvard, where there was an organized campaign against the union, there was a strong opposition from students in the physical sciences. The campaign was led by Jae Hyeon Lee, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the physics department. Lee stated that he recognized the importance of unions but he didn't relate to the methods used by organizers. "I am against the rhetoric that the university is an evil corporation, and that we must form a union to get justice."

The union's tactic of using protest as a method to gain followers did not find many takers even with the CGSU members. Alana Staiti, a fifth year Ph.D. student in the department of science and technology studies says she didn't agree with some of AFT's organizing methods. "I wanted to downplay agitation. I believe in strength in numbers and wanted to talk about collective action. As I activated others, I also made them aware of the potential benefits of a contract. I focused on offering myself as a resource, rather than stoke anger."

AFT President Randi Weingarten attributes the slow rise in popularity of unions among young workers to the current national scenario of the labor movement. "When unions were one out of three people, we had a lot of students who had a real familiarity. Now we are one out of 10, even though poll after poll shows that Millennials are more likely to want unions. Our job is to provide avenues for young people to be organized. Actually giving graduate students voice and agency through unions is going to help in the long term," she told me two days before the Cornell election.

Natasha Raheja, one of the organizers who successfully rallied graduate students to form a union at New York University in 2013, believes young people are under pressure to not protest too much. "Young people today are increasingly socialized to think that we are out here on our own. We are made to think meritocracy exists. In the graduate school setting, there can be pressure on us to be grateful and act 'professionally,' that is to not protest or make demands," she says.

A 2010 working paper from Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School found that young workers didn't feel strongly in favor of or against unions, but reflected the distance that the generation was feeling from the idea of being part of unions. The authors state that they found the labor movement was "struggling to reach out to young people and a new working generation struggling to make ends meet." The participants also displayed a a "lack of awareness about union history, union benefits, or even how unions function, making the challenge in organizing young workers not 'Union Yes' or 'Union No,' but 'Union What?'"

Another Cornell study in 2013 found that, in public universities where unionization is legal, graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, and fare better on pay. In the absence of unions, students have had to rely on other student-represented graduate bodies that might not be democratic, and do not have the same power as collective bargaining can to push for demands.

There is also a considerable difference in views toward unions among different wage groups in the participants polled by Pew. "Favorable views of unions are higher among lower-income households earning less than $30,000 a year (54 percent), than among those earning $30,000-$74,999 (44 percent) or $75,000 or more (45 percent)," the survey stated. Graduate students at private universities do not fall in the "less than $30,000 per household" category, taking us back to the fact that it might take more effort on the part of organizers to get graduate students to identify as workers, and thus find strength in numbers.

As unions confront this new class of workers, their old methods of organizing too will have to change. They might take a lesson from the Cornell election. On the day of voting, one voter who had checked the yes box added a clear message for the organizers. The ballot paper read: "Stop knocking on my fucking door."