Grad Student Unionization: Grave Predictions Unmet?

Rumblings of graduate student unionization often elicit grave predictions from faculty and administrators. They suggest that if graduate students unionize, the mentoring relationship between students and faculty advisers will inevitably be disrupted and that unionization will precipitate significant decreases in the number of positions available, as teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) are replaced by cheaper sources of labor.

But are these dire forecasts likely to be realized? Although surprisingly little research is available on the subject, a number of experts in the field agree that--like early March's East Coast "storm of the century"--the outcome is unlikely to be so severe.

Two recent studies show that, contrary to university administration predictions, graduate student unions and collective bargaining do not affect the mentoring relationship. Gordon Hewitt, now the assistant director of institutional research at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, examined the effects of unionizing during his doctoral dissertation research. After interviewing nearly 300 faculty from five universities where graduate students had unionized within the previous 4 years, he concluded that the overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not think that the union interferes with their ability to teach or advise students [ Journal of Collective Negotiations 29, 153 (2000)].

Dan Julius, vice president of the University of San Francisco, and Patricia Gumport, an associate professor at Stanford University, reached similar conclusions after conducting an even more comprehensive study involving interviews with individuals from all American universities where graduate students have unionized. "I cannot find any general evidence that the student-mentor relationship is affected," says Julius, who has spent a good deal of his research career looking at labor issues. "If that evidence exists, I'd like to see it." He acknowledges that there may be cases in which problems arise--such as friction between a graduate student and the student's faculty adviser due to union bargaining--but expects they are isolated incidents.

So, if the predictions about the demise of the all-important student-mentor relationship are incorrect, what about the economic predictions? Interestingly, not many data are available about this topic, either--despite the fact that graduate students have been unionizing since the 1960s. Hewitt cautions that although he is particularly interested in the topic, "the only public information is coming either from university administrations, which are trying to fight unionization, or from unions, which are trying to organize students."

Simple labor market theory suggests, however, that once graduate students unionize--gaining better benefits and higher wages--it will make economic sense for the universities to hire temporary or part-time lecturers and readers in place of TAs. These part-time employees aren't eligible for benefits and are, therefore, an even cheaper source of well-qualified labor, despite the fact that many already have their doctorates. But, the argument goes, they'll still cost the universities something, so replacing TAs and RAs with short-term lecturers and readers means that there will be less money available to support graduate students. This, in turn, will lead eventually to a decrease in the number of graduate student admissions.

"It's a matter of dollars and cents," asserts Julius, who is recognized as an expert on the subject by the California Public Employee Relations Board. But Julius quickly follows up on this comment by noting that there are strong mitigating factors that will limit the anticipated effect of economics on graduate student admissions. First, pedagogy, as defined by the longstanding traditions of graduate education in this country, includes teaching. This alone means that TAs will not be completely replaced by cheaper, nonunionized lecturers. Additionally, public university budgets increase when enrollment increases, so it's in the universities' interests to encourage graduate student admissions.

At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where graduate students unionized 4 years ago, Leslie Sims, the vice provost, says the administration insists "that the numbers of graduate students doesn't decrease." But in fact, Sims's own analysis shows the numbers of graduate students have dropped at other unionized schools. "This is a matter of some controversy. All of the major research institutions share data on stipends, number of positions, and the like, but it is in a confidential report," says Sims. "My analysis of what has happened over the years, at Wisconsin and Michigan, for example, is that the number of positions has gone down. But the other institutions won't confirm what has happened," he continues. "The numbers are there in the report. The numbers of positions have decreased. I believe it has happened, but I can't confirm it."

However, Earl Lewis, the dean in charge of graduate student enrollment at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, disagrees with Sims's analysis. He says the overall numbers have increased since unionization occurred at Michigan in 1972. More recent decreases in graduate student numbers result from a conscious decision the administration made to limit the number of students; the administration felt it was irresponsible to bring in more students than they could support financially or mentor effectively, says Lewis. But he doesn't think this relates to the union, saying emphatically, "I think Les [Sims] is wrong. I don't think there is a causal relationship here."

But even as he sees the numbers of grad students decrease in some schools, Sims agrees substantially with Julius: TAs and RAs will not be replaced in large numbers because graduate school pedagogy in the United States demands that students receive both research and teaching experience.

Sims is clearly unhappy with unionization, but he acknowledges that universities have lagged in providing adequate benefits for graduate students, particularly decent health insurance, and that under the union, students at the University of Iowa have negotiated successfully for these benefits. In contrast, though, when he compares graduate student stipends for the 4 years before unionization to the 4 subsequent years, he concludes that the graduate student salaries at the University of Iowa are actually decreasing relative to those at other Big 10 schools.

Interestingly, in both Sims's and Julius's opinions, it might be larger social structures that are most affected by unionization. For example, Sims laments the loss of the more collegial environment as unionization presents new and different issues. For example, union members at Iowa--by union rules--are not allowed to sit on search committees of anyone who will oversee graduate education. That means that graduate students, if they are union members, can't participate in selecting department chairs and deans, for example. And these are exactly people who are likely to have a significant impact on graduate education. Furthermore, because union eligibility changes regularly for graduate students--depending on their funding source and whether or not they are teaching--an individual student might be able to sit on a search committee one month but not the next.

For his part, Julius thinks that one of the most affected issues is that of departmental autonomy. Union rules generally limit the freedom of departmental faculty to direct a unique course of study, though that is often a significant part of how graduate students select their graduate programs. For example, departments might not have as much freedom to set teaching requirements for their students.

We've been here before, of course, agonizing over the effect of unionization on higher education. In the introduction to his book Managing the Industrial Labor Relations Process in Higher Education (The College and University Personnel Association, Washington D.C., 1993), Julius wrote the following about faculty unions, which have existed since the 1960s: "Dire predictions regarding the demise of collegial governance systems, the learning environment, the stature of the university in American society, and the like were made. Most of the ... predictions have not come to pass."

So, taking all of this into consideration, will unions greatly change the way graduate education and graduate research are conducted in the United States? No, probably not. It is more likely that in the end, the effects of graduate student unions--like those of faculty before them--will be much more limited than the dire predictions suggest.

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