Read our COVID-19 research and news.

In April, graduate students at Columbia University went on strike for a week to protest the school's refusal to negotiate with their newly formed union.

Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

The push for graduate student unions signals a deep structural shift in academia

Years ago, academics jokingly used to call the Ph.D. their “union card” because it provided entry to the exclusive guild of professors. You don’t hear that hoary wisecrack anymore. Some decades back, the doctorate stopped offering any assurance of a faculty job. 

But these days, many graduate students working as teaching and research assistants in the United States still want a union card, only a different kind—one that will allow them to bargain collectively on pay and working conditions with the universities that pay them to teach classes, grade exams, and do the hands-on labor of their professors’ research. Unions, many graduate assistants believe, would also provide them protection against unfair or arbitrary treatment by supervisors, unexpected administrative changes in benefits, and other detrimental situations where they currently lack power.

To that end, union organizing drives are underway or union groups are awaiting recognition by or negotiations with their universities on two dozen campuses across the country, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU). Many universities, however, especially private ones, have opposed unionization—refusing to acknowledge that the graduate students they pay to teach courses, grade papers, and do the labor of professors’ research are in fact workers. Instead, they insist that these tasks form part of students’ education. Now, the change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration appears to have sharpened the controversy.

A contested right

Graduate assistants can form unions either by holding an election in which a majority of the workers vote for union representation or by collecting signed statements requesting union representation from a majority of workers (a process known as card check). The institution can then either agree to recognize the union or—as has been common in higher education—dispute it, in which case the organizers appeal to a governing body for a decision on whether the institution must recognize the union.

Public institutions come under the laws of various states, some of which allow and others forbid student assistant unions. For students at private universities, the right to unionize is determined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), whose rulings have seesawed repeatedly over recent years. The NLRB’s five members are presidentially appointed, making the board’s composition—and its decisions—change from administration to administration. Democratic presidents’ appointees generally side with union advocates, finding that graduate assistants meet the criteria, set in the National Labor Relations Act, of workers eligible to form unions. Republicans’ appointees, conversely, have generally agreed with private universities’ argument that the assistants are predominantly students, and thus not workers entitled to unionize.

Graduate student unions are currently recognized at 33 institutions or university systems, according to the CGEU, the first having formed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1969. All but one of those listed are public.

At one private institution, Columbia University, the wait for recognition of the union that teaching and research assistants voted to form in 2016 became so frustrating that in April of this year they staged a weeklong strike—a mark of how contentious the issue has become, with students and administrators staking out opposite positions. In January, Columbia Provost John Coatsworth had written in an email to the campus community that the university’s administration would not negotiate with the union but instead would “seek review of the status of student assistants by a federal appellate court.”

Although the union considers that a 2016 NLRB decision permitting unionization settled the question, Coatsworth was alluding to the decadeslong, much-litigated controversy over whether graduate assistants at private universities even have the right to unionize. Columbia is one of a number of leading private institutions—including Brown University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—that have argued before the NLRB that graduate assistants are primarily students and thus not workers eligible to unionize. 

New York University’s (NYU's) position as the sole private institution on the CGEU list of 33 harks back to a case brought by NYU graduate assistants in 2000, during the Clinton administration, when the NLRB declared assistants at private universities workers eligible to unionize. Then, in 2004, under President George W. Bush, the NLRB rescinded that right after Brown won a challenge. NYU, however, voluntarily recognized the union in 2013—but only after the student assistants went on strike in 2005, when their first contract expired, and also took other actions in the intervening years.

In 2016, with the Columbia case, the legal situation changed again when an NLRB majority appointed by President Barack Obama asserted the assistants’ right to unionize. In April of this year, however, an appointee of President Donald Trump tipped the NLRB majority to Republican. Union proponents across the country now fear another reversal. Incipient unions at Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Yale—whose administrations oppose unionization—have withdrawn filings that were pending before the NLRB to avoid potentially damaging rejections of their petitions for recognition.

Notwithstanding the possibility of another coming shift, American University, Brandeis University, Tufts University, and the New School are negotiating with unions formed in the aftermath of the Columbia decision. In May, Harvard also announced that it would bargain with its newly formed graduate assistant union, with the proviso that negotiations would only cover employment issues and not academic matters. This distinction is unusual, University of Oregon union expert Gordon Lafer told the Harvard Crimson, because no union has ever insisted on bargaining over scholarly questions such as grades, recommendations, or tenure criteria. It is also suspicious because it could mask attempts to reduce the topics open to negotiation, Lafer said. It is unclear whether these agreements to negotiate might be withdrawn should the NLRB again reverse itself in some future case. 

Still, in another sign of campus unionizing’s vitality, postdocs at the University of Washington in Seattle voted in May to form the nation’s sixth union of postdocs. It, like all other universities with postdoctoral unions, is public. 

Too good a buy

Unionization opponents have long argued, in Coatsworth’s words, that “the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.” (The available research on unions does not find damage to that relationship, but rather improvement.) It’s a deep and bitter irony that decades after abandoning the central element of the relationship that for generations defined the guild-style academic “union card”—the strongly felt responsibility of established guild members to help their apprentices establish careers of their own within the guild—universities are claiming part of that history in order to deny student assistants the right to the newer-style union card that would allow them to band together and try to improve their generally penurious circumstances.

The two union cards represent different kinds of unions and highlight the major shift in graduate students’ status that has taken place over a number of decades. Academia of yesteryear fashioned itself as a craft or trade union, like the historic craft guilds of Europe, protecting the interests and incomes of highly skilled workers by controlling access to occupations. Such unions provide entrance only to people meeting approved standards, generally through apprenticeships, qualifying tests, and other proofs of mastery. Skilled craftspeople such as plumbers and electricians are modern examples of this type of union. The kind of help that student assistants want now, on the other hand, is in the model of industrial unions, which seek to unite the employees in a given workplace to use their collective leverage to bargain for improved wages and working conditions. In other words, graduate students have gone from protégés slated to join their professors as colleagues in the ranks of the academic guild to low-paid staffers carrying out tasks for their employers’ benefit with little realistic chance of ever becoming professors. 

Universities have created this situation, according to a study published in January by the Economic Policy Institute, in part by “increasingly rel[ying] on graduate teaching assistants and contingent faculty, with the growth in graduate assistant positions and non-tenure-track positions outpacing the increase in tenured and tenure-track positions between Fall 2005 and Fall 2015.” Assistants and adjuncts, of course, cost much less than tenure-track faculty, and their low-paid work in classrooms and laboratories permits universities to function with fewer full-fledged professors. Indeed, “the same dynamics that have made graduate students such a good buy while they are in school have made them increasingly unemployable after they complete their degrees,” noted Lafer in a 2003 essay that is perhaps even more relevant today. “The wholesale substitution of casual teachers for tenure-track positions has marked the decimation of the academic job market.” In 2015, there were 370,710 graduate student employees but only 134,153 tenure-track faculty members, the former number having risen 16.7% and the latter having fallen 1.3% in the preceding decade, the Economic Policy Institute study reports. 

Given the facts of university economics and the current academic job market, the old system appears gone forever. Many faculty members are humane, well-meaning people who had no part in creating the current situation, but it does not change that fact. Minimal decency would therefore seem to require that universities acknowledge this reality and recognize their graduate employees’ right to join together and try to improve their resulting, unenviable lot.

Read more Taken for Granted stories

*Correction, 20 June, 11:13 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the New School voluntarily recognized the academic student workers union. The university administration initially did not recognize the union and only began negotiating after the NLRB certified the union.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers