The ongoing debate over graduate student unionization has shown that the proponents and opponents of a union have distinctly different job descriptions. The proponents are mainly instructors and teaching assistants. They are also primarily in the humanities and social sciences. Most researchers, on the other hand, find themselves opposing a union. Teaching assistants and research assistants have different concerns and different job situations.
For teaching assistants, work is nothing more or less than their source of income. Were they to strike for better pay, a union could replace a portion of that income while the strike continued. However, research assistants get more than income from their labors. Their academic progress is directly tied to their work. A union cannot grant a degree to a striking researcher.
Unlike the state, which finances teaching assistants, the companies and foundations that finance research assistants are free to take their money elsewhere. If their money is being wasted during a strike, it may well evaporate, leaving research assistants without adequate funding.
For these and other reasons, there are only four joint research and teaching assistant unions in the United States — all at schools providing worse pay and benefits than Minnesota. Unions that have been debated in recent letters, such as the one at Michigan, represent only teaching assistants.
That the Graduate Student Organizing Congress wishes to create a joint union seems puzzling. One of GradSOC’s external affiliates estimated its expenditures to date on this supposedly ‘grass-roots’ campaign for unionization at $250,000. This money has not swayed all graduate assistants. In particular, most resistance has come from research assistants and others in the physical sciences. Why would GradSOC and its affiliates pour so much money into a risky venture to create a joint union when they could much more easily unionize only teaching assistants, as most other unionized schools have? Because in the current system, graduate assistants in the physical sciences and engineering generally have higher pay rates than their liberal arts counterparts.
Research assistants have their own set of issues that they would press in the union leadership. The only thing research assistants bring to the table is higher wages that will provide increased dues, which the union could negotiate away in favor of raising the minimum pay across the board. As Darren Walhof pointed out in his April 1 letter, “Everyone at Michigan gets the minimum”.
My conclusion is that GradSOC and its external affiliates are not interested in what is best for graduate students as a whole. They could have pursued the teaching assistant union that they have been touting as such a huge success. The union could represent a single set of interests and not suffer the internal turmoil of antagonistic voting blocs. Instead, GradSOC is pursuing a bigger union, a plan that will bring poor results.
GradSOC and its affiliates are interested in power, not graduate students. They have displayed a Machiavellian approach to this issue, providing only select information twisted to support their opinions, not informed decision-making. Whether I support unionization or not (I don’t), I would be concerned about the integrity of those likely to assume power if a union were formed. I am voting against this union, both because it is not in my best interest as a teacher and researcher and because the union advocates have failed to gain my trust. They have lost the trust of others who have taken the time to talk with them and analyze their campaign.
Eric Nuxoll is a graduate student in chemical engineering and a member of Graduate Students Against Unionization.