The Union Bogeyman

I’m a proud member of the United Auto Workers.

The entertainment value of people’s broken socioeconomic assumptions when I say this is not to be underestimated, but I don’t feel that I’m personally much better off with the UAW than without. The sciences as a whole are much better funded than, say, comparative literature. Graduate students in the earth sciences typically have the option to get a “real” job without leaving the field, which makes school almost like part of a competitive labor market – even without collective bargaining I would probably still be paid okay. I don’t have significant family responsibilities. I haven’t had issues with my advisers or TAships. I haven’t even been seriously affected by random administrative chaos.

I am still glad the union is there. It’s like insurance – I hope I never need it, but if I do, boy will I ever be glad to have those resources at my disposal. And, y’know, fuzzy liberal solidarity stuff.

I can understand people who grumble about having to pay for a service they don’t feel they benefit from (full union dues are optional, but all employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement must pay a fee) or who think unions are corrupt or too politicized or bad for other reasons. Sometimes, though, I think people who argue against grad student unionization must be living on another planet entirely.

Take the article in this week’s Nature. It discusses some potential pitfalls of thinking of oneself as an employee rather than a student, which is apparently something that happens because of the union and not because you are expected to do things in exchange for a paycheck:

The employer-employee relationship differs from that of the teacher-student. The former can be adversarial, and counter to the aims of a graduate student.

Planet on which adviser/student relationships are incapable of becoming adversarial without an extra kick of trickle-down hostility from the collective bargaining process: I don’t know, maybe Jupiter? Planet on which employer-employee relationships never involve mentorship and support of the kind that would further the aims of a graduate student: Uranus*.

US students … might not have the time or the patience to deal with lawyers and salary disputes that could, after a long struggle, net only minor gains.

This is the part that really confused me. Do people think that having a union means that everybody will be required to volunteer as an activist and negotiator? I don’t have the time or patience to conduct my own salary disputes, that’s why I have the UAW do it for me.

The fundamental eye-roller, of course, is that it’s been almost 40 years since the University of Wisconsin-Madison first recognized the Teaching Assistants Association, and yet Nature still thinks it’s okay to publish a four-paragraph article containing two paragraphs of unsupported speculation about ways in which unions might or might not harm students. You’d think by now we would be able to support our arguments about graduate student unions by drawing on the experiences of unionized campuses and perhaps even some data about unionized students’ careers, instead of just our artist’s conception of the planet Uranus.

*If you want to infer something about my views on prostitution from my choice of pun here, go right ahead.


  1. Coturnix wrote:

    Sounds like that awful 1985 book!

  2. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Ha! Maybe they should’ve published it in the Futures column.

  3. Coturnix wrote:

    More like WorldNutDaily…

  4. Lab Lemming wrote:

    “Planet on which adviser/student relationships are incapable of becoming adversarial without an extra kick of trickle-down hostility from the collective bargaining process: I don’t know, maybe Jupiter?”

    No, I think that planet will be a small icy body orbiting a star 1000 parsecs away. People have heard of Jupiter. Provided that they wake up early, they can see it from here on Earth.

    Alternatively, maybe Hoth, Tantooie, or some other purely fictional planet with no basis in reality whatsoever.

    As for how unions can be nasty, consider the Australian situation when I was a student:

    -It was illegal to enroll in university without joining the student union.
    -Dues were mandatory.
    -Union officials were free to use union dues for political activities.

    So anyone attending university was a de facto Labor Party donor.

    The previous government, to much protest, introduced Voluntary Student Unionism a few years ago, allowing students the option not to join. This policy has enraged the left, and it remains to be seen whether or not the new Labor government will repeal it.

  5. bsci wrote:

    Part of the fuzziness of the grad student/employee dynamic is that the employer who has most say over the students’ life is his/her advisor. The union has virtually no say over the advisor/student relationship. That makes the union/non-union dynamic a little bit more complex than in other fields.

    I was a postdoc in the UC system during UAW’s recent attempt to unionize the postdocs. It was an utter failure, not because postdocs were anti-union, but because UAW made no attempt to understand postdocs needs or why a union would help. I think this gets lost sometimes in the unionization discussion. Just because unionization might be good doesn’t mean a specific union is the correct one to do it. (sure this is tangential to your actual topic here, but it came to mind)

  6. ethyl wrote:

    You gotta be kidding me. Sometimes I wonder what academia people who write stuff like that are from, because the one I was involved in was completely adverserial, not supportive at all (unless it was supporting your thesis), and in many cases racist, sexist, and homophobic. Your personal life was nothing but a distraction, and anything that took time away from working on your (well, your advisor’s, really) project was BAD. Health problems were your own fault, probably, and you certainly weren’t getting any sympathy for any kind of emotional issues (death in the family, etc.).

    Contrast that with my professional life, which has been supportive, allows time off for personal issues, whether they be of a physical or emotional nature (the company doesn’t care — it’s YOUR time off), and my boss is concerned about work-life balance. I’ve had much more mentoring and nurturing in the evil professional world than I ever did in the warm pink fuzzy halls of academia. And I KNOW I’m not the only one. Besides all of which, I get a paycheck commensurate with the amount I work — I’m no longer expected to act as slave labor for a megalomaniac (sp?).

    Sorry for the rant, this is something I get a leeetle bit bitter about.

    Also, Lab Lemming, you’ll have to turn in your geek card now — the correct spelling is Tatooine, not Tantooie. Sorry :)

  7. jim repka wrote:

    I was a lowly undergrad at Berkeley when the grad students had their first walkouts and teach-ins, in the late ’80s.

    When I was a grad student money was tight, but in the sciences there was always either a salary tied to research or a TA position. I had a couple of housemates and friends over the years who were in social sciences or liberal arts, and their only options were teaching or waiting tables. If they were lucky they could swing a lecture gig, though it was more work and didn’t pay a lot more than a TA slot.

    I never got over the impression that graduate school for non-science people was not much more than an elaborate hazing ritual. But my advisor used to have us over once a week for bull sessions and ice cream, which may not have been typical.

    Chris, I agree with you about closed shops in general, especially when it comes to supporting political activities (I have the same issue now that I’m an overpaid community college teacher and the hundreds of extra dollars I have invested in stocks can be used by the corporations for union-busting activities or to support political parties that I disagree with…). Since everyone working at a unionized shop gets the benefits of the union, maybe if someone doesn’t want to join, they could have the option of donating the equivalent of their dues to charity?

  8. Maria Brumm wrote:

    I think the “collective bargaining fee” is a fair solution, provided the accounting is done correctly – if you are covered by the contract then you should pay for the costs of negotiation and enforcement, but nothing more. There are plenty of us suckers willing to pay full dues to cover the freeloaders ;)

  9. Lab Lemming wrote:

    >Since everyone working at a unionized shop gets the benefits of the union, maybe if someone doesn’t want to join, they could have the option of donating the equivalent of their dues to charity?

    Or, you could let them negotiate their own contract. Our professional academic union (not the student one) is generally pretty decent- the biggest complaint is the level of dues they charge. And most young, independent people’s approach is to not join unless until they get shafted by admin and need someone to fight for them. But if your fight with admin contravenes the union’s policy, like mine did (I wanted to work 50 hours a week w/out overtime), then they aren’t much help. So being forced onto the collectively bargained contract wasn’t actually helping me out much.

    Jim, there are many ways to invest in companies that don’t do things you find abhorrent. You have a choice.

    ethyl, you can have my International Brotherhood of Geeks card.

    My long term objection to unions is that big unions breed big companies, which breed bigger unions, etc. The result is that individuals and small businesses end up getting outarmsraced.

  10. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Oh, and Ethyl, never apologize for ranting! It is what makes the blogosphere go round. I have also found that some academics have an overly-Dilbert-ized view of what life is like in industry.

    Brotherhood of Geeks

    Are you trolling me?


  11. Lab Lemming wrote:

    I was merely reflecting the sexist language already entrenched in the traditional union movement.

    To see what I’m talking about, compare google searches for:
    union brotherhood
    union sisterhood

  12. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Nice save.

  13. Sarah wrote:

    I’m a current Berkeley grad in one of the biology departments, and I disagree with your post. I very much wish there was a way to get out of the union here. I think our union is really weak, and that in helping the social science and humanities students, it’s caused a lot of harm to the science students. I also think that there’s nothing it has done that we couldn’t have accomplished with stronger student government. I resent having to pay 1% of my paycheck to an ineffective organization that can’t even negotiate a living wage for its members.

    The base salary for the highest-paid GSIs is far below what UC Berkeley has estimated it takes (post-taxes) to live for 9 months in Berkeley: $21,052 (they estimate housing and utilities at $1115/mo). GSIs here are paid according to an experience-based step system. The highest step one can be at without special permission from the Dean is step III. A step III GSI has a .50 appointment paid at $3,627.30, which comes out to $1813.65/mo gross. Two 5-month appointments = $18,136.50 gross in 10 months. Incoming students at step I earn just $16,391.00 gross in 10 months.

    The union negotiates for all UC Berkeley campuses, not just ours. Cost of living is never considered in the union negotiations. So someone working at a smaller UC campus might be getting a good deal, but those of us in expensive areas aren’t. In our most recent negotiations, they union basically got us the same deal we had before, but heralded it as a triumph because there was no backsliding. Meanwhile, I’m sliding further and further into debt. This past fall, my union rep told me that all the chapter’s resources were going towards getting us a massive increase in salary. But each election I get political mailings from my local chapter encouraging me to vote for candidates who want to slash the higher education budget. Our union agreement says we can’t work more than 20 hours/week on average as a GSI. But when I asked about what we did if we were required to work more hours, I was told there is no system in place to deal with contract violations of that nature.

    Is this better than what we could earn by negotiating our own contracts? Possibly, but not necessarily. Graduate student researchers (not subject to the union) are paid on a ten-step scale, starting at $13,510 for ten months, but can get up to $26,280 for ten months.

    Perhaps your department is augmenting your salary beyond what the union has negotiated. If so, I’m happy you’re not in dire financial straits. On the other hand, if it is, you have your department to thank, not the union.

  14. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Sarah: I don’t know who told you there was no grievance procedure for workload violations, but they were wrong. If you’re being overworked, file a grievance! It’s the same grievance procedure as any other contract violation, but is supposed to get faster attention.

    People I’ve known who’ve had reason to file grievances with the union have generally been satisfied with the results, but of course your mileage might vary. If you really can’t get redress for a workload violation, though, it’s worth raising a fuss with union administration and/or other students. Also, whoever told you there’s no grievance procedure for workload violations needs to be retrained, stat.

    My department doesn’t augment my pay. The reason I am not in dire financial straits is that I don’t have a family to support, I don’t have any expensive medical conditions, and I have emergency savings left over from my time in the “real world” for things like sudden dental bills. Berkeley is expensive, but unless there’s something preventing you from having roommates, it doesn’t cost $1115/mo. for rent and utilities. We don’t make a living wage in the sense that we can support families, or do much in the way of retirement planning, but for a single person without special needs it really ought to be doable. Unless you’re not getting full-time GSR appointments in the summer, that would suck.

    Anyway, I note that none of your problems with being unionized have anything to do with it creating an adversarial relationship between you and your committee, or needing to spend all your time dealing with salary disputes, which were the arguments given in Nature that I really objected to.

  15. Sarah wrote:

    I’m on the edge of overwork but not enough to complain. I thought it was worth pointing out that not all the union departmental reps know how to file grievances, or even that there is a process in place for it.

    I agree with you in that I do not think that anyone’s opinions about the union, either favorable or unfavorable, would jeopardize their relationships with their committee members. I don’t think my adviser has ever asked one way or another what I thought about the union. I do think that you could tick off some people if you filed a grievance, though. I know several students who regularly put in 20-25 hours a week teaching, but I don’t know any who has filed a grievance. Our department sends each of us a list of our estimated teaching time commitment (per week) before the start of the semester. I’ve never had one that came in at 20 or fewer hours per week. These estimates go to the union too.

    My main point was just that our union at Berkeley doesn’t do all that much for us, and if I could get it, I’d prefer to have my $18/month back. I do think that unions can be an amazing and powerful force for good and for the benefit of workers. But ours isn’t great. I don’t think one could realistically live on $16,000, and especially not if you had research or conferences to go to. I also think that the union, because it argues for all grad students at all UC campuses, makes it harder for departments to get more money for students with regular research and travel needs.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *