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.