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I've discovered one of the major discrepancies between the schools I'm choosing among is the presence of a "robust" (according to a current 5th-year) grad student union at one, while another not only doesn't have a union, but unionization efforts were quite brutally crushed by the administration just a few years ago. How important is a union, really? What are the potential dangers in picking a school that doesn't have one? Curious especially to hear about the experiences of current students who can attest to what having or not having a union has or hasn't done for them.

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As a current grad student at a university with a very strong and active union, I can heartily endorse their importance. The current pandemic is obviously unprecedented and a relatively unique event, but the union here has gone to great lengths to successfully protect not only its members, but also graduate students on fellowship and other staff--actions that simply would not have happened without their work. Without a union, rather obviously, your labor can be more easily exploited by the institution, and grad students are near first on the exploitable list. Recently, the union here has negotiated with the administration over the implementation of a ridiculously short sighted class scheduling system that would have seriously impacted the commuting cost for instructors who don't live in the immediate area (many don't), and they've also made sure grad instructors are compensated fairly for the extra work of suddenly shifting a class online. There were some concerns about changing healthcare benefits for TAs earlier in the year, and the union was able to prevent any serious problems. I don't know how these issues would have been solved, at least as quickly as they were, without a union. 
 

More generally, a department in which both faculty and students are actively involved in the union creates an atmosphere of openness and engagement around labor or funding issues, as opposed to regarding these topics as impolite or even crass. I would be more concerned about the attitude of faculty toward their students' funding and well-being at an institution that "brutally crushed" unionization. This is not to say that without a union you will definitely be exploited and your advisor will wave you away when you come to ask for advice about funding, and more to emphasize that a union can have a very positive impact on your experience. Frankly (and ignorantly, without knowing more about the situation), I would be wary of an institution that so strongly opposed to unionization--not even trying to look like you act in the best interests of your employees is not promising. 

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And as a current graduate student at a school that won't recognize the graduate student union (which was approved by a majority of grad students in a legal vote and has support from faculty members), I would strongly advise you to avoid an institution that so blatantly opposes the rights of its workers. I have had a generally good experience with my department, and feel supported by my advisor. However, knowing that the institution you work for--the institution that depends on your labor to survive--wants to prevent you from organizing really drives home the point that they do not value you as a person, graduate worker, or potential/current academic. Not to sound harsh, but that kind of institutional behavior makes it clear that they do not care about the well-being of their graduate students, and it has some extreme long-term results (at my school this includes stagnant stipends, reductions in health insurance coverage, and a lack of power over the terms of our employment). In contrast to Rootbound's experience, students in my cohort lost hourly jobs due to the campus shutdown and we are all expected to continue teaching with no additional compensation (and honestly without much meaningful support). There are definitely those in the department who care about this, and they are attempting to advocate for those who need it, but the institution itself? Pshhhhh.

I'm (obviously) not one to judge someone who accepts an offer anyway, but I do think the importance of a union shouldn't be ignored.

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Unions are incredibly important. They will bargain for health care, for raises, for better working conditions, to avoid us being exploited as TAs when we have our own research to take care of. Our union has done a LOT for our campus. 

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Without sounding panicked, universities of all sorts have already begun to make it clear that in the fallout from COVID-19, many humanities departments will find their already-thin budgets on the chopping block (see, for instance, Karen Kelsky's running list of announced hiring freezes). A union isn't necessarily a silver bullet that can save you from all of that, but a union contract definitely makes it harder for a university to cut stipends and other funding as a cost-saving measure, or to dramatically increase the amount of work you're expected to do (in order to compensate for a smaller pool of TT and NTT faculty due to a hiring freeze, for example). 

At places without a union, you risk finding yourself reduced to begging the administration not to cut you. An example: my institution has a 3-year English postdoc, and has already made it clear that they will be cutting those short and releasing postdocs at the end of this year, even if they have additional years left. This the kind of thing a union is built to fight, but left on their own these folks have little more than the option of trying to seek out a lawyer and possibly challenge the university for violating their contract (in the midst of figuring out life in general right now). When push comes to shove, it's a lot better to have a legal contract on your side than to have to ask an administration politely not to toss you out in the cold. 

 

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I agree with much of what @Rootbound said, as someone who is also at an institution with a really strong, active union. Not only has my union worked tirelessly to push for our best interests (and insure that, each year, we receive fair pay-- among other things), but it's been a huge part of enabling me to really understand how and to what extend the faculty in my department are on the side of the graduate students. The ways in which they support union activity full-heartedly and without question has made it clear that the faculty really see us as workers deserving of fair and equitable treatment. Seeing messages and actions of support from the faculty in my department has truly been a joy. 

Also, as another thing that's worth considering-- you might think about how supporting (or not supporting) unions aligns with what a department says their philosophical and material commitments are. Do they preach Marxism and diversity, and then try to quiet union activity? Those sorts of discrepancies are worth paying attention to, as they'll likely inflect the department culture. 

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Thanks all for your input! To shift the direction of the conversation slightly in view of the impending recession: do folks think stipends, etc. are likely to be safer at wealthy private schools with enormous endowments or at public ones with strong unions? I've heard some on GC opine that it's smarter to take private offers right now thanks to the greater likelihood of funds being there, but others have suggested unions may better protect students' financial interests in a time of crisis. Thoughts?

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13 minutes ago, The Hoosier Oxonian said:

Thanks all for your input! To shift the direction of the conversation slightly in view of the impending recession: do folks think stipends, etc. are likely to be safer at wealthy private schools with enormous endowments or at public ones with strong unions? I've heard some on GC opine that it's smarter to take private offers right now thanks to the greater likelihood of funds being there, but others have suggested unions may better protect students' financial interests in a time of crisis. Thoughts?

I'm not a current grad student (obviously lol) and my perspective is informed by very few data points. But if the offer package right now is basically the same (not like, private is offering 3x the money right now or includes health insurance while public doesn't), I'd say go with the strong union. I've seen friends at union schools get packages increased and cuts blocked because of the union, whereas I've seen schools without a union slash through grad student packages no matter how wealthy the school is. I think the crisis will exacerbate that divide and that a large endowment won't protect grad students. 

Obviously this is not super meaningful advice whatsoever given lack of specific knowledge about the programs you're considering and lack of insider knowledge about union accomplishments. But that's my thought process from a place of very low information. 

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Hi, since we're all here discussing the benefits of unions, I have a question! I've been informed that UW has a very good union (yay), but I found out that BU doesn't recognize the grad student union at all. They say that students don't need a union because the university collaborates with something called the Graduate and Professional Leadership Council, which they claim has a more direct line of communication with the admin than a student union would. I don't really....know what this means and I'm unsure that this council is better than a union. Any thoughts? (Note that I will also be asking BU grad students about this.)

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3 minutes ago, tinymica said:

something called the Graduate and Professional Leadership Council

In some workplaces where workers have voted to unionize, but where the employer has not yet recognized the union, management will argue that a union isnt necessary because there’s already a group like this in place, which supposedly (according to the employer) already functions as a union, even though it affords workers none of the protections a union affords. The employer does this so that they don’t have to pay higher wages, better benefits, or give the workers any of the legal protections a union can give its workers

In short—and i fully concede that i know nothing about this situation in particular—my guess is that BU just doesn’t want to recognize the union because they’re afraid they might have to pay their grad students more if they did. 
 

This stinks, imo!

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33 minutes ago, tinymica said:

Hi, since we're all here discussing the benefits of unions, I have a question! I've been informed that UW has a very good union (yay), but I found out that BU doesn't recognize the grad student union at all. They say that students don't need a union because the university collaborates with something called the Graduate and Professional Leadership Council, which they claim has a more direct line of communication with the admin than a student union would. I don't really....know what this means and I'm unsure that this council is better than a union. Any thoughts? (Note that I will also be asking BU grad students about this.)

As far as I understand from BU students, it does have a direct line to the administration, because it is essentially part of the administration. The advantage of a union is that it's not controlled by the university--any gains the administration attributes to this "leadership council" tend to be, in reality, a reaction to union pressure. Organizing grad student unions at private schools like BU and BC has become increasingly tricky in recent years, since Trump appointees to the NLRB make it dangerous to take cases to the federal government. Basically, it's within student workers' legal rights to organize, and under normal circumstances, if those rights were violated the union would take it to the NLRB. However, unions at private schools are worried that the conservative-controlled board will use their cases to overturn the organizing rights of all student workers at all private schools in the whole country. Instead, the unions are trying to bargain directly with the schools, as Harvard's union has. Many schools not only refuse to do this, but refuse to engage at all with union representatives. There was a public hearing last summer in Boston, for example, which was not attended by a single representative of university administration. Instead they sent letters, which generally denied that student workers are workers at all. The BC administration, for example, likes to claim that unionizing would threaten mentor relationships within departments (something that makes no sense, to put it mildly). Here's an article in The Globe about that hearing: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/06/26/city-council-hearing-will-address-student-workers-rights/EAKuPFtXVoKfVu6teGeoWP/story.html

 

But you're right, it's a great idea to ask BU grad students more about this! They could totally have a different take on it (or different views from each other, of course). If you have any success, I would be interested in how you asked--I'm wondering how to get into that with current grad students at the schools I applied to in a way that's not too awkward lol. Seems harder to bring up via email....

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6 hours ago, The Hoosier Oxonian said:

Thanks all for your input! To shift the direction of the conversation slightly in view of the impending recession: do folks think stipends, etc. are likely to be safer at wealthy private schools with enormous endowments or at public ones with strong unions? I've heard some on GC opine that it's smarter to take private offers right now thanks to the greater likelihood of funds being there, but others have suggested unions may better protect students' financial interests in a time of crisis. Thoughts?

I think this greatly depends on the institution and their relationship with their union. A union can be a great thing but it can also make for a draining experience if it has a strained relationship with the department. I have had several friends who have had to withhold teaching several times because they needed to strike because future tuition waivers were threatened to no longer be part of the package deal. This impacts all grad students at all levels as well as undergraduates being taught by graduate students. It might also be worthwhile to see how much the union fee is at any university and what each union has achieved in recent year. Some unions are more successful than others and I don't think all unions are necessarily better than a lack of union.

Another important consideration might be how much teaching you're required to do during a semester. In an ideal world, you'll at least have a fellowship during one of your dissertation years. However, there might be some schools that might require you to teach during your dissertation years. Teaching a course per semester might be doable. However, I think most people would find it incredibly hard to teach 2 classes per semester while also balancing trying to write a dissertation. Good teaching is incredibly rewarding but requires proper time to do well.

I graduated from a university which was a wealthy private school with an enormous endowments.The Grad School has been a huge advocate in making sure our rights were protected. We were (and still are) allowed to take additional work from other universities but it was made clear that the University itself would not be allowed to give us additional work without additional pay. There are many things that the Grad Student Council did that had a huge positive impact. Our stipend has always been among the better stipends and we've always had our stipends increase.

In recent years, there has been an "independent organization of student workers" that is currently a "minority union". They currently cannot collectively bargain because they don't have the majority of student worker support. I think part of it is because students recognize that the University and Grad Student Council is treating them well and there has been no history of stipends being threatened or pay being decreased. However, I also think that the independent organization has managed to do a lot of good including:

-$15 per hour minimum wage for an estimated 1,200 full-time campus workers, both contracted and directly employed (including janitors, clerical workers, and food service workers), beginning July 1st, 2021.
-Raising of the statewide minimum wage to $12/hour
by 2023 (Proposition B), as a part of the Raise Up Missouri coalition, November 2018;
-
Defeated Congress’ attempt to tax waived tuition as income for graduate student workers, in partnership with many unions across the US, Winter 2017
-Summer pay
for graduate workers across the College of Arts & Sciences, announced and enacted Summer 2018 (Prior to this, we were always given it in my department but it was not guaranteed funding)
-
Enacted a platform of good government state laws (Amendment 1), such as anti-gerrymandering at the state legislature, a ban on gifts from lobbyists to legislators and a reduction of campaign contributions, strengthening public record law, as a part of the Clean Missouri coalition, November 2018;
-Defeated a statewide anti-union right-to-work law (
Proposition A) which financially attacks unions through divide-and-conquer tactics, as a part of the We Are Missouri
coalition, August 2018.

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8 hours ago, Starbuck420 said:

In short—and i fully concede that i know nothing about this situation in particular—my guess is that BU just doesn’t want to recognize the union because they’re afraid they might have to pay their grad students more if they did. 
 

This stinks, imo!

Yes, I thought I smelled something fishy but I'm not well versed on these topics so I wanted some outside perspectives! Thank you so much for your response. This is a mark against them in my book...

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7 hours ago, kolyagogolova said:

But you're right, it's a great idea to ask BU grad students more about this! They could totally have a different take on it (or different views from each other, of course). If you have any success, I would be interested in how you asked--I'm wondering how to get into that with current grad students at the schools I applied to in a way that's not too awkward lol. Seems harder to bring up via email....

Thank you so much for your reply! I wanted some outside perspectives, but it's definitely important to get the insider knowledge (if they're willing to offer it). I was just planning to be direct about it and ask them if they feel supported by the university, what their opinion on this council is, etc. Is that awkward? Should I ask in a different way?

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17 hours ago, tinymica said:

Thank you so much for your reply! I wanted some outside perspectives, but it's definitely important to get the insider knowledge (if they're willing to offer it). I was just planning to be direct about it and ask them if they feel supported by the university, what their opinion on this council is, etc. Is that awkward? Should I ask in a different way?

I think that sounds reasonable! Especially if they mention any details about how this council is/isn't helpful in advocating for their rights & needs. I can't think of another way to ask, it's just that it seems harder to get a brutally honest answer via email. Not at all to suggest that current grad students won't be straightforward with you, just that I would find it more difficult myself to be critical in an email (if I needed to be critical) than in response to specific questions in person. A minor downside to the world we now live in, relatively speaking.

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