Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thoughts on GSRA unionization

I have spent the last two and a half years as a graduate student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at U of M; after completing my Master's degree in 2.5-ish years, I am currently a Ph.D. pre-candidate. I have worked as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) for 3 semesters teaching lab sections of Woody Plants and a discussion section of Global Change II. As a GSI, I was represented by GEO, the Graduate Employees Organization. Until this semester, I have not been a Graduate Student Research Assistant (GSRA). In the current discussion about GSRA unionization I feel like there has been a lack of clear information. Here I will explain what exactly GSRAs do in the broader picture of graduate studies and look at some of the arguments for and against GSRA unionization.

It takes about five years to complete the coursework and independent research necessary to earn a Ph.D. After completing a Ph.D., it is customary to work as a postdoc for a year or two before applying for tenure-track faculty positions. Salaries for postdocs range from 35k to 40k. For associate professors it's 45k to 60k. These are good jobs with benefits. Still, nobody would earn an advanced degree in anything other than law, medicine, or business if they had to pay tuition. Five years paying 40k a year in tuition plus living expenses is just too much. Fortunately, at U of M (and many other schools), Ph.D. students don't pay tuition. In fact, Ph.D. students are guaranteed four years of funding, tuition waivers, benefits and a modest stipend. Though the details differ between programs, the bottom line is that Ph.D. students at U of M normally don't pay a dime. Remember, this is good because we want scientists and researchers and engineers and professors and nobody would do this if they had to spend 200k+ over five years just to get a job that paid 45k.

The exact details of how the costs of a Ph.D. student are covered differ between programs and individual students. Departments generally have some base level funding available for Ph.D. students. Individual professors can also write the cost of Ph.D. students into grants they are applying for. Students are encouraged to apply for outside fellowships to cover some of their costs. The sources of each student's funding package differ, but the vast majority of students do end up working as a GSI or GSRA at some point in their studies. The compensation for GSIs is governed by a contract that is negotiated between GEO and the U of M every few years. The compensation for GSRAs is currently based on the GEO contract, but there is no formal contract, as I understand it.

Right now there is a push to allow GSRAs to vote on whether they want to join the GEO union. There is also considerable push back from the administration at U of M, some GSRAs and some outsiders who should keep their noses out of other people's business. Here is what I understand about the current discussion regarding GSRA unionization and some thoughts on the process.

Advocates for GSRA unionization argue that GSRAs should enjoy some formal level of workplace protection. They argue that there should be rules governing acceptable behavior of GSRAs and the professors for whom they work, and a system of handling grievances.

Opponents have several arguments against GSRA unionization. Some argue that including GSRAs in a union would hurt research at the U of M. Some argue that it would alter the important mentoring relationship between professors and their graduate students. Still others argue that GSRAs are not really employees. Overall I have been disappointed by the lack of well-reasoned factually supported arguments from the anti-unionization camp.

GSRAs can be hired as workers to work on specific research projects that may or may not be related to their dissertations. Hiring a student as a GSRA can also be a catch-all method of making sure a Ph.D. student receives their funding package. In the latter case, a student may receive a GSRA appointment for doing their dissertation research. I will admit this is a bit of a gray area in the continuum of employment in the traditional sense. On one hand, a student's dissertation research benefits them directly in that it is a requirement for graduation. On the other hand, a student's research also benefits their advisor; the advisor is included as an author on any academic presentations and publications that are produced with their funding and/or in their lab. If we are not going to consider these later GSRAs employees, then it would be really good to know what percentage of GSRAs are doing dissertation research and what percentage are doing other research. Telling GSRAs who are hired to work on outside research projects they are not employees seems dishonest.

The argument that GSRA unionization would hurt U of M's ability to conduct high quality research seems somewhat flawed. First, is the ability to conduct high quality research dependent on overworking and or mistreating GSRAs? If it's not, then unionization probably won't have an impact. If it is, then, well, the GSRAs probably need some form of protection. A really good way to address this might be to look at other top research universities where GSRAs have unionized. Looking at the reasons behind GSRA unionization, what administration fears were, and what the impacts of unionization have been at other schools could help inform the debate at U of M. As I understand it, UMass and the University of Washington are among the top tier research universities in the US where GSRAs have unionized. I think it would be really informative to look at what happened on those campuses.

My personal experience as a GSRA is very limited but also very positive. SNRE is a small program with Ph.D. students and GSRAs. My colleagues who are GSRAs work with great advisors and in our conversations, I haven't heard any complaints about their working conditions. Still, it really gets my goat when people outside of the University tell us we can't even vote on whether to unionize or not. I think the decision to unionize should be left up to the GSRAs. Give all of us an opportunity to vote on whether to join after an honest discussion of the potential advantages and drawbacks of unionization.


  1. 'As I understand it, UMass and the University of Washington are among the top tier research universities in the US where GSRAs have unionized. I think it would be really informative to look at what happened on those campuses.'

    Evidence-based decision-making? Now you're thinking like a scientist, Ben ;-) The academy, alas, is more political than it pretends to be.

  2. As someone who declined to participate in UW's union while I was there (my reasons are unlikely to apply to anyone else), I support unionization of GSRA's. I would further encourage unionization of postdocs. Many universities view graduate students and post-doctoral fellows as a nebulous resource that they do not have to compensate with equivalent benefits and protections as they would equivalently trained staff. This works out fine in some areas and is egregious in others. To make it 'fine' in all areas and for everyone, I think unionization is a great idea.

    I have only one caveat and it is not a small one. I would urge GSRA's to be very careful about tying themselves to a larger union as a sub-group. Working in an academic environment is VERY different from the environment most union members experience. You do NOT want to subject yourself to following the mandates, much less paying union fees of a larger organization that will most likely be very far from representing your interests. Consider for example that you will NOT be paid if the larger union decides to strike (strike pay is a small portion of your usual salary). This would be extremely painful particularly if the strike issue didn't really apply for GSRA's. Also, in the event of a strike you might not be allowed on campus (by your union) -- imagine how your dissertation work will benefit from that!

    If you can ensure that these issues are extremely unlikely to ever arise (i.e., by not tying yourself to an union that could ever NOT represent your interests or force GSRA's to strike), then proceed cautiously. And good luck!

    Not Really an Employee

    fyi, the salaries posted do not apply to graduate students, postdocs and faculty covered by NCI grants. The salaries there are typically 10k higher for postdocs and ~25k more for entry-level faculty, i.e., assistant professors.

    1. A larger union (do you mean International or National?) cannot force anyone to strike. This decision is made only at the local level. The local at UM is GEO, and it is limited to UM. The strike scenario you posit is impossible. Furthermore, why would the larger organization most likely not represent your interests. Union members democratically elect the delegates that choose the national officers, and these national officers must be elected every few years. While this is not direct democracy, it is more choice than students, and often faculty get in choosing, for example, university administrators.

  3. The main way GSRA unionization could hurt research at U of M is that it makes it more expensive for faculty members to hire GSRAs which may slow down research progress for faculty and reduce mentoring and training opportunities for graduate students.

  4. Hi Ben--

    You reference a couple of the basic principles in support of GSRAs organizing.
    One key objection you mention is

    "I will admit this is a bit of a gray area in the continuum of employment in the traditional sense. On one hand, a student's dissertation research benefits them directly in that it is a requirement for graduation."

    There is no real gray area here. The research is a training requirement for professional work.
    1.) I can learn everything there is to learn about a subject that interests me
    without writing a 150+ page monograph, prelimming, etc. I can be an expert without a Ph.D. I would prefer pure auto-didacticism but I have to obtain a Ph.D. to get work commensurate with my expertise--it's a credential. UPS warehouse employees have to complete mandatory training too. And as you noted, the rewards in the professional market for 5-9 years of hard, long, often emotional low-paid work are evaporating by the minute. Graduate research may and should be interesting to the researcher--in this case, it is work efficiently allocated. So what?

    2.) Learning while working, or enjoying the content of your work should in no way be a point against the opportunity to collectively bargain, to have a say about the conditions of your work. A button maker on an assembly line may become an expert at his trade. Is this an argument against unionization. Teachers learn constantly through their teaching; should they not be entitled to a union?

    In departments where graduate students are required (or ostensibly if not officially required) to teach, there just is no discussion to be had. The university is making enormous savings by hiring cheaper workers. Instead of limiting class sizes to manageable pro-learning environments of, say, 15 students, a single professor can accommodate sometimes hundreds of students by just farming out the labor to graduate students making poverty-level wages justified on the grounds that if they commit to these wages for 5-9 years, they can get a 40-60K job as an adjunct when they get out (that's princely by comparison to other fields; it isn't true in the humanities, but of course we are GSIs). A 5-9 year commitment is a significant chunk out of a total lifetime of earnings. If starting salaries were as high as they once were, the 5-9 year loss in earnings might be better justified. But this just isn't the reality anymore.

    It's blissful that you never hear SNRE graduate students complaining about their work, demands on their times, work loads way beyond 40 hours per week, etc. I have not had this experience. The history is clear: when workers organize, conditions for EVERYONE across and industry (not just the organized workers) improve. When organization rates decline, hours go up, pay goes down, and working conditions deteriorate. Fifteen minutes spent reviewing OECD data on the internet will provide ample evidence. For graduate students who complain that they don't have the time to do the research, I'm sympathetic. And I have a suggestion for one way to make control demands on their extremely valuable time....

    Thanks for talking about this important subject on Damn Arbor!