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Getting organized: graduate students across the country are flocking to join labor unions for better pay and benefits. Are you ready to deal with a labor movement at your school?

Life for graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania is not what anyone would call easy. First, there's the workload: The school demands so much from its students that few, if any, of them complete their dissertations in fewer than seven years. Next, are the commitments: After their rookie years, UPenn graduate students are required to teach breakout sections for lecture and lab courses, commitments that can eat up as many as six hours per week for each class. Finally, there's the pay and benefit structure: For their full-time services, grad students at the privately funded school earn roughly $15,000 per year, not too far from the poverty revel calculated by the federal government.

Given these realities, it came as no surprise when, in the spring of 2001, graduate students at the Ivy League school launched Graduate Employees Together of the University of Pennsylvania (Get-UP;, a formal effort to organize a union. Today, nearly three years later, administrators have yet to recognize the group, and while the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; has still not tabulated the results of an election to formalize the union, the fight for a formal union at the school rages on. Administrators allege that graduate students are not employees but apprentices, and therefore do not deserve the right to organize at all. Graduate students, on the other hand, complain that they have more physical contact with students than tenured professors, and are therefore employees who should be compensated accordingly.

"[The University of Pennsylvania] is the prototype of a corporation that uses cheap and casual labor and treats [those employees] poorly," explains J. Dillon Brown, Get-UP spokesperson and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in English. "All we're asking for is some respect and a say in our working conditions."

Brown and his colleagues at UPenn are not alone; at institutions across the country, graduate students are organizing in increasing numbers for better pay and a fair shake. To date, New York University is the only private university to formally recognize its student labor union, but at schools such as Yale University (CT), Brown University (RI), and Columbia University (NY), students have pushed for formal unionization, as well. At public institutions including the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, the University of Oregon, and the University of Florida, graduate students have organized to grapple with administrators over contract issues such as healthcare and family benefits, and have seen varied results.

None of these cases is clear-cut for either side. For graduate students, managing heated labor battles and dissertation work can be challenging if not downright impossible. For administrators, the chore can be even more difficult--a tenuous endeavor that pits their political and moral opinions as educators against their fiduciary responsibilities to their institutions overall. Think you're ready to deal with a labor situation at your institution? According to John Stepp, a labor consultant with Washington, DC-based Restructuring Associates, Inc. (, academic officials at all schools with the potential for unionization must understand the paradoxes of the issue and prepare for the worst.

"Most university administrators today believe it would be the end of Western civilization if a union was to get a foothold on their campus, and yet these same administrators would most likely philosophically argue that unions are a critical component to democratic society," he says. "Therein lies the irony of this question, and the key component that makes the entire issue so complex."


It doesn't take long to get familiar with the history of student labor unions in this country. At public schools, graduate student workers are governed by state labor laws and have been unionized for years. At private schools, however, graduate student workers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA), and have gone decades without any formal recourse for organization. That all changed in November 2000, when the NLRB granted graduate students at NYU and other private institutions the right to form unions, overturning a 20-year-old precedent. NYU administrators followed suit in March 2001, formally agreeing to recognize and begin bargaining with the UAW--the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America ( union that represented its graduate student workers (see "How To Deal," page 34).

The decision made NYU the first private school in the country to formally recognize a graduate student labor union, and it thrust the school into the national spotlight as a bastion of progressive thinking. Headlines weren't made without compromise, however: As part of the negotiations that led to the deal, graduate students agreed that those who did not receive stipends would not be involved in bargaining, and declared they would consider excluding research assistants funded by private grants, as well. Union officials also vowed they would not pursue such issues as curriculum, course work, degree requirements, and student benefits as terms and conditions of employment--a major concession in the minds of administrators.

"There was wide agreement about the need to protect our important academic values," University Vice President Robert Berne said in a written statement released at the time. "[That] agreement gives us confidence that there is a genuine, mutual understanding about the need to remove these academic issues from the collective bargaining process ... and move on."

Though UPenn's Brown and his colleagues at Get-UP are hoping for similar statements from administrators at their school an amicable resolution doesn't seem nearly as likely. The UPenn saga dates back to 2001, when Get-UP members started their organization drive with a series of meetings and campus rallies. In accordance with a process laid out by the NLRA, the organization collected union authorization cards from graduate students all over campus, and by December of that year, had nearly 1,000 signatures in favor of establishing a labor unit. With this majority of endorsements (there are only about 1,500 graduate students overall at UPenn), Get-UP went to university officials and asked them to voluntarily recognize the union. University officials, citing that graduate students were "apprentices" and not employees, declined.

Get-UP immediately filed for a formal hearing with the NLRB, and after months of waiting in line, the group had its chance when a hearing was called in the spring of 2002. During the proceedings, university administrators took seven weeks to make the case that graduate students were not employees, while Get-UP took four days to say that they were. Finally, in November 2002, the Labor Board ruled that Get-UP was legit. As graduate students lined up in February 2003 for union elections, university officials filed an appeal, effectively stalling the entire process until the NLRB gets around to hearing the case again. Today, despite exit polls that showed a majority of UPenn graduate students voting "yes" to organizing, the official votes remain uncounted at the NLRB, and the process drags on.

"Penn and other private universities have maintained that graduate students are students, not employees, and that teaching, as a long-standing requirement for doctoral programs, is an essential component of graduate students' educational experience," says Lori Doyle, a spokesperson for UPenn. "The status of any graduate students as employees within the meaning of the NLRA has been affirmed in only one case, and in all other cases, the NLRB has agreed to hear appeals to the regional decisions."


Whatever happens at UPenn, the crux of the controversy there is recognition. At public institutions, where graduate student labor unions have existed for years, critical issues are a bit more concrete, and vary from wages and healthcare to family benefits, depending on the school Unionized graduate students in the University of California system, for instance, have annually lobbied for better contracts since 1997, and just recently averted a strike they had threatened over a 1.5 percent minimum wage increase. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the graduate student union is battling administrators over the same issue, and continues to fight for wage increases that exceed the current rate of inflation. So far, on both campuses, union workers describe progress as slow. Still, these graduate students don't plan to give up any time soon; recent membership drives at both institutions resulted in more than 250 new recruits overall.

At other schools, the picture is not so rosy. Graduate students affiliated with Graduate Assistants United ( at the University of Florida in Gainesville, claim they're caught in the middle of a vicious battle over wages between school administrators and the faculty union. Negotiations over contract wages at the University of Oregon in Eugene are pretty dire, as well. Recent statistics by the school's Graduate Teaching Fellows Foundation reveal that UO pays its graduate students just over $10,000 per year, 33 percent less than the national average of approximately $15,000. According to Chris Goff, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a union activist, graduate students aren't lobbying for wage increases of a particular percent, but instead are just trying to get university officials to provide resources commensurate with the resources students receive at other schools.

"For us, the fight right now is all about catching up with these other institutions and putting ourselves in good standing for the future," says Goff. "It's not Like I can go out and work another job. This is a fulltime job, and the university needs to recognize that it's up to them to make it so we don't finish here with a dissertation and $50,000 worth of debt."

These days, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the rallying cry for the Graduate Employees Organization ( is healthcare. For 10 years, university officials had given graduate employees all of the same healthcare options they made available to full-time faculty members. Last year, however, when the university scaled back on coverage and started charging faculty members for healthcare insurance, the graduate employees went ballistic. At issue was the manner in which the school invoked these costs--rather than charge faculty members fees proportionate to their incomes, the school charged graduate employees earning $17,000 and tenured professors earning six figures the same amount. With costs for everyone around $300 a month, graduate employee healthcare expenses quickly became exorbitant.

History Ph.D. candidate Alyssa Picard spearheaded the GEO effort to reverse these moves, organizing education sessions for graduate employees who wanted to Learn more about the issue, and protests for those who were outraged enough to speak their minds. Under Picard's direction, the student union filed a grievance, and threatened a "grade strike" on campus, a strike that consisted of graduate employees refusing to turn in final grades. When administrators caught wind of the proposed Labor action, they rushed to negotiate a resolution. The result was an undeniable victory: The university agreed to foot the bill for almost all graduate employee health insurance under a plan called GradCare, ensuring that costs for 91 percent of the organization's members will not change.

"People who negotiated the Language of our [original] contracts thought that if we were linked to faculty on the issue of healthcare, we'd never get screwed," explains Picard, who also represents graduate students on the Program and Policy Council of the national Labor organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT; "It turns out that the university was willing to screw everyone. To stop them, all we did was stand up."


University of Michigan spokesperson Julie Peterson denies that the school was out to "screw" anyone, as Picard alleges, but instead insists that university administrators simply were doing what they felt they had to, in an era of rising healthcare costs. Whatever the truth might be, school officials note that the university wouldn't have survived this most recent controversy without the help of the school's special bargaining team. The team, unique to the University of Michigan, is selected annually to provide administrators with well-balanced, educator-friendly perspectives on the issues at hand. The participants: representatives from Human Resources and the institution's Affirmative Action department, and professors from the Music, Engineering, Psychology, and Economics departments.

Some labor experts, such as Clara Lovett, president of the American Association for Higher Education (, note that this kind of interdisciplinary approach is exactly the kind of strategy that could help a university act decisively in the midst of controversy. Others, including a handful of university administrators themselves, allege that the very idea of involving faculty members in the negotiating process is wrought with critical conflicts of interest. Critics of this strategy warn that while faculty negotiators feel they must do what's best for the financial future of the school as a whole, these same bargaining representatives frequently reveal that they empathize with graduate students as brethren, and want to support them in the name of education and the educational process.

"While I didn't feel serious conflicts [by participating in the negotiations], I did feel awkward at times," admits Charles Brown, the economics professor who served on the negotiation team during the University of Michigan's most recent labor activity. "There is no getting [past] the fact that it would be very nice if there were more money for supporting graduate students, and there always is a tension between what would be best for [them] and what the university can afford."

Indeed, university administrators seem to learn new lessons about coping with graduate student labor unions every year (see "How to Deal," above). At UPenn, spokesperson Lori Doyle alleges that Get-UP has "turned off" many with pushy and aggressive tactics, and implies that these kinds of tactics on either side can make a tenuous situation even worse. At the University of Oregon, Graduate School Dean Richard Linton adds that because most graduate student organizers matriculate after two or three years in the campus Labor movement, he tries to instill in every negotiation a bit of history and institutional memory to make sure labor agreements show continuity from one graduating class to the next.

At Restructuring Associates, John Stepp notes that another good way to deal with impending Labor activity on campus is to avoid it all together, reducing or eliminating the incentive for graduate students to unionize in the first place. Labor experts call this practice "enlightened management," and see it more as a subtle tactic of arbitration than an overt method of union-busting. Stepp says this approach works best at schools with poorly organized unions, and adds that the strategy means different things in different circumstances. At some schools, for instance, avoidance might mean giving graduate students pay increases before they ask; at others, it may serve as the impetus to concede to certain healthcare demands before the issue gets students riled up enough to organize and fight.

"In the end, it's all about education," Stepp quips. "If graduate students are engaged in providing services to university customers and it's a substantial part of their time, energy, and effort, then they have some rights as employees and should be treated as such. If these services are peripheral to what a group of graduate students are doing, I would conclude quite the opposite."

Unionizing 101.

Technically, any group of graduate students could get together, recruit a critical mass of followers, and call itself a union. At many schools, however, student labor leaders find that it's easier to turn to a national labor group for help getting organized. Most of the nation's current graduate student labor unions are affiliated with either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers (UAW). Today, the two organizations have organized nearly 75,000 graduate assistants at public universities across the country--quite a lot, when you consider there are fewer than 200,000 graduate students overall.

0ther unions are involved on college campuses, too; at last check, more than a dozen national labor organizations had some sort of presence on colleges and university campuses across the country. The benefit to organizing under the auspices of one of these entities is, of course, the support system. Whether they champion labor registration card drives or information sessions and protests, national organizations come in and help graduate students jump-start their campus labor movements almost overnight, freeing them from many of the rigors of getting a movement off the ground.

Privately, some university administrators bristle at the notion of national labor organizations sinking their teeth into academia--an area that, at least ostensibly, such organizations know little about. Publicly, however, these same officials say the desire to organize on a grassroots level is healthy for students, and that the rigorous process enhances the educational experience overall. The bottom line, of course, is that with a fresh crop of potential unionists every year, the Academy is the perfect breeding ground for national labor organizations to train the organizers of the future.

"The thinking in bringing in [organizations like ours] is that we have experience in organizing educators," says Rich Klimmer, an AFT staffer who has worked with organized graduate students at UPenn since 2001. "If anybody knows how to use labor actions to get results, it's us, and I think many graduate students realize that."--MJV

How to Deal

Managing graduate student union efforts on campus requires patience, skill, and a knack for negotiation. John Stepp, a labor consultant with Restructuring Associates, Inc., in Washington, DC (, suggests these basic pointers to make sure you've always got a grasp on the labor situation at your school:

Rally the Troops. Call together a group of administrators to discuss the issue as soon as it surfaces. Make sure everyone on the administrative leadership team is informed of the issues at hand.

Stand Firm. However you decide to handle an impending labor situation, stand firm and don't back down until or unless a resolution occurs. The worst method of negotiation is wavering.

Act Together. Elect a spokesperson to present a unified front on the subject when dealing with the press. Even if there is dissent in the administrative ranks, administrative bodies succeed best when they present official statements as unanimous.

Don't Force It. Remember: Just because the graduate student labor union on campus wants reaction, doesn't mean you have to give it. Sometimes, the best reaction is no action at all.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Moss Beach, CA, and a member of the National Writers Union.
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Title Annotation:Employee Relations
Author:Villano, Matt
Publication:University Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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