POV: Unionizing BU Grad Students Would Be a Mistake
There are better ways to secure our rights
Following the National Labor Relations Board ruling this past August that graduate students at private universities who work as teaching or research assistants are employees who have the right to unionize, Graduate Workers Forward (GWF), a movement of faculty and graduate student workers spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has started to organize at BU, seeking to represent the graduate student employees who make up some of the University’s 14,150 graduate students. While laudable, this effort is misguided. Unions are a powerful option for change, but there may be better, more tried methods for graduate student employees to realize their goals. The choice for organizing needs careful consideration lest its costs outweigh its benefits. BU is such a case.
To evaluate unionization at BU, we must ask whether its current treatment of graduate employees is fair, and if not, whether change is possible. While unions address these concerns, so can other organizations, including the Graduate and Professional Leadership Council (GPLC) at BU. There are differences between a union and the GPLC. GWF claimed in a publication (sent by e-mail to the graduate student community in October) that a union can negotiate a contract while the GPLC cannot, presumably making the union superior. This is a half-truth, betraying ignorance of the GPLC’s structure. While nothing forbids the GPLC from negotiating a contract, it has no need of one. The GPLC, being integrated into the University, can serve graduate demands without one.
To make this position clearer, let’s examine what the aims of a union are and what the GPLC has accomplished. The GWF claims in the same document that it will provide pay raises, increased benefits, and employment stability, but these have already been achieved without it. In the past four years, unfunded PhD positions have been eliminated. We experienced an increase of funding packages from four to five years, with one year free of teaching and the option for a second for research. Travel grant money has increased. BU established a dissertation writing fellowship and moved to increase pay for graduate students to achieve interdepartmental parity. The student health fee has been eliminated and concerns of pregnant grad students have been addressed. Among others. Aren’t these achievements the same things the union is promising?
There are things a union provides that the GPLC does not: among them, dues costing 1.5 percent of a member’s annual salary. The GPLC charges nothing. The union would also involve students in adversarial relations with the University. The prounion material denies this, but simple logic shows the truth: a union, as an organization foreign to the constitution of the University, has no power to induce the University to negotiate except the power to strike. Even if this power is never exercised, its threat is persistent. How can a relationship based on the threat of adverse action be nonadversarial? The claim is absurd. Moreover, studies and experience regularly demonstrate that agreements reached from a place of opposition are rarely as beneficial as those reached by consensus. Why, then, should graduate students exchange harmony for opposition? If graduate students likely will not need to strike, as the GWF asserts, why suffer the negative costs of its threat? What is there to gain except more expensive, less effective representation? Even if the union operates alongside the GPLC, graduate students have at best been charged for what’s already a free effort; at worst it would render the GPLC obsolete by destroying the comity it promotes.
More concerning, given the opacity hostility creates, graduate students risk demanding money that other students, perhaps minority or poor students, require. BU’s pot is limited, and without cooperation, the administration will withhold information allowing a representative organization to understand how its demands deprive others. In the current representative structure, there is access to a holistic picture, allowing an understanding of how arrangements impact the entire community, restraining personal avarice.
It is not an insignificant fact that the administration at Boston University concurs with these arguments. In its official notice regarding its position on unionization, sent on December 18, the University provost signaled both her willingness to work with the GPLC and her opinion that a union represents a material and negative change to the relationship between the University and its graduate population. While this should not in and of itself be enough to argue against unionization, it is significant considering the goodwill and success we have had through exploring other options for engagement with the University administration, such as the GPLC. It is just another sign of what we have to lose.
There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding unionization. Much of it is emotionally powerful, particularly as it relates to the idea of strength. The GWF claims that as a union, it will negotiate as “equals.” That it will extract agreements from our University. That graduate students will have power. Given what they have already accomplished, are they not already equals? Or better yet, partners? Are they not already negotiating? Have they not already received results free from the costs of money and animosity? What, then, will the union provide that graduate students do not already have? There is certainly romanticism behind organizing labor and a union appeals to emotions in ways the GPLC cannot. This has its own value, but is sentiment worth what graduate students stand to lose? Do they really gain, either materially or emotionally, by giving up the comity they already have? These are the questions that must be answered and in answering them, it cannot but be seen that a union loses.
Jeffrey Bristol (GRS’18), a doctoral student in anthropology, can be reached at email@example.com.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.
We have heard these same tired anti-union arguments over & over again. They are still baloney.
A union is collective bargaining unit to give a group of workers a more equal voice advocating for their collective best interests. Without a union, without a collective bargaining unit, the employer gets to impose whatever conditions and terms of employment they wish in whatever arbitrary manner they wish.
Boston University, like numerous other employers, has a long history of treating their employees, these Graduate Students, arbitrarily and unequally – not every Graduate Student was treated or compensated in the same manner.
The recent gains cited by the author were/are a direct response by Boston University to the very threat of unionization. They would not have been bestowed upon our Graduate Students without this organizing effort, recent union organizing successes on other campuses and the NLRB rulings.
We have to look no further than the recent successful organizing effort by Boston University Adjunct Faculty. After overwhelming votes for union recognition and the initial contract, the gains in compensation and equitable treatment and conditions have been much more than the few dollars paid out in union dues to pay for the union’s duty of fair representation.
The first thing they teach in Labor-Management Relations course is that there is one reason for unions – bad employers. Boston University has a history of being a bad employer. They have proved the old adage: “Your don’t get anything without a fight. You don’t keep anything without a fight”
Unions level the bargaining table and a Union is needed for Boston University’s Graduate Students employed by our University.
Keep Fighting for Fairness!
A union can only TRY to negotiate a contract. Unions often need and have lawyers. Will non-union members then be referred to as “scabs”. Will there be picket lines and strikes. Sounds premature.
The solution is simple, stop using grad students as employees. Let them pay tuition and employ full PhDs as research assistants and teaching fellows. There are plenty of PhDs hungry for jobs and adjuncts are far cheaper than PhD students. Take a TF position as an example, an adjunct only earns $7k a class, so for $14k BU could have a full PhD serve as a TF for Spring and Fall semester. Thus getting a full PhD rather than paying roughly twice that plus providing benefits such as tuition coverage and health insurance to get someone who has not earned a PhD. If you take the 20hr a week cap placed on a TF and assume a tenure track faculty works 40 hours a week ( haha!) the PhD students are earning the 40 hour a week equivalent to the $50k a year range which is starting pay for assistant profs at most schools other than the R1s. Let PhDs focus on being students and learn how to apply for grant money if they need to fund their research and cover tuition. They have a whole lifetime ahead of them to be upset about low levels of faculty compensation once they graduate and plenty of time to realize their parents and guidance counselors in High School meant that they should be the other type of doctor. The employable variety of doctor.
Maybe if it was more costly to get a PhD there would be fewer of us competing for a diminishing number of tenure track jobs.
Note that yes these comments are satirical, mostly.
When I was a graduate student at Yale, the same types of arguments were proffered. When we tried to have a cooperative discussion with the University, there was no response. Yet when we started organizing to form a union, all of sudden they were much more eager to address our concerns. Stipends increased dramatically and summer funding was made available.
When you are in a position of diminished power, a union can help the administration take us more seriously. As a lecturer, we are currently negotiating a contract with BU, and it is the first time that we are hearing any response at all about our concerns. Before that, our chairs would say that they would fight for us, but no change would occur. Our current unionization efforts make me feel that the administration is actually taking us seriously. It is unfortunate that it is seen as adversarial and that it took a union to make it happen.
But BU does not have the endowed resources of Yale.
BU can hardly cry “poverty!” when it comes to compensating its employees, & grad assistants are employees. The point is not, can BU match Ivy League schools (few can). The point, & goal, is to get BU to treat its workers fairly. BU has enough resources to satisfy demands of unionized students. FYI, the admin always opposes every organizing drive, but always loses every election. This will be no different. Solidarity!
What a terrible article. There’s so much wrong with it but I’ll just note a few points.
One commenter has already noted one of the biggest: the recent gains by graduate students were a direct result of the threat of unionization. (Not “comity,” a word the author clearly and bizarrely adores.)
The author’s sympathy for minorities and the poor is touching. It is also incoherent. He writes:
“More concerning, given the opacity hostility creates, graduate students risk demanding money that other students, perhaps minority or poor students, require. BU’s pot is limited, and without cooperation, the administration will withhold information allowing a representative organization to understand how its demands deprive others.”
So he’s saying that because the union, by it’s nature, creates an adversarial relationship, it would therefore be responsible for the university withholding information about how it spends money for poor and minority students? The same university, by the way, which fulfills its affirmative action obligations by accepting rich students from other countries, to the detriment of the minorities that it is supposed to be helping here? And if BU’s pot is so limited, why is it spending hundreds of millions on new construction, and paying its President more than any other school the state?
The author also writes:
“The prounion material denies this, but simple logic shows the truth: a union, as an organization foreign to the constitution of the University, has no power to induce the University to negotiate except the power to strike.”
Which admits by implication that the GPLC has no power at all, and depends entirely on the goodwill of the school administration. This is the point of a union: to produce leverage. Without it, graduate students are at the mercy of the administration and the “market”, which is to say, they have virtually no power at all.
The author also ignores one of the most important benefits a union provides in a University setting: an avenue for redress and protection against sexual harassment. As the case of Berkeley and many others demonstrate, university administration can’t be relied upon to protect its graduate students against predatory behavior. An organization outside that administration, one that has the capacity to be adversarial in the first place, stands a far better chance of representing those victims.
Incredible how negative some people in the United States are about unions. They are a strong backbone of democracy in many European countries. Democracy in US is a joke! And education for profit is another one. Unions at state universities are somewhat common though, I noticed, making this whole “no-union argument” difficult to comprehend – apart from that the university does not want it because it’s profit oriented.
To clarify the last sentence: the university is profit-oriented.
“BU’s pot is limited”
Even after Ques 4 passed last Nov? Sad!