By Jessica Heebner
There was a time in the United States where there was very little standing in the way of you being exploited as a worker. There was no OSHA, no minimum wage, no age restrictions, and certainly no worker’s compensation for injuries received on the job. If you were injured and could no longer work, there were few options. Child labor was common. People worked long hours, often in unsafe conditions, for paltry wages. Unions emerged as a way for workers to address these pressing issues. If all the workers banded together, the business owners had no choice but to listen and make changes. But what does this have to do with you, a graduate student, you ask? Students aren’t employees, right? Wrong! In 2018, after a lengthy legal battle, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate assistants, research assistants, and graduate fellows/trainees are employees, not just students and therefore are eligible to organize into a union. Contrary to the University’s position, you aren’t just a student. You have every right to the benefits, protections, and bargaining power that a union gives its members.
The concept of trade unions dates back to the European industrial revolution. The first record of a strike in the United States actually occurred while we were still a British Colony in 1768, when journeyman tailors went on strike to protest a wage cut. The first organized union didn’t emerge until almost twenty-five years later when shoemakers organized in 1794 in Philadelphia, marking the start of the Labor Movement in the US. Trade unions began forming in many cities and states with the goal of increasing wages and improving working conditions. The principle of a union is “collective bargaining”, where instead of a worker bargaining individually with their employer, all workers at a company band together to bargain jointly. Working as one gives the workers significantly more leverage in negotiations because if talks fall apart, the union can vote to strike and halt work, thereby damaging the company’s ability to make a profit. Labor strikes are a worst-case tool for union negotiations across the board. They are a last ditch effort to force the employer to negotiate in good faith and are used only when the majority of union members vote to do so.
As the labor movement grew and evolved, unions began working towards national improvements in working conditions for everyone, not just for union members. These days, we can thank unions for playing an integral role in lobbying for policies like the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, OSHA, minimum wage, child labor laws, the Department of Labor, and worker’s compensation.
Unions in the United States grew in popularity and strength for nearly two centuries, especially during the Great Depression, but due to multiple economic and political factors, the 1970s and ‘80s marked a turning point. Globalization, in particular, decimated the American manufacturing industries where union membership was very high. Those jobs moved overseas, where manufacturing could be done for significantly cheaper. Additionally, multiple pieces of legislation passed during this decade that further restricted and weakened unions. When newly elected President Ronald Reagan chose to fire 11,000 striking air traffic controllers instead of negotiating, he dramatically weakened union power in the public opinion as well as in the eyes of businesses. This was a pivotal moment in the history of unions because businesses began to ignore the threat of strike and choose to fire those workers rather than negotiate. Union membership has declined steadily since this period, a trend that has only recently begun to change (Figure 1).
While historically the workers represented by unions have largely occupied the trade and manufacturing sectors, the recent resurgence in union popularity included a huge push for unionization of retail and student workers. More than 6,500 baristas at 256 Starbucks franchises nationwide voted to unionize in the past two years. An Amazon fulfilment center in Staten Island, NY with over 8,000 employees recently voted to form a union in 2022. And in 2016, the National Labor Relations Board paved the way for students at private universities to unionize, spurring a new wave of both public and private university graduate student unions. As of 2022, there are more than fifty graduate student unions in the United States. Unsurprisingly, there is widespread pushback from corporations and universities against these efforts. Based on the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionized workers make 17% more per week than their non-unionized counterparts (Figure 2). Unionized workers also tend to have better benefits, better job security, and better job safety. Though data on the large-scale union effect (or lack thereof) of graduate student workers unionizing is unfortunately scarce, there are plenty of individual success stories where graduate student unions won students better stipends, benefits such as child care, and better working conditions1. Strictly speaking, unionized workers cost corporations and universities more.
It’s relatively straightforward to see that corporations and universities strongly discourage collective bargaining because union members cost more to employ – but if unions improve the working conditions for so many, why do eligible workers, particularly graduate students, so frequently vote against unionizing? When interviewed after a failed union vote in Alabama, Amazon workers that voted no stated they did so because they feared lower pay, worse benefits, and even job loss, all talking points promoted by the corporation. It is illegal for corporations to threaten job loss, wage reduction, or benefits loss to convince workers to vote no, but it is perfectly legal for them to suggest that these are all possible scenarios that might occur if a union is voted in. Propaganda like this is heavily utilized by employers whenever union drives occur. It seems some employers will say whatever they feel they need to, regardless of the truth, to discourage union formation.
In 2018, graduate students at Penn State voted against unionizing after an extended anti-union campaign by the university. Students were assured that there was no need for a union, as there are already student representatives serving on committees to ensure that our voices and concerns are heard. Furthermore, the university warned in an email that unionizing could damage our student-adviser relationships, impact our research, impair our academic freedom, impede collaboration, lead to conflict between faculty and students, limit research time and teaching opportunities, and hurt recruitment. Are these claims accurate? With more than fifty graduate student unions across the United States today, these claims should be relatively easy to investigate – and in 2013, a group of researchers did just that.
They surveyed graduate students in five disciplines across eight public universities and compared unionized vs non-unionized students’ perceptions of academic freedom, faculty-student relations, and pay. Their research found that union-represented students report equal or better levels of academic freedom compared to non-unionized students, and that union-represented students report high levels of mentoring support2. This study also found that unionization was correlated with better stipends and better perception of fair pay. A 2018 study had similar findings, and concludes with this compelling paragraph:
“These findings, combined with the nearly 50-year history of public universities operating successfully with graduate student unions, should put to rest the idea that unionization could harm faculty–student relationships and academic freedom. Such concerns should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate teaching and research assistant employees3.”
The real potential downsides of unionization should, of course, be discussed. Pennsylvania is not a right to work state, therefore workers can be required to pay dues or other fees to make up for not joining a union. However, unions are designed to benefit everyone they represent, and the data show they succeed in this goal (Figure 2). Right to work laws are designed to weaken unions, not benefit workers. Union members must pay dues to help cover salaries of union leadership and operating costs, but dues are part of the contract negotiation process that members vote on. For graduate student unions, dues are typically less than 2% of the stipend and some negotiated contracts include bonuses to cover the dues on top of stipend increases.
It is difficult to overstate the potential benefits of unionization based on the available data. Unionized students have better benefits, better stipends, equal or better academic freedom, good mentoring relationships with faculty, and an actual voice at the bargaining table. When considering voting on a union, it is important to remember that employers have a vested interest in discouraging unionization to maintain control and keep employee costs as low as possible. They can and have previously heavily used propaganda to do so. Know your rights. Know what the data says.
- Unions allow workers to bargain collectively for better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions
- Corporations and universities are highly motivated to prevent unions because unionized workers are more expensive, and employers will employ aggressive propaganda to influence votes
- Propaganda: noun, information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view.
- Singh, P., Zinni, D.M., Maclennan, A.F. Graduate student unions in the United States. Journal of Labor Research 2006 27:1. 27 (1), 55–73, doi: 10.1007/S12122-006-1009-9 (2006).
- Sean E. Rogers, Adrienne E. Eaton, P.B.V. Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay. ILR Review. 66 (2), 487–510, doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/001979391306600208 (2013).
- Kroeger, T., Mcnicholas, C., Von Wilpert, M., Wolfe, J. The state of graduate student employee unions Momentum to organize among graduate student workers is growing despite opposition Report •. Economic Policy Institute (2018).