Grad students should organize, but unions aren’t a panacea

In this Oct. 15, 2015 photo, members of the Graduate Employee and Students Organization-Unite Here deliver a petition bearing the names and faces of hundreds of Yale University graduate student employees during a protest on campus in New Haven, Conn. Efforts to unionize graduate students at private universities are gaining momentum as the National Labor Relations Board shows new openness to arguments that they are not just students, but also school employees. A recognized union for teaching assistants is in place at only one private U.S. school, New York University, where the administration gave its blessing in 2013. (Ryan Flynn/AP)
Ryan Flynn/Associated Press
Members of the Graduate Employee and Students Organization-Unite Here protested at Yale on Oct. 15, 2015.

At least for Yale PhD candidate Aaron Greenberg, it was clear from the outset that collective bargaining was the answer to the woes facing graduate students. But if others took longer to decide that old-style union activism makes sense in a white-collar scholarly environment in 2016 — well, you can’t blame them for their ambivalence.

Greenberg, a leader of the nascent Local 33 who’s starting his fifth year as a political science grad student, grew up in Los Angeles. His mother, a special-ed teacher, belonged to a union there. “To me, growing up in a union household, my experience is: If there’s a union, you join it,” he said in an interview this past week. “But that hasn’t been everyone’s experience.”

Graduate students at fancy private universities aren’t coal miners or factory workers. They don’t face a lifetime of backbreaking toil. Even so, grad students who teach classes or run lab experiments face big problems of their own — low pay, uncertain research funding, scant options for child care. Because private institutions are highly decentralized, and because grad students are dependent on the good will of supervising professors, these workers have little leverage to negotiate for better terms.


Late last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled, in a case involving Columbia, that grad student employees could unionize. On Monday, grad students at Yale responded quickly, formally asking the board to call an election to certify a union. It was the culmination of an effort that began in New Haven in 1990 but has dragged on as control over the NLRB shifted back and forth between pro-management Republicans and pro-union Democrats.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Monday was a day 26 years in the making,” Greenberg says.

It’s now Labor Day weekend, an opportune time to reflect on the unease facing American workers. This is the point in the column where I’m supposed to ladle unconditional praise upon the movement that, after all, gave us weekends and overtime pay, and acted as a brake on income inequality.

But the stiff opposition from employers isn’t the only reason why workers — especially in the knowledge-intensive industries at the vanguard of the current economy — have been slow to follow the Yale graduate students’ lead.

From the outside, much of the labor movement looks like it was built for an earlier era. About half of all American union members now work in the public sector, where unions representing firefighters, teachers, and other government workers secured an enviable suite of protections for their members decades ago but haven’t stopped pushing for more.


Overtures to the private sector, meanwhile, have been uneven. While some labor supporters work patiently for better conditions for immigrant housekeepers, others make headlines for the harassment of a “Top Chef” crew or the alleged shakedown of a music festival.

In contrast, the grad students’ effort is a clean hit. Their underlying contention — that in the name of education and intellectual mentorship, universities have developed a vast pool of cheap labor that they can deploy at will — seems entirely accurate. Meanwhile, the risks in unionization, such as overly rigid work rules and added bureaucracy, seem manageable in this case.

The labor board’s ruling in the Columbia case represented so unusually sweeping a victory for a diminished labor movement that, in a way, it underscored the need for other forms of employee advocacy — forms that don’t require a Democratic majority on the NLRB and can address workers’ problems even without formal recognition from the government or an employer.

In the United States, so-called alt-labor groups — supported generously by traditional unions, I should note — have worked to improve conditions for restaurant servers, domestic workers, and others who can’t easily organize. In countries like Denmark and Sweden, voluntary unions offer benefits that workers can’t get elsewhere, such as generous unemployment insurance, and attract so many members that employers have to deal with them.

Within Democratic policy circles, the pressure is on centrists to get over any misgivings they might harbor about unions. But muting criticism in the spirit of solidarity rarely helps, and all workers have a stake in labor advocacy that’s actually effective. A study released Tuesday by the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute concluded that declining unionization rates had lowered wages even for nonunion workers. When nonunion companies don’t fear that their own employees will organize, they don’t raise wages as quickly.


If current trends hold, the uncertainty facing white-collar workers is only going to grow. The grad student organizers are onto something important: One way or another, somebody needs to do what stronger unions once did — establish what it means to treat people decently.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.