Graduate school shouldn’t be a form of indentured servitude. This week’s National Labor Relations Board decision allowing grad students to organize won’t change everything that’s amiss between them and the universities that use them as lab researchers and teaching assistants. But the very possibility of unionization will clarify an implicit arrangement whose terms are too murky. Today, under the lofty, ivy-swathed guise of academic fellowship, the higher-ed industry benefits from grad students’ low-cost labor while often neglecting their professional needs.

Acting on a petition filed on behalf of Columbia University teaching and research assistants, the board properly found that graduate researchers and teaching assistants are indeed employees. As such, it said, they have a right to form unions that private colleges are obliged to recognize.

Most PhD students don’t even take classes after the first couple of years. At large, high-profile research institutions such as Columbia, Harvard, and MIT, graduate students do shoulder much of the responsibility for teaching undergrads. In the sciences, they also provide the workforce for grant-funded research led by tenured professors.

The package of stipends, scholarships, and health insurance that students typically receive doesn’t match the level of responsibility they shoulder. The median wage for a graduate teaching assistant last year was about $32,500, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.


But the iffy pay is only part of the problem. In return for their work, PhD students theoretically get the time and resources to complete the research they need for their own dissertations. In practice, high teaching loads can keep grad students in a holding pattern for years. Aspiring scientists risk disruption to their own research if a supervising professor’s grant funding suddenly disappears.

Because they’re so reliant on their advisers’ good will — for future job recommendations, among other favors — most grad students are in no position to negotiate for better terms. The option of collective bargaining could help.

Private schools nationwide opposed the Columbia grad students’ petition, mostly on the grounds that labor talks might interfere with actual education. “Unionization will disrupt academic programs and freedoms, mentoring, and research,” Harvard said in a statement after the labor board vote.

Yet collective bargaining by graduate students isn’t revolutionary — such unions already exist on many public university campuses. According to a 2013 study published by Cornell University, graduate student employees represented by unions had better pay and reported higher levels of personal and professional support, with no harm to faculty-
student relationships or “academic freedom.”


This week’s ruling by the labor board may not prompt a wave of unionization on campuses. Grad students are busy, and the semi-transient nature of their positions will make it hard to sustain momentum in an organizing effort. Their greatest leverage in talks with administrators comes from threatening to strike, but lab researchers with ongoing experiments of their own can’t just walk away from their microscopes and petri dishes.

Still, the mere possibility of collective bargaining may prompt changes in the way colleges and universities treat teaching assistants, starting with fair and consistent compensation. That’s already happened at Columbia and other schools.

Universities are places of mentorship and intellectual collegiality, but they’re also a business — as the labor board ruling lays bare. In a statement responding to the ruling, Yale president Peter Salovey insisted that academic relationships would “become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’ ”

Too late. Professors are already supervisors of their graduate student employees. Universities should stop pretending otherwise and deal straightforwardly with the consequences — whether there’s a union in place or not.