A recent article in the Princeton Tory by Kurt Ristroph, entitled “Graduate Student Unionization at Princeton: Costly and Unnecessary,” makes a series of arguments against graduate unionization. It claims that, despite the financial benefits of unionization, it would be too costly (although it’s unclear for whom—graduate students or the university?) and says that graduate students don’t have concerns that the university doesn’t already address. Unfortunately, many of its claims are spurious; its use of tired anti-union tropes is misleading at best, negligent and misinformed at worst. It’s impossible to have an honest conversation about the merits of forming a union based on misinformation. As graduate students and members of Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), we’d like to respond directly to some of the claims the Tory article makes.
Compensation and Dues
Despite the high likelihood that unionization would result in salary increases for Princeton grads, the article contends that we should focus on the “absolute dollar amount” we are paid. It claims that because we already have higher rates of compensation than other, unionized grad students, we shouldn’t be interested in earning more money. For many grads, particularly those with student debt, expensive medical conditions, or dependents, a larger paycheck would meaningfully increase their financial stability. But let’s provisionally follow the argument and focus on the absolute dollar amount: is it really true that no university with a graduate union pays its graduate workers better than Princeton?
As it turns out, this central premise is simply not true. While the base fellowship that Princeton pays to non-employee grads is higher than at other universities, the same isn’t true when we consider compensation for graduate employees –– i.e., precisely those who would be covered by a union contract. An AI at Princeton with a full appointment (two 3 credit hour classes) both semesters earns $31,100 a year1, which is actually $1,300 less than what they would get from a 12-month fellowship! Meanwhile, at NYU, the only private university with a grad union contract in force2, AI salaries are paid in addition to fellowships. A graduate instructor at NYU is compensated for teaching at the same rate as adjunct faculty. Based on those rates3, a grad student teaching one 3 credit hour class would earn $5,628 per semester in additional compensation, which, added to the base stipend of $27,526, results in a combined yearly paycheck of $38,783. That means NYU grads actually make $7,683 more than their Princeton peers while teaching only half as much. As a result, they have more time to focus on their own research and make progress towards completing their degrees. The math is simple: when you look at the numbers, it becomes clear that many Princeton graduate employees earn considerably less than their unionized peers at NYU. When we consider, as the article suggests we do, the absolute dollar amounts, the financial benefits of unionization become all the more tangible.
“But what about the costs?” the author worries. This is a common refrain. Yes, a union costs money; however, peer-reviewed research shows that unionized grads get better take-home pay.4 PSGU is very clear: graduate students will only accept “a contract in which the benefits we win far outweigh what we contribute in dues.”5 The article claims that grad students won’t be able to decide the amount of dues they pay, that dues are set by the state and national affiliate, which in our case would be the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Not only is this misleading, but it hijacks the narrative by caricaturing unions as evil institutions sucking our hard-earned dollars. Dues would be determined and voted on by the membership of our union. While a majority of dues will stay within our local, a portion will go towards our national and state affiliate, allowing us to be part of a larger organization that can provide expertise, resources, and access to a network of higher education union locals across the country. If anything, this is not a reason to attack unionization, but motivation to get involved.
What are unions for, anyway?
The Article’s second major problem with unionization is that unions are unnecessary, that a ‘labor union’ has no place “mediating the complex relationship between a grad student and a faculty member.” Let’s be clear: when PGSU talks about unions improving the relationship between advisors and graduate students, we don’t mean that a labor union representative literally mediates that relationship. This is common anti-union rhetoric: the notion that unionization would amount to bringing in a “third party” that would disrupt the fragile graduate student-advisor relationship.
In reality, a union would give graduate students clarity and stability in negotiating their terms of employment. Not one, but two peer-reviewed studies found that there is no basis for the suggestion that collective bargaining among graduate students would change mentor-student relationships.6 As they discovered, “In the unionized departments we surveyed, students reported better personal and professional support relationships with their primary advisors than were reported by their nonunion counterparts” (507).
The Tory article also suggests that grads would lose the ability to discuss issues with their department or with university administrators. Had he read the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which lays out our rights as employees, he would have seen that Sec. 9 [§ 159.] (a) explicitly states that “any individual employee or a group of employees shall have the right at any time to present grievances to their employer and to have such grievances adjusted, without the intervention of the bargaining representative, as long as the adjustment is not inconsistent with the terms of a collective bargaining contract or agreement then in effect.”7 A concrete example of this is a clause within NYU’s union contract specifying that graduate workers can ask for increases in their salary (see Article XVII, E., pg. 16).8 Unionization offers us a source of support if department heads and administrators are unable or unwilling to address our issues. We all appreciate having the capacity to discuss our issues directly with professors and administrators, and would not support a contract that limits our abilities to address our problems.
Advocacy is not enough
The third major claim that the author makes is that PGSU has no examples of issues where the University has failed to respond when problems have been brought to their attention. He seems to think that the University’s response is more important than the outcome. But ignorance of such issues is not the same as their purported non-existence. The author may be unaware of such issues his personal lack of involvement in graduate student affairs, as those of us who do work to improve grad life can identify several recent examples where the university administration has failed to address problems brought to its attention. We could cite a myriad of issues ranging from insufficient healthcare coverage, a lack of support for grads with dependents, and resources (or lack thereof) for students in DCE/ETDCC. But let’s focus on an example that affects nearly all graduate students: housing.
Last year, a special committee made up of GSG members, the Graduate Housing Project (GHP) designed and conducted a survey aimed at quantifying graduate student dissatisfaction with on-campus housing. The final version of their report was released in March of 2017.9 After laying out the data they collected, the GHP was able to identify particular problems with housing availability and policy that needed to be revised. They then make specific policy proposals that could address and improve these issues. While some proposals would be more complex, like partnering with a local apartment complex to expand housing availability, others would be eminently feasible and largely cost-free, such as including all graduate students (including DCE/ETDCC and visiting students) in calculations of housing demand or revising the housing priority/retention system. Of the thirteen discrete policy proposals that the GHP report makes, the university has, at this point, acted on only one. Despite the immense amount of hard work the GHP put into making their report, the housing system remains largely unchanged.
We at PGSU want to see graduate leaders in the GSG to have the power to see their proposals put into action, but this particular example illustrates both how the GSG lacks sufficient bargaining power to enact more meaningful change and how university administrators, despite a genuine concern for the well-being of graduate students, ultimately must answer to their superiors in the university bureaucracy and not to us. Without a union, we have no statutory bargaining power and therefore no recourse to actual negotiation. While we may discuss and make suggestions, graduate students currently are dependent on the good nature of our advisory boards and the administration. For many of us, we have had the good fortune of developing amazing, supportive, and incredibly fruitful advisory relationships. However, it would be naïve to think that this is the case for all Princeton grad students. Our union contract would promote transparency and accountability over a wide range of issues, from grievance procedures and protection against unjust termination, to equal employment opportunities, and transparency in gender- and race-based discrimination complaints.10 Knowing that both parties in a negotiation have real bargaining power militates against paternalism and ensures the mutual accountability and respect on which goodwill and collegiality rely.
Princeton grad students have real, concrete issues we want to address. PGSU believes unionization is the best way to address these issues nimbly, efficiently, and effectively. We’ve made it our goal to speak with every graduate student on campus to determine what we want to change, enhance and protect about our living and working conditions at Princeton. These conversations, and a bargaining survey we sent out over the summer, helped us put together a preliminary platform on the issues that matter most to our community, including: Diversity and Racial Discrimination, Gender-Based Discrimination and Sexual Harassment, Family and Dependents, Healthcare, Housing, Issues for International Students, Transparency, and Working Conditions. You can read our full platform in the “Issues” tab at princetongsu.org.
When graduate students have access to the relevant facts, backed up by citations and concrete examples, the realities of unionization become clear: It’s the best chance we have to empower ourselves, improve our living and working conditions, and build a community where each of us, together and as individuals, has a voice in the way this great university operates. Working together, we will help make Princeton a better place for all grad students.
Felice Physioc, 3rd Year, Department of History
Robert Decker, 4th Year, Department of French and Italian
1 “Assistant in Instruction Guide- lines for Combination of Support with University Fellowships or Assistantships in Research 2017- 2018,” found on Princeton Univer- sity’s Graduate School website.
2 “Collective Bargaining Agreement Between New York University and International Union, UAW, AFL-CIO and Local 2110, UAW,” found on https://makingabetternyu.org/
3 “Minimum Base Pay Rates for NYU Academic Years 2017/18- 2021/22,” http://www.actu- aw.org/wp/wp-content/up- loads/2014/10/pay-rates.pdf
4 Sean Rogers, Adrienne Eaton, and Paula Voos, “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay,” ILR Review 66, no. 2 (April 15, 2013), http:// digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/ilrreview/vol66/iss2/8.
6 Gordon Hewitt, “Graduate Student Employee Collective Bargaining and the Education- al Relationship between Faculty and Graduate Students” Journal of Collective Negotiations in The Public Sector, 29, (2000) 153-166
7 https://www.nlrb.gov/resourc- es/national-labor-relations-act 8 https://makingabetternyu.org/app/uploads/GSOCNYU_2015contract_searchable.pdf
9 “The Graduate Student Hous- ing Report”, The Graduate Hous- ing Project Community, March 2017, https://gsg.princeton.edu/
10 https://www.prince- tongsu.org/transparency/