It’s easy to get lost in the rhetoric of graduate student unionization. Unbiased information is difficult to find and strong opinions dominate the discussion. In particular, the print debate has become polarized, characterized by hyperboles and circumscribed attacks.
GESO presents unionization as an academic panacea: wealthy graduate students, an incredible job market, and solutions for our academic and social problems at Yale await if we just sign the cards. Not to be outdone, GESO’s opponents spend as much time demonizing GESO’s organizational faults as they do addressing the value of unionization.
I came to Yale open-minded. I wanted to form a pragmatic opinion, based not on ideological or worldly concerns, but on whatever was best for graduate students. After a year of weighing the pros and cons –yes, they both exist– I have reached a conclusion. For the following three pragmatic reasons, I am against unionization.
First, unionization will alter the important graduate school relationship between students and faculty. A great deal of rhetoric engulfs this particular concern. Unionization will not, as some claim, completely destroy the student-mentor relationship. Nor will it, as GESO incredibly claims, have no effect.
It will force students into difficult no-win choices between union and faculty. In small yet palpable ways, the faculty in my department helps ease the burdens of graduate life so that students can live comfortably enough to focus properly on their studies.
While they are not responsible for decisions regarding graduate student benefits, both professors and undergraduates will bear the brunt of any union-based direct action. The strength of any union relies solely on the credible threat and solidarity of such action.
At New York University, for instance, a graduate student strike is imminent. How many of us at Yale could follow through on a grade strike threat? I couldn’t. Our faculty gives us endless time, energy, and support. To turn around and use professors and undergraduates as pawns in a battle against the Yale management is unthinkable. If I can’t commit to direct action, I can’t effectively support a union. If a sizable minority feels the same way, any potential union will lose its only leverage.
Second, unionization will also standardize and formalize practices within departments that are currently informal and not uniform across the graduate school, such as selection of teaching assistants and the hiring of research assistants.
In my department, TA selection is done by a faculty and student committee that sorts requests and assigns people as best they can. I doubt the process is completely “fair,” but almost everyone receives a desired assignment, and those with major objections can often arrange changes. A union will object to such informal decision-making, and probably demand uniformity across departments and oversight of the system.
But if students in a department are happy with current processes (as in my department), should it matter if the union leadership is not? It shouldn’t, but it will. A one-size-fits-all approach is necessary to ensure union solidarity, but detrimental to departments that thrive on differing cultures and practices. Individual grievances within departments will likely be addressed as universal problems. The last thing my department needs is for outsiders to try to “fix” internal problems that do not exist. When they do exist, departmental solutions are far superior to universal regulations.
The most important reason why I am against unionization is also the most practical. It appears that the threat of a union is better than an actual union. Witness the last two years at Yale in light of a cost-benefit analysis; we have the best of both worlds. Graduate students in the humanities and social sciences have received two stipend raises (one of 22 percent, another of 8 percent), summer funding for two years, and an upward equalization of teaching pay.
All of this has occurred without paying union dues or considering a grade strike. One charge against GESO is that other unions, namely the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, fund it and not graduate students. Perfect, who wants that to change? Let HERE spend all the money they want on our behalf — just hope GESO doesn’t succeed.
That way we can continue to see increased benefits without incurring any costs. As graduate students are learning this week at NYU, such costs of unionization can be very high indeed.
Matthew Glassman is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Political Science.