by Ann van der Merwe
Published April 12, 2012
In the past decade, much debate has arisen about whether or not graduate students should have the right to unionize. Their dual status as students and employees raises the question of how they should be treated – as the former or the latter – when it comes to pay and benefits. Not surprisingly, the arguments for unionization stem from the belief that graduate students are, first and foremost, employees of the university and that they are not receiving adequate compensation for their work. In this respect, graduate student unionization has achieved its goals. There are plenty of statistics to show increases in pay and benefits for graduate students who are members of a union. There are also studies that suggest organization and collective bargaining have not – at least for the majority – had a negative effect on the mentoring of graduate students by their professors, which many feared would be the case.
Still, unionization has some significant downsides, even if they are ones not all graduate students are willing to recognize. First, if every assistantship costs the university more, it may need to reduce the number offered. Even if you are still awarded one, that fact can alter your experience in the program. In some cases, it leads to a competitive environment for graduate students, where available positions are assigned and reassigned each year according to student performance. In others, it simply creates a sense of inequity. Second, the emphasis on the employee status of graduate students may well be contributing to the time it takes an overwhelmingly large number of them to finish their degrees – if they finish at all. If you are encouraged by your peers and your institution to see yourself primarily as an employee rather than as a student, you are more likely to prioritize your work rather than your own studies. Lastly, if you are looking at your pay and benefits more than your graduate school experience as a whole, then you are more likely to feel like a disadvantaged worker than someone fortunate enough to be gaining valuable experience – not to mention tuition remission and other benefits such as low cost health insurance – while earning a degree.
You are probably not going to choose a graduate program based on the presence or absence of a union for graduate employees, but you probably should recognize the difference it can make in your education. This is especially true if you have strong feelings about the issue. If you are adamant about unionization, you obviously will not want to work without one. Similarly, if you are opposed to it, you will probably not feel comfortable being forced to join, as is typically the case.
Ultimately, you should consider your priorities and expectations for your graduate education. Think about the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that you want most. Think about whether you see yourself primarily as a student or as an employee. You can certainly be both, but how you perceive your status will flavor your experience and what you want out of it.