V. Graduate student union will make our institution less democratic.

The HGSU-UAW supporters argue that the union will make Harvard more democratic by allowing students to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.

  • Union, democracy, and rational ignorance: To discuss whether a graduate student union will make the University community more democratic, it is necessary to talk about the fundamental nature of democracy. I am not a political theorist so here I describe an intuitive notion of democracy that many people share.First, democracy is a way of organizing our community and influencing the forces that govern our lives. In democracy, people get together and deliberate on issues that they find important. Second, for democracy to work, people that participate in it need to have a shared understanding and experience of their community. Otherwise, lack of knowledge and understanding will prevent people from deliberating well together and finding the best solutions to their problems.Union supporters say that the union will make our workplace more democratic by giving students a greater say in how the University compensates students for their service to the institution. There are two problems with this: transfer of power and rational ignorance.

    • Transfer of powerWith a union, students of any particular program will have a smaller say in how their experiences in their respective programs are shaped. Say, the overwhelming majority of students in the undergraduate college or the Physics department do not want to be part of a union. If students in the rest of the University vote for a union, they will have to be part of it regardless of their preference. Similarly, students in Law School may not want their teaching pay to decrease in exchange for increase in healthcare benefits. Their collective preference may no longer matter in the grand scheme of collective bargaining. These are both examples of diminishing voice of people on matters that concern them as power is transferred from a more local to a more global level of organization.

    • Rational ignorance: Another reason why the union would make the University less democratic is rational ignorance. Students are busy and there is very little pay-off for acquiring information on public affairs. That means most students will not expend the time and energy to actively get involved in union affairs. (Most people do not actively engage in student affairs now, so what is the reason to believe that they will once there is a union?) Most of them won’t care who their union representatives are, who is bargaining on their behalf, what items are being negotiated with the University, etc.An implication of this is that only students who have strong private interest and are deeply involved in union activities will have the greatest say on matters that concern everyone.Union supporters would argue that students can exercise their democratic right by voting for or against a proposed collective bargaining agreement. Just vote “no” if you don’t like the proposed contract. The problem with this argument is that what an individual or a group of students wants might never even be on the contract. Most of them probably won’t even have a chance to voice their opinions in any meaningful way.

      Union supporters argue that union will help students have a greater voice in administrative matters such as what kinds of benefits are included in healthcare and what kind of compromises are made between benefits and salaries. However, given the rational ignorance rule, there is a danger of vocal minorities with strong views dominating the conversation during the negotiation with the University. The resulting collective bargaining agreement may primarily reflect the views of few interested individuals. 

As shown above, there are reasons to think that having a union will make the graduate student community less democratic. Furthermore, here are signs that these already have been happening.

  • Neutrality campaign: The most salient example is the neutrality agreement campaign. Since the beginning of the union organizing effort, union supporters have been asking the University and the faculty to remain neutral regarding the unionization issue. They argue that there is a “disparity in power dynamics” between students and the faculty such that any action on the part of the University administration and the faculty would interfere with the right of individual students to decide whether to unionize. This includes any effort to educate the student population about what a union is and how it will affect them and simple notification to students about the upcoming election as required by the law.There are several problems with the neutrality campaign. First, it is paternalistic. Union supporters appears to believe that simple things like the University’s attempt to educate students about unionization and notifying them of the election will scare students and prevent them from voting for the union. Why don’t they just trust that students are capable of making the right decision for themselves? Even if the University were to intentionally spread potentially misleading information, shouldn’t students be allowed to think critically and make their choice on their own?

    Second, since unionization will affect the University as a whole, the University administrators and the faculty have a great interest in the outcome of the election. In my view, as democratic citizens of the community, they have an obligation to actively engage and discuss the unionization issue. With the neutrality campaign, union supporters are attempting to silence the legitimate voices of these community members.

  • GSAS Graduate Student Council: As another example, the graduate student unionization campaign has led to a disconcerting development in student representative organizations such as the GSAS Graduate Student Council. GSC is supposed to act as a forum for discussion and debate on issues that concern the graduate student body. Executive Board members of the Council are representatives of their constituents. It is their job to survey the opinions of the student body and advocate for their interest in a larger forum. This is not what the Board members have been doing during the current unionization campaign. They have decided to remain silent on the issue as they have never discussed it once with the administration during their monthly meeting since the launch of the organizing campaign.There are two plausible reasons for this. On the current Executive Board, there are members who are paid organizers of the HGSU-UAW. This presents a clear conflict of interest. How could a Board member honestly represent the views and interests of his or her constituents on a public matter when the member has a private financial interest associated with it? Second, the members may not have a proper understanding of their rolls as student leaders. They appear to shy away from discussing the unionization issue as it may result in conflict. But conflicts are the basis of political life and reasons why in democratic society we have various political instruments to facilitate their resolution. Rather than shying away from their responsibility to engage in conflicts and seek resolutions, the leaders should embrace it.

Having a union might give an ordinary student an impression of creating a more democratic community. When examined more carefully, the impression is mostly an illusion.


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