VI. Graduate student union do not make a convincing case.

My last argument is based on a critique of the narrative and worldview implicit in the graduate student unionization movement at Harvard. Supporters of the movement at Harvard have provided neither a convincing nor plausible case for unionization.

  • Union supporters’ worldview: Union supporters view the University administration as students’ enemy. (You can see evidence of this thinking in their response to Harvard’s FAQ.) They claim, rather than having the best interest of students in mind, the administrators prioritize programs that seek profit and other misguided ambitions. If the administrators understood properly the importance of student workers, then they would start treating them with more respect and dignity. With more proper compensation and support, students can better achieve the institution’s mission. This is why students need to form a union. With a union, students can negotiate a contract that spells out the terms and conditions of employment. With a union, students can demand greater and more proper compensation for their work, and the University will no longer be allowed to change arbitrarily and unilaterally the compensation and support they give to students whenever and however they’d like. With a union, students will have additional protections against abuse that they so far have been forced to endure without a proper recourse. Without a union, students are helpless individuals against a powerful organization. With a union, students too can be powerful.

  • A critique of the union’s worldview: Although the above narrative is strikingly popular among many students and other observers, it does not accord with reality. 
    • University has the best interests of students in mind: First, there are reasons to believe that the University administrators are already doing their best in supporting students financially. The University operates in a marketplace and it is in its best interest to offer the highest support it can to attract the best talents around the world. This is reflected in the fact that the amount of compensation and financial aid the University provided to its students steadily increased over the past few decades. (Here is a brief summary.) Note that this progress was made without a union or threat of unionization. As a result, Harvard is more affordable than ever. This occurred over the last thirty years during which ordinary people’s wages stagnated. It is a testament to the University’ continued commitment to making its education available to any person who is qualified.

    • Compromise is necessary: During financially constrained times, the University is sometimes forced to alter certain forms of compensation given to students such as the University student health plan, which happens to be one of favorite examples union organizers use to gain support. But what would be the alternative? The University is not an isolated system; it is impacted by the external environment. In recent years, external forces outside of the University’s control continually increased the cost of health care in an unpredictable fashion. A particular health insurance plan with a specific set of benefits that is affordable for the University to provide its students in one year may no longer be so the following year. In such cases, the University would have to make a compromise. Either the University provides the same plan but cuts back on spending in other areas such as the number of students to admit in various programs or it needs to adjust the plan so that its cost can be contained. In the latter case, adjustments are made with the input of student representatives who often have professional interest in public health policy and other related fields. (We don’t need union hired professionals paid with union dues to do this work.) Cutting back on students’ compensation and aid is not something that the University administrators enjoy doing at every possible opportunity but rather a necessary and reluctant compromise they have to make during economically constrained times.

      Despite this simple logic, union supporters claim that no compromise is necessary, arguing that “there is no record of cuts being made as a result of unionization at any of the many universities where graduates have exercised their right to collective bargaining.” The fact that there is no public and widely available record of making compromises does not mean that they do not happen. They happen all the time but it is not in the interest of university administrators to advertise broadly what the specific compromises are, as the knowledge might offend those who were negatively impacted by the change. To claim no compromises has been made is to indulge in fantasy.

  • Misleading claims: There are several misleading claims that union supporters use to gain support. 
    • Union cannot tell the University how to spend its money: There appears to be a serious misconception among many union supporters about how much influence a union could have over the University administrators’ decisions on how they spend the University’s money. They say “During bargaining, we’ll get access to the university’s finances and be able to see for ourselves how Harvard’s money is being spent.” This is false. The University is not legally obligated to share its finances with a union. Anything other than the terms and conditions of employment is outside the scope of union’s right to negotiate. No, a union cannot tell the University how to spend its money.

      A union, however, can request its employer to share information on how each employee is compensated and other limited but relevant information for the purpose of collective bargaining. Union supporters may be confusing this legal power of union with the broader power they claim. This limited power would be necessary to make sure every person in the bargaining unit is paying the right amount of union dues. It would also allow students to see whether all students are being fairly treated in terms of compensation for equal work. It would be indeed shocking to see that the University is compensating women less than men or white people more than people of other ethnicities. Such injustices, although extremely unlikely given the University non-discrimination policy, could be corrected if discovered by a union. But the union’s power ends there. In particular, it cannot influence the University on matters such as which students to admit, which faculty to hire, etc. 

    • Union is a limited tool: On a similar topic, it seems that in order to gather more support HGSU-UAW supporters try to give students an impression that a union can significantly help with issues such as “STEM Funding” and “Civil and Human Rights”. Although these are commendable efforts, they can be done without a union and there is no direct reason to think that having a union will help. Interested students can collect signatures for the STEM funding petition. Students are also free to form a student organization that helps “women, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ individuals, international students, students with disabilities, and students from working-class backgrounds” to address problems like “isolation, hostile work environments, a lack of faculty mentors, and inadequate support services for our diverse needs.” (Quotes from the HGSU-UAW website.) Union is not an omnipotent tool for curing all social ills. It has its limits and should be applied to where it works.

    • Union dues won’t be covered by pay increase: Union supporters claim that union dues will be covered by an increase in wages. For example, if the annual union dues rate is 1.44% of paycheck and students receive 2.5% average annual pay increase, then the union would negotiate a contract that would increase students’ pay by 3.99% so that it covers union dues. The organizers point to the NYU student union contract but the claimed 4% wage increase is false. The union contract provided students $500 in cash during the first year of the contract but kept the usual 2.5% rate. This means the NYU students are experiencing effective pay increase of only 1.06% instead of the 2.5% that would have been enjoyed in the absence of a union contract. When asked about this during a union information session in the Physics Department, the answer was “that is what they decided democratically was the best for them.”

    • You will be encouraged to go on strike: A more serious false claim often made by organizers is that the proposed student union can choose how they go on strike. Say, if the union decides to go on strike (by 2/3 vote), then at first a small group of Teaching Fellows would stop submitting grades. If the University doesn’t budge, then more students will go on strike. And so on. As far as I understand, the legality of such strike has not been determined yet as the right to unionize for graduate students is a recent development. If such a strike turned out to be unlawful by NLRB, then the University can discipline students that go on strike by taking actions such as dismissing them from their current positions and the students who lost their jobs would have no recourse.

      Putting aside the legal issue, let’s say the union decided that all the TFs and/or RAs go on strike. In order for the strike to be effective, many students will have to participate. Therefore, union organizers will likely to encourage other members to join the strike. (An example of intrusive organizing that disrupts our academic experience.) Usually, the union will try to force its members to go on strike by imposing heavy penalty or through social estrangement such as circulating a list of members who do not participate. If the union decides not to impose such a heavy penalty, then not many people will participate. In fact it’s not hard to imagine that only a small number of people will. 

      If most people are not willing to participate in a strike or do not want to be a member of a union for that reason, why should we have a union in the first place? Wouldn’t the union simply give a small group of students with extreme views more disruptive power without truly helping their fellow students and other members in the community? Why should such a small group of students be granted so much power?

      Given that the likelihood of students deciding to go on strike is small (due to its significant negative impacts on students), the union will have little power during negotiation. If Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers’ (HUTCW) two years long negotiation and HUDS union’s strike did not result in substantially greater health benefits, then why should students expect luxuries like free dental insurance?

  • HUDS strike might be a poor example of the power of unions: Recently, HGSU-UAW started using HUDS strike as an example that shows the power of union. The media and many observers portray the new contract as a great win for HUDS workers and even go so far as to claim that the union workers won everything they wanted. I think a more careful assessment of the negotiation’s aftermath by media and the public is in order. Did the HUDS strike result in a net benefit for the workers? Are the workers happy about their experience of going on strike, and do they feel that they gained more than they lost? For the three weeks that the workers went on strike, they were not paid salary by the University. According to a rumor, several were fined by the union for not participating in the strike. Workers were promised $40 per day strike pay, but their paychecks arrived late and when they received them they were told not to cash them until a later date (perhaps due to low balance in the strike fund). It appears that the union started negotiating only when they received a $0 paycheck from the University after being on strike for more than two weeks. It is not hard to guess that internal pressure from workers forced the union leaders to stop taking hardliner positions and to compromise with the University. It is indeed an open question as to whether the strike was a win for the University community as a whole including the dining workers. As a result of the strike, it is very possible that students’ tuition and fees will go up and the amount of available financial aid will decrease. That would make Harvard less affordable for many.

  • Puzzling alliance of Harvard graduate students and the UAW: If you felt that the alliance of the United Auto-Workers and the Harvard Graduate Student Union was a puzzling event, the following might explain why.
    • Unions are social institutions designed to protect most vulnerable workers: Historically, unions protected ordinary workers against powerful employers that prioritized profits at the expense of their employees. These workers were primarily low-income wage earners such as coal miners, steel workers, factory workers, janitors, and other similar types of workers for whom their labor was the only economic means to gain access to the market and become an economically productive member of the society. Unions are still necessary in today’s society to protect these types of workers against powerful corporations and institutions that employ them. However, various societal factors such as globalization of trades and automation technologies destroyed many jobs and gave more power to corporations over the past several decades. These changes diminished unions’ power and effectiveness in protecting the workers. Union membership dwindled by many folds and wages stagnated for ordinary workers since 1970s. As results, inequality in income and wealth continues to rise and ordinary workers’ struggle has been getting harder every year. This is a serious problem that we as a society have to face together.

    • The HGSU-UAW alliance signifies the diminishing power of unions : What are unions to do during these hard times? How do unions like the UAW continue to provide economic protections to the most vulnerable workers in our society? There is no clear solution but extending union membership to graduate students at Harvard seems an unlikely one. Whether the UAW, a union of automobile, aerospace, and agricultural workers, has a legitimate interest in unionizing graduate students at Harvard is debatable.First, graduate students at Harvard occupy one of the most privileged positions in the world in terms of opportunity for research and career development. The experiences of graduate students at Harvard and the majority of workers that make up the UAW are unmistakably different. To claim otherwise is simply offensive to those who will never experience the same privilege and opportunity students at Harvard have.

      Second, graduate students are students before they are workers. As an educational institution, the Harvard University in principle needs not employ any of its students or provide any financial aid. Students would simply have to pay out of pocket for their education. Masters and other professional school students do just this. Similarly, an independently wealthy PhD student would not have to be employed by the University to seek education at Harvard. Understanding that the financial barrier would prevent them from pursuing education at the University, Harvard provides financial packages that allow students from diverse backgrounds to pursue their education as either Research Assistants or Teaching Fellows. Holding these positions also prepares them for future careers in academia and elsewhere by giving them the opportunity to grow. Career development is why many people choose to go to graduate school. To liken positions that are given by the University as part of financial support to employment fraught with abuse is to be ungrateful.These are just two reasons why the UAW’s attempt to unionize graduate students at Harvard is one that is questionable at best. Such action can be interpreted as evidence of diminishing power of unions and its struggle to survive than a sign of the union fulfilling its purpose. Without being overly cynical, it is not hard to guess why the UAW would want to unionize students at Harvard: A new source of revenue.

  • We need to take less ideological and more pragmatic approach to social problems: I am personally acquainted with several organizers of the HGSU-UAW. As far as I can tell most of them are good people trying to improve their community. However, in public affairs good intentions are often not good enough. What is required of a citizen who endeavors to improve his or her community is not only a good heart but also a pragmatism that leads one to seek solutions that are sensible and can work in practice. I have seen a paucity of this trait among union organizers and supporters throughout the course of the unionization campaign.

My previous articles and the discussions above together reveal the weaknesses and incoherence of the case for unionization put forth by the HGSU-UAW organizers. The institution is not perfect and that is why its citizens try to improve it over time through service. Some attempts are productive, leading to tangible benefits and overall progress, but others are counterproductive, leading to more conflicts and frustrations without resolution. I am afraid graduate student unionization is an example of the latter. We should indeed vote it down.


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