III. Graduate student union will not provide more protection against abuse and discrimination.

The HGSU-UAW supporters claim that a union can provide greater protections against discrimination and abuse. It also claims that the union will implement a “fair and transparent grievance procedure”, with the implication that it would be superior to what the current system allows. I am doubtful.

The University has many policies that prescribe discrimination and abuse and associated procedures for dealing with various injustices and harms when they occur. Below I consider just three areas where the union supporters often claim to be able to make improvements:

  • Protections against discriminatory practices, sexual harassment, and assault: The grievance procedure for any wrongs that occur in these areas is outlined in the student handbook of each school (here is the link to the GSAS handbook). University members who are contacted about these issues exercise extreme caution with the information they received and seek either informal or formal resolution to the satisfaction of the student. If the student is still not satisfied, then he or she can seek redress in the public court.

    No, the system is not perfect. And that is why the institution makes a continual effort to improve itself. As recent examples of this effort, President Faust convened Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault and Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging to create new policies and recommendations that will improve these areas of the University community.

    In what ways would the grievance procedure proposed by the union be better in these areas than the existing one? To answer the question, it is helpful to look at a real example in the NYU graduate student union contract. Section B of Article XIV – Non-discrimination reads: “Any grievance claiming a violation of this Article may be initiated at Step 3 of the grievance procedure.” Step 3 of the grievance procedure is outlined in Article XX – Grievance and Arbitration procedure:

    “A grievance not settled in Step 2 may be appealed in writing to the Provost of the University, or his/her designee, within ten (10) days of the Step 2 denial. The Provost or Provost’s designee shall meet with the Union to discuss the grievance within ten (10) days of the receipt of the written appeal. The Provost or designee will render a decision within fifteen (15) days of receipt of the appeal.”

    I think that the grievance procedure above is too general and therefore quite inadequate for handling serious and sensitive cases such as sexual harassment and assault. I cannot imagine the contract negotiated by the HGSU-UAW will be significantly different from that of the NYU regarding the grievance procedure. I have heard union supporters argue that a union may make it easier for students who are discriminated or assaulted to report their experiences. These claims appear to be purely anecdotal as there is no literature on the relation between the existence of a graduate student union and the reporting rate of discrimination and assaults cases.

  • Workload protections that enhance the quality of research and education: How would the union accomplish this? Once again, let’s take the NYU contract as an example. Section E of Article XVII – Compensation reads:

    “Minimum rates contemplate an average of 20 hours per week. Any graduate employee assignment which has an established and required schedule which averages more than twenty (20) hours per week shall have the minimum rate proportionately adjusted. Examples of duties that shall be considered part of a normal workload are actual class time, reasonable office hours or time spent advising students, a reasonable amount of preparation time for an adequately prepared graduate student, reasonable time spent grading, proctoring, or programmatic tasks required for employment, and required training for which the employee receives no academic credit.”

    There are at least two problems with this kind of contract clause. First, no graduate student who is seeking the approval of his or her advisor or course instructor for a good recommendation letter will bring a grievance charge against them through union. Such an action would likely poison the relationship with little prospect of recovery. If a TF or RA keeps complaining about the workload under a particular advisor or instructor, that person probably won’t be offered a similar position under the same supervisor in the next semester. Since an RA or TF appointment is essentially a semester-long arrangement, there would be no grounds for the student to argue to try to keep that position.

    Second, the clause’s language is too vague for it to be useful. What makes a student qualify as an “adequately prepared graduate student”? Let’s imagine a not-unlikely situation where a student spends more than 15 hours in a particular week to prepare for sections because of his or her lack of mastery of the course materials. Then, after teaching the sections, is the student free to not do any more work for the course that week such as grading homework and holding office hours? Wouldn’t the instructor argue that if the student was indeed an “adequately prepared graduate student”, then he or she should have been able to finish all the assignments under the twenty hours per week cap? It would be a long and arduous process to seek a grievance based on this clause as both sides would argue for fairness. (I have heard a story that once at the University of Toronto a graduate student returned a stack of ungraded papers to her instructor claiming that she reads slow and had already spent 10 hours allotted for grading that week. She graded two papers.)

    As another example, let’s say a Teaching Fellow is given a task of grading 15 papers and providing individualized feedback. The student takes two hours on average to grade each paper to his own satisfaction, which means an estimated total of 30 hours of grading. When the student complains about the workload to his instructor, she says her department cannot pay for another TF so he should “grade faster” even if that means lowering the quality of grading and feedback. Union supporters would say that a union could prevent instructors from giving these kinds of “unreasonable” workload. However, if the TF is considered purely a worker, then he would simply have to follow the boss’ instruction regardless of his preference, as long as the request can be completed.

    The bigger challenge I see with the issues discussed above is not a shortage of policies, procedures, or resources but a wide-spread lack of knowledge of the existence and efficacy of these resources among students and University members. If a student feels overwhelmed with his or her teaching or research workload, the student should first discuss that problem with his or her supervisor. If the student doesn’t feel comfortable doing that or if the problem is not resolved after a few conversations, then he or she can reach out to a department chair or a dean of his or her School. This softer and informal approach would have a greater chance of resolving workload conflicts in a harmonious manner than a more contentious approach taken through a union. If a student is not willing or capable of taking these measures, I am not sure how having a union will automatically make the situation better for the individual.

    Finally, there is a reason to think that having a union will make graduate students’ lives more challenging and less protected for better or worse. At the moment, the overwhelming cultural consensus sees graduate students as apprentices under training in teaching and research, rather than employees who are making a living. That is why graduate students are not penalized (at least not directly as far as I know) for performing poorly. I am not aware of any graduate student who was never allowed to teach again for getting a low-Q score or fired for showing up to work late. If the graduate student union forms, there might be an organizational cultural shift at Harvard in the long run and graduate students may be treated with stricter economic discipline as most employees often are in the real world. Students should not be surprised if they are fired for showing up late to work or not finishing grading homework on time without a proper justification.

  • Late pay: This is obviously a serious problem that needs to be fixed. Union supporters claim that a union can fix it. How would it accomplish this? If you get a late payment, you may complain to your union representative. What would happen thereafter? Would you get your payment immediately? There are plenty of cases where union members are not paid in a timely manner and there is no reason to think that having a union will automatically fix this problem immediately. There is no mention about timely payment in the NYU contract.