Five Myths and One Truth About Graduate Worker Unions


by Laura Colaneri

Photo Credit: Chicago Maroon.

Photo Credit: Chicago Maroon.

This past spring, at the University of Chicago, the fight for graduate worker unionization ramped up with a three-day job action. Graduate workers put a halt to their teaching, research, and other duties to picket campus buildings, calling for voluntary recognition of their union, Graduate Students United, by the university administration. Even as other campus administrations have voluntarily recognized their graduate worker unions, UChicago continues to hold out in blatant disregard of the will of its workers, relying on the hostile, anti-labor character of Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to protect it from legal action. In a series of emails to the campus community—and, in at least one case, to the parents of UChicago undergraduates—the University has attempted to dissuade organizers and turn the public against graduate workers with rhetoric about the “unique” or “special” circumstances of graduate school and university campuses. These arguments rely on the same union-busting myths that have long been used by bosses to prevent workers from having an equal say in the conditions of their workplace. 

Myth #1: People in graduate programs are mostly students, not workers.

A central argument that UChicago and other private universities have pushed in their attempts to stop graduate worker unionization is that the relationship of those in graduate programs to the university is fundamentally academic in nature, not like that between employer and employees. 

This obscures a much more nuanced situation. Yes, grad workers take classes and learn how to conduct research and write. They also teach, grade, organize conferences and workshops, conduct lab research for their Principal Investigators, and develop and present articles and other work—often simultaneously.

In practice, the labor of learning and other forms of graduate labor are deeply intertwined: the “learning” done in the classroom directly translates to “work” that adds to the university’s standing and brings in more undergraduate students, donations, and grant money. To say that graduate student workers are mostly one thing or the other is to deny this complex reality. 

Myth #2: Graduate work isn’t work.

Even when graduate workers seem obviously to be working, as when they are teaching a class, the university tries to claim that it isn’t work, given that  the person doing it is a graduate student. Administrations argue that all such work is actually “training” for graduate workers, and universities are “investing” in their future by providing them with the opportunity to learn to do such work (for far less pay than its value, of course). This was a central theme of UChicago’s statements during the May 2017 NLRB hearing wherein administrators and faculty made  several outlandish claims, like that having a graduate worker grade their undergraduate students’ tests and papers was actually more work for them. 

These arguments ignore two facts. First, training is an essential (and paid) part of any form of employment. Many workplaces have on-the-job training that requires an initial investment of time; even as they are learning to perform the tasks required by their job, employees are still doing work, being paid for it, and eligible for unionization. 

Second, the tasks grad workers perform make the university function and, in our absence, they would be performed by (often unionized) paid employees. My own situation is illustrative: this past year, I taught sections in the elementary Spanish language sequences alongside other graduate workers as well as adjunct faculty. If I hadn’t been teaching that section, the university would have had to pay a unionized adjunct faculty member to do so. Yet when I perform the same task, the argument goes, I’m not working.


Myth #3: Graduate workers are young adults without other obligations.

Anyone familiar with the Fight for $15 movement or other low wage-related labor struggles has heard a version of this talking point: fast food workers, for example, allegedly don’t need or deserve better wages, benefits, or a union because they’re all teenagers working easy, low-skill jobs for extra pocket change. This is verifiably untrue, and a huge number of fast food workers rely on their wages to support themselves and their families, so it was both amusing and insulting when one of UChicago’s union-busting emails compared the salary of graduate workers there to that of “young adults” across the U.S. 

Setting aside the vagueness of this phrase—what is the age range in which one counts as a young adult? 18 to 25? 22 to 30?—the implication was clear: graduate workers are all younger, with less work experience and fewer obligations, and thus have no reason to unionize. 

Many graduate workers are not young adults at all, however, and have families that rely on their income to survive. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 61.1% of people in graduate school are over 30, with the average age being 32.8. One-third have dependents, and dissatisfaction with university child care subsidies was identified as a major issue in Graduate Students United’s bargaining survey. Just like fast food workers are not really sullen teenagers who somehow don’t need or deserve well-paid work and dignified treatment, graduate workers are not exclusively young adults straight out of college who don’t have families or other obligations. 

Myth #4: People in graduate programs are privileged.

Graduate workers aren’t elite, privileged trust fund kids, as has recently been argued by some union-busters who have appropriated privilege discourse in an attempt to pit certain sectors of workers—and even workers at public and private universities—against each other. On the contrary, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2015-2016 that 41.9% of people in doctoral programs were non-white; 52.6% were female; 25.3% were non-U.S. citizens; 12.2% had a disability; and 45% had an annual household income of less than $32,000 (in comparison, the median income for people over 25 in the U.S. with a Bachelor’s degree that same year was about $59,000). In 2018, 69% of undergraduates took out student loans, meaning that many will enter graduate school with existing debt. While many programs provide grants and tuition waivers so that graduate workers aren’t going further into debt to attend,48% of those who received research doctorates in 2015-2016 finished their programs with student loan debt that on average exceeded $100,000. 

The stereotype of the white, cis male graduate student being funded by his rich parents is simply not who most graduate workers are, and while some may have had extra opportunities that helped them to get to grad school, that is certainly no argument against improving their current situation. In fact, bettering working conditions and increasing wages through a union can only serve to make graduate school more accessible to marginalized groups; the privilege of many in academia is an argument in favor of unionization, not against. 

Myth #5: A union would interfere in the relationship between graduate workers and their advisor.

Finally, UChicago and other private universities opposing unionization fall back on the classic fear-mongering technique of referring to unions as a “special interest group” or “outside party” that would interfere in the campus community. The relationship between a graduate worker and their faculty advisor is special, they claim: it must be allowed to blossom freely, unhindered by such pesky contract requirements as safe working conditions, professional boundaries, and a grievance process. 

The fact is, though many graduate workers have fruitful, affirmative relationships with their advisors and other faculty that supervise their many forms of work, that is certainly not always the case. Because graduate workers rely on their advisors for resources, approval of their projects, and letters of recommendation as they enter highly competitive job markets, graduate school can become a deeply exploitative environment riddled with power imbalances. Many graduates have experienced serious exploitation in their programs, including impossible standards, unreasonable hours, unprofessional relationships, advisors taking credit for work done by their advisees, and sexual harassment

A union is the most powerful tool available to graduate workers for combatting this exploitation and protecting their rights and dignity. To be held to clearly defined and agreed upon standards, like any other supervisor would be, is not an insurmountable task for faculty advisors. Ultimately, a union is not an outside party entering our campus community: it’s us. We, as graduate workers, get to democratically define its terms and use it as our collective voice. 

The Truth: Graduate worker unions threaten the university model as we know it—and that’s a good thing. 

There’s a reason that private universities are so opposed to graduate worker unionization: it threatens their bottom line, and the model of the neoliberal university as we know it. And the model desperately needs changing. Even as tuition rates rise exorbitantly, universities rely more and more on disempowered, lower paid workers like graduates and adjuncts to educate undergraduates. Graduate programs prepare individuals to go into a field that doesn’t have enough jobs to sustain all of them. The university does not operate in service to lofty ideals like intellectualism or the creation of knowledge or the good of humanity; rather, those ideals and the people that believe in them are exploited to produce value that serves the institution of the university—and its top-level administrators’ bank accounts—above all else. 

But the power of the workers can change that. A democratic, collective voice for graduate workers gives us a say on campus and in our workplaces. It challenges the undue power held by administrators over the way we work and serves intellectual and educational goals that our universities claim to hold dear. A union for graduate workers, and all other campus workers, presents a path forward to defending academia by transforming the neoliberal university into a truly democratic community in service of intellectualism and the pursuit of knowledge.

Laura Colaneri is a graduate student worker at the University of Chicago in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department. She is a member of Graduate Students United.