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Graduate student working conditions are worsening. To fight back, they're unionizing

Conditions like withheld pay and discriminatory behavior are damaging lives


Photo by Brett Andrei Martin on Unsplash 

Workers experiencing depression, anxiety, burnout, and abuse. This is how much basic science research in the United States is done. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers experience undue hardships caused by faculty negligence and administrative indifference, and some see unionizing as the only way to apply enough pressure on universities to resolve these issues.

Universities perform half of all basic research done in the United States, most of which is done by these young scientists. But producing this research exacts a heavy toll on these people, who often work under taxing conditions for little pay.

Graduate students are often required to study for classes, teach, and publish while often living on meager stipends. Financial insecurity contributes to poor mental health and poor nutrition. And while some hardships are expected in pursuit of an advanced degree, others are avoidable and further compound the stress students experience. In recent years, more graduate student bodies are trying to change their circumstances by drafting a different kind of manuscript: a collective bargaining agreement.

PhD students experience mental illness at 2.5 times the rate of college graduates or students in other programs. A 2006 study by the University of California found that 45% of graduate students at UC-Berkeley had experienced an "emotional or stress-related problem" that affected their well-being and academic performance. And nearly 10% of those students reported considering suicide.

But mental health concerns are not the only issues that graduate students grapple with. I reached out to students across the country and asked them to share their experiences. Many asked for anonymity out of fear of being identified by advisors whom they depend on for future recommendation letters. They often had the same experiences: insufficient cost-of-living funds, long delays in stipend payment, high student fees, housing and food insecurity, overwork and burnout, lack of transparency, vulnerability to exploitation, and insufficient access to healthcare and other services.

“Jordan” is a PhD student at the City College of New York in a STEM field who has struggled with delayed stipend payments. “I’m still trying to get back pay from two years ago,” they said. “I once went a full semester without pay, and even though I got a lump sum for that back pay, I ended up paying more in taxes.”

A scientist, wearing a lab coat and a face mask, takes notes on an experiment.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash 

“It’s wage theft,” said Alex Wolf-Root, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Various departments will buy time and say ‘It’ll come, don’t worry, just hold on’ but we’ve learned that if they don’t pay us, legally we have no recourse. There aren’t protections for workers.”

“Charlie”, a fifth-year PhD student in a STEM field experienced frequent lapses in payment, the longest of which lasted four months.

“My wife and I were saving up for a home and a family. But I paid hundreds of dollars in late fees and overdraft fees and burned through my savings just trying to make ends meet and keep my wife and I above water. I had crippling depression and felt worthless, but that would have been manageable if anybody cared. Nobody cared and everyone acted like they were doing me a favor by looking into it. And when I finally did get paid they were just kind of like ‘There, happy?’"

On top of that, international students often face added challenges that their domestic counterparts do not.

“Life is a little more difficult for us,” says Steven Wang, a Chinese doctoral student in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We pay international student fees every semester, fees that have risen rapidly without any feedback from students. We should not have to pay for the right to work here.”

Ostensibly these fees, an extra $100 per semester at Madison, are needed to maintain a bureaucracy that monitors immigration records. But according to Steven, international students receive no help from the university, and their dependency on their student visas creates a power imbalance. In a recent survey of international postdocs, some reported being exploited by their research advisers, forced to accept below-market wages and 100-plus hour work weeks in order to keep their immigration status.

students sitting in a lecture hall

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash 

At public universities, the right to collectively bargain depends on the state. But in 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities nationwide had the right to collectively bargain, and a groundswell of unionization efforts across the country soon followed. There are currently at least 33 graduate student unions in the US, most of which are at public universities.

Despite the all-too-common scenarios shared by the graduate students I spoke to, arguments from faculty and administrative leaders against graduate student unions exist, though they are often philosophical rather than practical: students are receiving an education and are not employees of a company; to recognize the graduate worker as an employee would compromise the collaborative, academic spirit of the student-mentor relationship, and so on. In an e-mail to The Atlantic in response to their 2015 story on graduate student unions, Columbia spokesperson Richard Hornsby wrote, “Our concern is that the unique academic program — and collaboration with faculty mentors — that each individual student develops in graduate school are unlike a typical employer-employee relationship, and are not well served by a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining process.”

But research suggests that, not only does unionizing have no negative effects, it can have positive ones. Unionized graduate students reported “higher levels of personal and professional support… fare better on pay… and report similar perceptions of academic freedom” compared to non-unionized graduate students. And faculty surveyed for the same study said that unions “did not interfere with their ability to advise, instruct, and mentor their graduate students.”

Overwhelmingly, the graduate students who shared their stories with me felt that collective bargaining would give them more leverage with which to demand fairer treatment, but many feared repercussions for making demands, including delaying graduation and having crucial recommendation letters withheld.

“I talked to students in different departments and different labs asking if they were unhappy, and they all agreed they wanted things to change,” said Charlie. “But when I asked if they would sign a petition to get a union rep to come down and talk to us nobody wanted to put their name down on paper. They all told me, ‘well, if I just keep my head down I can get out of here’.”

Jordan survived a semester without pay with the support of their husband, and the portion of back pay withheld as tax was recovered in their next tax refund. But many students don’t have a spouse or family to support them in case of a lapse in payment. For them, regular stipend payments are necessary to pay for basic living expenses. “If I was in different circumstances, I might have been screwed,” said Jordan.

Alex is an organizer for the Committee of Rights and Compensation, an organization of student activists fighting for better compensation for graduate students at CU Boulder. They were successful in getting pay raises for teaching assistants and are now aiming to get student fees waived, which total about $1800 per year at Boulder. “Student fees are just tuition by another name. Why should we have to pay to work?”

Steven is continuing his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He regrets not being able to see his family as often as he’d like. “There is a stereotype that Chinese families are wealthy, but it’s more expensive for me to do anything.”

Charlie sees a psychiatrist who helps treat their depression. They strongly support graduate student unions.

“At the end of the day there’s really no oversight. [The faculty] is functioning on an honor system. You have to get hurt or [they have to] do something really egregious or expensive for there to be any repercussions for bad behavior with respect to how you treat your grad students. They don’t have our interest in mind. They have their interest in mind. And they think through this apprenticeship situation there’s going to be ‘trickle-down prosperity’ because your name will get on a paper that they funded.”