As a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, I am very upset by the lack of objectivity that pervades the news surrounding graduate student unionization at Columbia. I will acknowledge that there is a significant fraction of graduate students at Columbia who, indeed, welcome the presence of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on campus and look forward to their potential union representation. However, there are many students who vehemently oppose the UAW's presence and the concept of graduate student unionization as a whole.
The purpose of a union is to protect workers from unfair and dangerous working conditions. Unions are most effective when collective bargaining promotes a setting of fairness and equality among all common employees, and where unfair hiring and promotion practices are abolished. As at most major universities, there exists a great disparity among different academic departments at Columbia in the amount of funding, benefits, and indeed, the amount of "work" required to receive a higher degree. That being said, that each department, student, and even mentor is unique, it is clear that collective bargaining will be ineffective in achieving any reasonable resolve of the inequities that union supporters claim exist.
Many union supporters claim that the "victory" at NYU will serve as a blueprint for a successful union at Columbia. This, too, worries me. Indeed, the two situations are vastly different. At Columbia, minimum stipends already stand at $15,000, with promised increases greater than those negotiated at NYU. Furthermore, Columbia provides a greater number of graduate students with housing and provides medical insurance superior to NYU's coverage. We receive this without the bargaining power of a union.
Students who are admitted to a graduate program are well aware of the situation and requirements prior to admission. It is both immature and counterproductive to one's academic growth to complain about these conditions after matriculating to a university. This is not to say that there not are things about Columbia (and more specifically the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)) that I would want to change.
The Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) represents the current forum where students can air opinions on how GSAS functions. The newly appointed dean of GSAS, Henry Pinkham, has voiced his desire to correct the problems that currently exist. Given the chance, I believe that he will work with GSAC in a true and steadfast manner. Give him that chance. When I accepted admission to Columbia, I put faith in the administration that they would remain good to their word. They have a motivation to do so. Unhappy students lead to decreased enrollment. Last time I checked, Columbia was gaining notoriety as an esteemed university. Then consider the motivation of the UAW: more unions mean more union dues. That is why there is a movement to include undergraduates teaching assistants in the bargaining unit. Consider the respective motives, and answer this rhetorical question for yourself, "Who do you trust?" Since I (like many graduate students who will be primarily research assistants) will be excluded from the bargaining unit, I say this to the union supporters on campus: do not take away my voice. If a union represents the students, GSAC will cease to exist, and with it, my only opportunity to affect change at the University. The term "union" implies that every student will be grouped together in one collective entity. Why, then, divide the graduate school into the discrete groups of those who have power and those who are powerless? That is not a union—that is fascism.
The methods of deceit and incomplete information employed by the union backers are both unsettling and reprehensible. These student "leaders" are nothing more than naive opportunists who seek personal gain at the expense of destroying the conventions of graduate apprenticeship. Do they truly believe that a union lawyer will understand the intricate details of any mentor-student relationship, not to mention a unique set of these relationships?
Graduate student unionization trivializes the true institution of labor unions as a whole. We are not in any immediate danger due to unsafe working conditions. We are not starving; in fact, we are provided with competitive stipends that far exceed the national averages for graduate work. Furthermore, we do not have to attend graduate school. It is both a privilege and an honor to study here. The fact that we receive financial support is simply a bonus. This is a point that I cannot make any clearer: we are being paid to attend graduate school! The vote to unionize is coming up. Despite what others may tell you, each and every Ph.D. student in GSAS has the right to vote. Indeed, you have a duty to vote. Do not let the union supporters take away your voice. Show the union organizers that in the court of public opinion, all the blue buttons and flashy flyers in the world amount to very little.
The author was a third-year graduate student in the department of Biological Sciences.
This op-ed was originally published on February 13, 2002.