Don’t Mourn, Organize

By Cary Nelson

For the past fifteen years, the state of Rhode Island has contracted with the University of Rhode Island to fund approximately ten graduate assistants in the physical therapy department in exchange for each providing ten hours a week of physical therapy to patients at Eleanor Slater Hospital, which houses patients with acute and long-term medical illness, as well as those with psychiatric disorders. But that funding was eliminated in the last round of state budget cuts. Those students are without funding and the patients are without physical therapy.

—Report of a union activist at the University of Rhode Island


The most obvious thing to say about graduate students is that they are the future of our profession. But we no longer have any reason to be confident about that future. So the statement, fundamentally banal for years because it was inadequately interrogated, has become hollowed out and fraught with anxiety. A teaching function will continue to exist in higher education, but whether it will still be worthy of professional status remains to be seen. Meanwhile, in the midst of the ongoing recession, the present is as insecure as the future.

Worsening Conditions

The 2008–09 academic year was marked by a number of efforts to solve both real and imagined financial crises by extracting graduate student labor ever more cheaply. In 2009–10, still further efforts are being made to erode compensation and increase workload. In the University of California system, according to Inside Higher Ed, initial plans from the system president’s office had graduate employees scheduled for a furlough. After negotiation, these employees, already on the margins of a living wage, were exempted, but California’s budget over the next few years remains uncertain, with estimated cuts of 20 percent for this academic year alone. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, negotiations also exempted graduate employees from a mandated furlough for all other state workers, but in fall 2009 the university renewed efforts on another front: pressing graduate student employees to renegotiate a 2 percent salary increase. Graduate employees at University of Texas campuses expect cuts in the number of available positions this year and next. Graduate workers at the University of Iowa began the 2009–10 academic year expecting the elimination of 150 to 200 assistantships. Administrators there canceled appointments already secured by signed contracts. That extreme measure underlines the importance of the grievance procedures and due process rights detailed in the AAUP’s 2009 “Graduate Student Employees,” the revised version of Regulation 14 of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Meanwhile, the new economic realities are reshaping bargaining strategies. In fall 2009, the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign proposed not only to implement a three-year salary freeze for graduate employees but also to give itself the right to impose furloughs unilaterally. These administration bargaining proposals were added to standard opening gambits, in this case a proposal to eliminate some grounds for formal grievance procedures, but the graduate employee union’s negotiations defeated them all.

Graduate student employees at Iowa, Illinois, UW–Madison, and the University of California are all unionized. Thus, they have a say in these negotiations. Contracts cannot be renegotiated without member approval. At nonunionized campuses, however, graduate employees may be little more than ready recession victims. Meanwhile, most of these institutions face increased class sizes and uncompensated increased workloads. Canceled assistantships at Iowa and elsewhere are being concentrated in outlying years that are not part of guaranteed degree support. As a result, graduate students are under greater pressure to complete their degrees quickly despite the wretched job market awaiting them. The damage spreads: undergraduates will receive less discretionary mentoring. And at a majority of campuses across the country, both genuine and fabricated budget shortfalls are being deployed as arguments against every proposed increase in salaries or benefits.

Collective bargaining in the middle of a recession is critical. Not only does it give graduate employees an organized voice and real power to negotiate; it also puts them into a nationwide network, supported by Listservs, meetings, and other means of communication, by which they can compare threats, strategies, and results with colleagues at other campuses. An organized campus is part of a national movement and an informal coalition that links activists represented by different unions. Indeed, the Listserv of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CEGU) provided me with critical information for this essay; its wiki contains information on graduate employee contract provisions in the United States and Canada. At nonunionized campuses, graduate employees are often more isolated, with fewer ways to compare compensation and working conditions. The adverse consequences of such differences are often painfully exacerbated in a recession.

Administrative practices can be particularly damaging to graduate students outside collective bargaining when thoroughgoing decentralization means that they are left to the whim of departments. In 2008, when I visited the University of South Carolina–Columbia, the state’s flagship public institution, graduate students repeatedly expressed frustration that there was no centralized grievance procedure for them. Many had received a brief appointment letter in their first year but no written communication or guarantee thereafter. Their only appeal was to the very departmental administrators responsible for indifferent management. Graduate student assistants lacked basic benefits such as tuition waivers or adequately funded health care, and the administration felt free to increase tuition without a compensatory increase in assistants’ salaries. Predictably, the administration also felt free to reduce the total number of funded assistantships in 2009.

For many years, the graduate employee organizing movement has been impelled by the now multigenerational recognition that the promise of a tenure-track career offers poor compensation and miserable working conditions. Consenting to seven to ten years in wage slavery as the necessary precondition for liberation is no longer rational if this simply precedes a still lower salary as an adjunct faculty member. The only thing the PhD now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.

The recession has further worsened these conditions. In 2009, one of my talented graduate students went on two campus visits for tenure-track jobs following successful preliminary interviews at our discipline’s annual convention. Both departments told her that she was their first choice and that she should expect to hear from them officially in one week. The official calls that came were to tell her that both searches were canceled. The 2010 job market may well be worse. And with universities now eliminating part-time positions, alternative academic options are disappearing quickly.

New Standards

It is time to eliminate the rampant abuses in graduate education. It is time for graduate student employees to organize for collective bargaining on every campus where they are able to do so. We need to think of graduate student employment as a coherent seven- to ten-year job, one that might not be followed by related employment, a lifetime career, or indeed any tolerable future. In that context, certain unconventional benefits and others winnable only through struggle need to become routine. Here are five of them:

  1. All graduate employees should have a percentage of their salary contributed by their employer to a nationally administered retirement fund. Since many, if not most, new PhDs are moving on to lowwage contingent positions, they need to begin establishing a retirement fund in their twenties, not in their thirties or later. Even modest contributions matter if they grow tax-deferred for forty years.
  2. Full health-care coverage should be extended to all graduate employees and their spouses or partners. Access to affordable health care for dependents should be universal.
  3. Full participation in shared governance, explicitly called for by the AAUP for graduate students since the publication of its 1999 Statement on Graduate Students, should be codified on every campus that has graduate student employees.
  4. Full academic freedom in teaching, also called for by the AAUP but widely denied or compromised, should is clarifying the relationship between departmental authority and individual academic freedom, a matter of special concern to graduate employees and other contingent teachers responsible for one or more sections of a multisection course.) 
  5. Appropriate due process rights for graduate employees, nonexistent on many campuses outside collective bargaining but recommended by the AAUP’s Regulation 14, should be established on every campus.

It will be difficult to win these rights for all graduate students and graduate employees unless a substantially higher percentage of graduate employees are represented in collective bargaining. I believe we can establish what amount to national standards for all by way of collective bargaining if the percentage of graduate employees who are unionized increases from the current roughly 20 percent to a bare majority. Restored to its full membership, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may reverse this year its 2004 denial of employee status to graduate students who work for their university. If that occurs, it may help produce a surge of recognition drives at private institutions. One important feature of the AAUP’s new Regulation 14 will help protect union activists: our recommended policies now explicitly prohibit dismissal or nonrenewal in retaliation for participation in strikes and other job actions. Of course, the NLRB’s current antiunion position reversed its 2000 vote recognizing that graduate students can be both students and employees, depending on which role they are playing at a given point in the day.

The NLRB has jurisdiction only over private universities, but clearing the way for rapid organizing campaigns at a few elite private institutions would have a significant ripple effect, even at public universities.

Other impediments remain. The most serious one is not the obvious turnover of graduate employee cohorts—though this is a powerful factor in remarkable multigenerational campaigns at places like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, New York University, and Yale University—but rather the disinformation campaigns often run by antagonistic administrations. Prounion faculty need to help graduate students by exposing and resisting those campaigns more aggressively. And faculty who recognize their moral and professional responsibilities to lower-paid workers need to encourage graduate employee organizing.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the recession will likely generate still more organizing campaigns. Achieving 51 percent union representation for graduate student employees will be a substantial challenge, but the struggle will have wide benefits. Indeed, the AAUP’s revised Regulation 14 partly represents what we have learned from surveying graduate employee collective bargaining contracts; it recommends extending the best provisions of those contracts to graduate student workers everywhere. Even campuses not eligible for collective bargaining will match better working conditions if competition and local advocacy demand it.

For example, because the University of South Carolina has an active graduate student association, its members were able to gain both national and local attention for their plight. As a result, some progress is being made at USC. Over the last year, a provost’s study group on graduate life has been meeting. Its members include the president of the graduate student association. One of the group’s first acts was to urge departments to give clear offer letters to new graduate assistants. The group also provided an offer letter template. A great deal more needs to be done at USC; putting these guarantees into a grievable and legally binding contract and making the study group a permanent committee would be best. But the USC example shows that even nonunionized graduate employees are not powerless if they organize and maintain their solidarity.

Meanwhile, collective bargaining goals themselves also need to be broadened, and AAUP membership needs to be routine, not exceptional, for both unionized and nonunionized graduate student cohorts. In truth, most graduate employee collective bargaining contracts do not include sufficient—if any—clauses guaranteeing academic freedom and shared governance rights. Nor will contracts ever include such provisions so long as graduate employees are not conversant with the issues and do not see them as priorities. AAUP membership is a necessary part of that cultural change.

These goals are critical whatever the future holds, whether it be tenure in the corporate university or parttime wage slavery for life in Gulag U. Indeed, academic freedom and shared governance are eroding for both kinds of academic positions. But shared governance and academic freedom are just as central to a coherent ten-year career as a graduate student even if it leads nowhere. If academic freedom and participation in shared governance are made integral to graduate student life, both the inherent experience of graduate education and the unique contribution of graduate students and graduate employees to higher education will be substantially enhanced. And even though the cohort of graduate students inevitably turns over, such changes will enhance the quality of university life for all.

A Governance Role

Graduate students could contribute significantly to academic freedom and shared governance. With tenured and tenurable faculty holding barely 30 percent of faculty lines, it has become risky at best to invest in them all expectation of enhancing or even sustaining shared governance. It is less and less likely that a campus will have a sufficient percentage of tenured faculty to carry the shared governance role. Yet part-time faculty are often unavailable or barred from many governance activities. Unlike part-time faculty, however, graduate students are often physically present through much of the week; most do not travel to multiple campuses to teach (though some in multicampus institutions such as the City University of New York do not teach on the campus where they pursue their degree). Some, inevitably, also moonlight at other campuses for extra income, whether or not local rules allow them to do so. Nonetheless, graduate students are easier to organize and easier to involve in shared governance activities than part-time faculty. This is not to say, of course, that part-time faculty are less interested in participation, but their working conditions can make participating very difficult. In my view, we need both to improve these conditions and to take strategic advantage of the roles other groups can play.

Graduate student employee unions and advocacy groups can and should take responsibility for educating their members about academic freedom and shared governance; such education should be a basic component of organizing. But in addition to supporting organizing efforts, faculty have a responsibility to add education about academic freedom and shared governance to the curriculum, both graduate and undergraduate. This will help educate undergraduates and turn graduate students into advocates for shared governance and academic freedom. It will also reduce the damage caused by present practice, which sends out new graduates largely ignorant about these matters. We can hardly be surprised that the public does not understand academic freedom when we do not teach our students about it. Faculty concerned about the state of higher education should also add a lesson about campus hiring practices and benefits to every class. While that subject matter should be optional, academic freedom and shared governance instruction, conversely, should be a general education requirement for undergraduates and a requirement in graduate degree programs. Although such issues cannot be integrated into every subject, one can take time out from biology or nanotechnology to address employment conditions on campus. That is part of our responsibility as a community.

None of these recommendations reduces the necessity for the AAUP and all other campus constituencies to make the case for more full-time tenure-track faculty positions. Other higher education organizations cannot be counted on to do so. At a recent Gates Foundation symposium on the abysmal percentage of undergraduates completing their degrees, not one speaker mentioned that hiring more full-time faculty would partly solve the problem, although research suggests that is indeed the case. Only one person on the panel mentioned faculty at all. The Obama administration’s proposal to increase community college funding, part of the “American Graduation Initiative,” also fails to mention faculty, or even operating budgets, where faculty salaries reside. It is time for graduate student and faculty unions to join forces in demanding new tenure-track faculty positions. Just as we must not allow administrators to divide and conquer during the recession, so, too, must we recognize our long-term common interests and work together in pursuing them.

One of those long-term goals, I believe, is to remake academic unionization as an engine for broader educational reform and social justice. We need unions that can simultaneously invoke practicality and idealism, wages and academic freedom, self-interest and community responsibility. Unions should make workplace justice for all their first priority. They should advocate for free tuition at public universities and colleges. Graduate student employees, I believe, are particularly well positioned to help us restore unionization’s progressive ambitions and its utopian heart.

Cary Nelson is president of the AAUP and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His work and career are the subject of Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University (2009). His e-mail address is

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.