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Will unionizing really benefit graduate students? Not everyone's convinced

Studies show either no change or slightly positive changes in student satisfaction

Although the Duke Graduate Students Union filed for a union election earlier this month, not everyone is convinced unionization is the right course of action.

The union—which is not yet legally recognized—was spurred on by an National Labor Relations Board decision in August allowing graduate student workers at private universities to unionize. A hearing between union representatives and University officials is scheduled for Nov. 28, at which point the NLRB will decide whether to approve DGSU’s request for a union election. If a majority of graduate-student workers who vote in the election are in favor of the union, DGSU will gain legal status.

However, a group called Students Against Duke Unionization is arguing that the unionization efforts might actually negatively impact certain students. The newly-formed group currently has 16 organizing members and approximately 100 people interested in their point of view, said Kate Marusak, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering and member of the organizing committee.

“This is basically an effort to get the word out to students about the negative effects of unionization,” she said. “Up until now we’ve only been hearing about the potential positive effects of unionization, but nothing about the downsides.”

President Richard Brodhead argued against unionization in an email Tuesday, explaining that "Duke’s relationship with its graduate students is quite different from that of employer to employee."

"We do not believe that representation of students by a non-academic third party, focused on just one piece of a student’s experience, is in the best interest of students or the University," he wrote.

Concerns between disciplines

SADU members raised several concerns they had with the unionization process.

For Daniel Reichman, a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering, his opposition is largely based on the wide variety of disciplines to which graduate students belong. In grant-based labs, he said, graduate students typically have to work a certain amount of hours per week to even be eligible for the grant. But if a cap on working hours is up for negotiation, he said, this could adversely impact grant-based labs even as it helps others.

At the same time, Reichman did note that not all engineering students were against the union, even within specific labs.

“If a union forms, they will group us all together into one unit as if we were all the same and were all requiring the same needs,” said Ph.D. student Tamara Silbergleit. “And one thing that’s really nice about what we have now is that we can shape our degree experience as we want.”

A group of 17 engineering professors recently published a letter to the editor in The Chronicle arguing similar points—calling such a diverse union a “one size fits none” agreement. The letter also argues that the University’s stipends are already higher than many peer institutions and that certain benefits exist at different levels depending on the department—such that what is a benefit to someone during collective bargaining could be a loss to someone else.

Silbergleit said that she currently has a contract she deems favorable, but does not want to have to take time out of her day to renegotiate “something she already has" during the bargaining process.

“I am all for them solving their issues, and maybe a union will help humanities or non-lab based degrees solve their issues, as long as they exclude us,” Silbergleit said, noting with Reichman that SADU was not anti-union, just against this “particular incarnation” of the union.

Such a split has precedent. A New York University agreement excluded graduate assistants in the medical school and research assistants in various scientific fields. 

But Scott Barish, himself a Ph.D. student in cell and molecular biology and proponent of the unionization efforts, said that DGSU has received strong support from those in the science and engineering fields. Acknowledging the differences between different departments—as well as the fact that some students regard their experience better than others—will be taken into account in the eventual collective bargaining contract, he said. 

Some issues, such as the provision of dental and health care benefits, are shared in common by all graduate students, he added. The GDSU is still feeling positive about on-campus support for the union election, Barish added. 

What does the evidence show?

Studies on the effects of graduate school unionization are rare and part of a very limited field of research, noted Daniel Bowling, a senior lecturing fellow at the Law School, in an email.

However, the published studies that do exist suggest either no change or slightly positive changes.

One study—co-authored by Paula Voos, a professor at Rutgers University—tackled concerns that unionization would harm academic freedom or relationships with professors. It found, however, that this was not the case—either there was no change, or a slight improvement. The same went for economic benefits, such as stipends. 

Voos did note that in general, humanities students tended to be more dissatisfied with conditions pre-union, and that future research looking at differential impacts between traditional laboratory science departments and humanities students could be helpful.

Although the study noted that it is not “the final word” on consequences of graduate student unionization, other researchers The Chronicle spoke to shared similar findings. Grant Hayden, a professor at Southern Methodist University, also said that unionized graduate students tended to have better stipends than they did before, and the same with faculty-student relationships.

At the same time, Hayden said that when he was a graduate student he also noticed some students in the sciences being less in favor of a union because they did not feel the same sense of desperation due to wider grant funding opportunities.

Neal Hutchens, a professor at Pennsylvania State Law School, compared the situation of graduate students to adjunct faculty, noting that studies can be found on both sides of the issue. Bowling pointed to a successful adjunct faculty union contract at Tufts University that likely improved working conditions, but that there was also a lockout of faculty at Long Island University earlier this year.

“There can be a lot of pain and hardship associated with collective bargaining in some circumstances, and there’s no guarantee how that will end up,” Bowling said. “Labor law in the United States is designed to be fairly adversarial.”

Marusak contended that the studies mentioned above have focused on public, not private, institutions—and that caution should be taken before generalizing the results. The professors The Chronicle spoke to, however, said they did not foresee any significant differences existing between situations at the two types of universities.

What’s next?

Union organizers and Duke officials are currently scheduled to meet with the NLRB Nov. 28 to discuss any objections to the “bargaining unit.” At that point, the NLRB can decide to approve the union election to take place. 

However, the NLRB’s previous fluctuation on the issue—often due to its partisan composition at the time—means that graduate students’ new unionization right is likely to be rolled back during Donald Trump’s administration, Bowling noted. 

Responding to this concern, Barish said the University could still voluntarily choose to recognize the union even if the NLRB decision is overruled. Should Duke decide not to, he said, graduate students would continue to advocate for their interests in the strongest manner possible.

Both DGSU and SADU will be ramping up outreach and informational efforts as that hypothetical election date gets closer. Marusak asked that there be a respectful discussion on the arguments, alleging that certain SADU posters had been taken down or defaced—although she did not know by whom.

Barish noted that he was not aware of these incidents—and that they certainly did not come from the DGSU’s organizing committee. Such acts are also not encouraged by the union, which is looking to host a moderated forum between pro and anti-union students, he said.


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