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Progressing with unions

On August 23, just as graduate students around the country were preparing to return to campus, the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) issued a ruling with the potential to greatly improve workplace quality for a great many of them. In a 3-1 decision, the NLRB determined that graduate students at private universities, like Duke, are workers who have the right to form unions and collectively bargain. Their decision comes after a decades long struggle for the proper recognition of graduate student research and teaching work at private universities. As the campaign for graduate student unionization at Duke moves forward, undergraduate students may be asking themselves, "What does this mean for me?" In today’s editorial, we explore the answer to that question and ponder the effects of unionization on graduate students, themselves.

Graduate student workers typically spend 6-8 years as employees of the University. During this time, they will take some coursework—typically only in their first two years—but the majority of their time will be spent serving as teaching assistants for undergraduate and graduate courses or as research assistants in laboratory and non-laboratory positions. Graduate students gain valuable experience in performing their employment duties, but they also provide a vital service to the university, without which the teaching and research mission of the university could likely not be fulfilled. Unionization will allow them to ensure that their work conditions are fair and appropriate.

Opponents of graduate student unionization efforts generally make two arguments against unionization. First, they the claim that the development of an employee-employer relationship between graduate students and their faculty supervisors would damage the mentorship relationship graduate students enjoy; second, they claim that graduate student activity is not work, but is rather part of the learning experience provided by the university. The former argument ignores academic evidence that graduate students represented by unions actually enjoy equivalent or improved student outcomes compared to their non-unionized counterparts and report higher levels of personal and professional support from faculty mentors. The latter glosses over the undeniably large economic value of graduate student work to the university.

Graduate student unionization at other universities has led to transparent job expectations and improved benefits. At Duke, we hope that unionization brings clear employment contracts, improved health insurance options recognizing medical concerns (such as pregnancy) not well covered in student plans and clear grievance processes to address real concerns of workplace sexual harassment/assault and other forms of discrimination/retaliation. Many grad students also hope to see the abolition of "continuation fees," along with the contractual inclusion of dental insurance, paternity leave and retirement benefits.

With better working conditions, graduate student teachers and mentors are likely to have more time to dedicate to undergraduate teaching; as such, the undergraduate experience is likely to also improve. Alternatively, if the university is unable to so cheaply employ graduate students to do jobs better carried out by faculty members, we may witness fewer courses taught by graduate students and possibly improved course quality.

Providing appropriate conditions for our graduate student teachers and mentors should take precedent over some of the more "luxury" benefits our tuition dollars pay for, and Duke’s excellent fundraising skills could be employed to cover any additional costs incurred without undergraduate tuition increases.

Ultimately allowing graduate student workers to unionize will improve our academic community. We support the right of Duke graduate students to unionize and look forward to benefiting from their gains.

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