April 18, 2016

From Mentor to Manager

Grad student unionization would compromise professor-student relationships.

Our graduate students may soon be asked to vote in a union certification election. For our graduate students, the best-case scenario under unionization would involve two outcomes. First, the union would negotiate increases in salary and benefits that would be greater in value than the union dues that all graduate students would be forced to pay. Second, the work rules that result from negotiations between the union and the University would not diminish the training, mentoring, and professional development opportunities that graduate students now enjoy.

The first element of this scenario is a plausible outcome. The second is quite unlikely. In fact, I argue below that work rules and grievance procedures feature prominently in the worst-case scenario.

If forced to negotiate with a graduate student union, the University would likely raise compensation marginally for teaching assistants and graduate lecturers. The terms of the current contract between New York University and its unionized graduate students suggest that the union would claim most of this small pay increase in the form of union dues. Ex post, the University would likely transfer roughly $120 per graduate lecturer each quarter to the union, and each graduate lecturer would receive about $30 or less per quarter in additional net compensation. For teaching assistants, the corresponding increase in net compensation would be even smaller.

Since we face enormous excess demand for the existing slots in our undergraduate program, the University could and likely would pass on these new costs to our undergraduates by raising tuition and fees. Given that we currently reject thousands of stellar applicants each year, these modest tuition hikes would not create discernible changes in the quality of our undergraduates, and this approach would protect funding for research.

Even if our graduate students are eager to pay union representatives to extract additional money from our undergraduates, they should realize that their 20 to 30 dollars in extra compensation per quarter would come with important strings attached. Union work rules always homogenize employment relationships, and the cost of this homogenization can be great in workplaces where workers are nominally similar but differ in important ways.

Graduate students are not operatives on an assembly line. Teaching assistants in graduate math classes are not doing the same job as teaching assistants in undergraduate English classes, and it is hard to imagine how one set of work rules could serve all graduate students from all departments well. Furthermore, I doubt that one set of work rules could truly work well for all students in one department. Graduates students differ in their interests and talents, and the courses we offer cover material that ranges from truly basic to quite advanced. So, even within one department, the current requirements for a given teaching assistant position could represent a great opportunity for one student but a terrible burden for another.

Over the years, many of our best economics graduate students have served as teaching assistants for Econ 301. Most would report that serving as a teaching assistant for this graduate class was a valuable and exciting experience that contributed to their future professional success, and most would also report that it was a grueling experience that required tremendous effort. Many of our departments also take great pride in the honors sequences that they have developed for our best undergraduates, and I am willing to conjecture that the teaching assistants for these courses also value their opportunities to take on the challenges that these courses present.

However, with one set of work rules tailored to the demands of an average course, no graduate student would have the opportunity to take teaching assistant positions where both the workload and the professional benefits are exceptional, and both our graduate and undergraduate students would suffer because the faculty would be forced to change the way they teach some of our most important classes.

Unionization would not only harm the quality of the learning opportunities we offer; it would also harm relationships between faculty and graduate students. We faculty tend to ask a great deal from our teaching assistants, but we are also relentless advocates for them. We help them find funding, we get them invited to conferences and workshops, and we do whatever we can to help them find jobs. We do not make these efforts because our departments reward them directly—these efforts are simply part of the trust relationships we have with our students. We trust them to maintain high standards, and they trust us to help them launch their careers.

Organizations only function well when people who work together trust each other. Trust permits effective cooperation in complex settings where it is not possible to spell out rules that cover every contingency. But people can only build trust over time through relationships, and the grievance procedures that accompany union work rules prevent the informal give-and-take that builds trust in healthy relationships.

A minority of our faculty does not treat graduate students well, but these faculty are not going to become valuable mentors and advocates just because they know a union business representative is monitoring their actions. Furthermore, if work rules and grievance procedures come to define relationships between our graduate students and faculty, many faculty who now mentor, promote, and encourage their teaching assistants would find that their safest course of action would be to keep more distance from our graduate students.

Collective bargaining over work rules and compensation may serve some workers well. A plumber who plans to be a plumber for the rest of his career seeks only compensation and agreeable working conditions from his employer. He does not ask his employer to be a mentor, and he does not plan to work as his employer’s future peer and colleague.

Graduate students have different relationships with their supervisors. They often want their faculty supervisors to become their mentors and advocates, and they hope to achieve the same professional standing that their supervisors have already achieved.

The worst-case scenario is that, given union work rules and grievance procedures, faculty would no longer see their teaching assistants as mentees and future peers but simply as the people who do their grading and run recitations. No conceivable increase in stipends for graduate teaching positions would ever cover the losses associated with this outcome, and an extra 20 to 30 dollars per quarter would not even come close.

Derek Neal is a professor of economics and a member of the Committee on Education.

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