October 5, 2017

Unionization Nation

Graduate students do essential work, yet the administration denies their right to unionize.

My name is Mike Mei, and I am a University of Chicago alum (A.B. ’12, economics) as well as a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Michigan. More important than being a Ph.D. student was my role last year as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at the University of Michigan. Importantly, the University of Michigan has one of the oldest graduate student employee unions in the United States; I am additionally happy to serve on the stewards council for this union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO). I enjoyed my experience helping teach introductory and intermediate levels of economics to undergraduates. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of helping hundreds of young college students learn, especially with the continued support of the graduate union. 

My teaching experience brought back many memories of my own undergraduate experience at UChicago, especially in math and economics classes. I remembered long hours of working on problem sets with my friends, figuring out what we did or did not understand, and writing down questions to ask our TA the next day. I remember showing up numerous times to TA office hours in the basement of Stuart Hall, so many times that my TA eventually learned my preferred restaurants around Hyde Park. I remember pitching bad research ideas to a graduate student panel in our experimental economics class. I remember long e-mail chains to TAs discussing one detail about a particular question on my econometrics exam. And I also remember the graduate students who taught full classes, especially one wonderful lecturer who inspired my curiosity for topics in labor economics, a subfield that I am working in today. Looking back, what I did not fully appreciate was the value of graduate students’ labor. I took it for granted, like it was my right as a high-tuition-paying UChicago student to have competent and dedicated people teach me, regardless of the circumstances of their employment.

What I have since learned as a graduate student myself is that our work is not an entitlement for anyone. Graduate students are not trainees, and their hours teaching are not part of their research and dissertation. Their work is real work, work that requires skills, work that displaces their time for research, classes, and leisure. While every graduate student learns something from their teaching experience, a large proportion of the work is either monotonous or becomes routine—the hours spent writing test questions, checking test questions, and grading and inputting grades. There’s also the contact hours with students, answering e-mails, and keeping track of what is going on in the class. 

Given the large and substantial workload that many TAs face, I find it appalling that the University of Chicago would argue to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that graduate student workers are not really workers, that their work is not real work. The truth is that the University depends on graduate student workers’ labor to even function.

In addition to the odd claim that graduate student workers are not really employees, UChicago, through numerous e-mails and a new patronizing website, has argued that unionization efforts interfere with the interactions between faculty and graduate students. My experience is that the opposite is true. The union does not affect faculty and graduate student relationships that are already healthy, as I have plenty of such relationships at the University of Michigan. However, the union does enforce a minimum standard of decent treatment for graduate student employees, allowing those who are having problematic relationships to have an official channel to address their grievances. In practice, it means that we have student workers who know they can take time off if they are sick, and that their managers cannot overwork them beyond their contract hours. This kind of arrangement promotes fair treatment and prevents problems before they occur; it incentivizes departments to come up with policies that both avoid abusive labor relationships and promote healthy ones—allowing teaching and research to flourish.

I care about supporting unionization efforts for graduate student workers because of the unique circumstances of their employment. Many people make the economic argument about employees being voluntary individuals who are paid what they are worth (in economic terms, this is their marginal product). However, the graduate student relationship deviates from this competitive labor market ideal in an important way: Graduate students are bound to their institutions for many years, and their degrees are held hostage by that institution. In addition, many of the managers that hold power over graduate student workers are the same people who hold power on a graduate student’s dissertation committee. The fact that institutions quite literally have power over students’ degrees and employment means that it is only fair that graduate student workers hold power in the circumstances of their own employment, as a counterbalancing force that promotes a balanced and fair environment.

I urge my graduate student colleagues at the University of Chicago to vote “yes” for unionization this month. My experience with the labor union (GEO, Local 3550) at the University of Michigan has not only been phenomenal, but it has also given me, a person who learned about the importance of the “life of the mind” as a young person at UChicago, new meaning and purpose.

Mike Mei is an alumnus of the College (A.B. ’12).