Labor Relations Board,
I am writing to ask the National Labor Relations Board to uphold the Columbia decision to that protects graduate students’ rights as workers under federal law, and not to overturn these protections through a new rule. I am a graduate student and worker at the University of Chicago and a member of Graduate Students United, the unrecognized graduate workers’ union at our university.
What is at stake in the new rulemaking process, as I understand it, is whether graduate students are workers, and whether we are in a primarily “educational” or “economic” relationship with our university – the new proposed rule privileges the “educational” interpretation of our position, while the Columbia decision sees grad work as paid labor for the university. Speaking very simply and from experience, my position at this university, and the pay I receive, is contingent on the fulfillment of teaching duties. I am a PhD student in the Germanic Studies department, and I must teach a given number of course credits throughout my graduate degree in order to receive my full stipend and fulfill my degree requirements (currently it’s 3 quarters of teaching in the second year, and 1 quarter in the fourth or fifth year). My teaching is certainly part of my education – it’s one of the requirements for receiving a PhD in my department and also gives me better chances on the academic job market – but the university also benefits from my work. Last year, I taught one section of the first-year sequence of German language classes, just like other graduate students in my year in the program. I earned $15,000 throughout the year for teaching on average 10 students for 3 consecutive quarters. My students were undergraduate and graduate students, and I was given full independence in creating and implementing lesson plans. I was teaching, not merely “being taught how to teach.” Almost all of the first-year German classes and a large number of the German language classes overall at the University of Chicago are taught by graduate students. Our labor is cheap for the university, and perhaps therefore easy to undervalue or write off as “training,” but the German program would not run without our work. This goes for most other programs at the university. Last June, members of the graduate student union at UChicago held a three-day work stoppage and picketed outside campus buildings, effectively shutting down campus during the final week of classes. Withholding our labor for even three days caused both graduate and undergraduate education to temporarily grind to a halt. If graduate students went on strike permanently at the University of Chicago or elsewhere, the university would have to replace our labor in order to be able to continue running as an educational institution and not a tax-free hedge fund.
While teaching is an important part of my work as a graduate student and is unequivocally definable as paid labor (biweekly paycheques, counting hours, performance reviews, etc.), there are other aspects of graduate work that are harder to define under labor law, such as the research we do. In science labs, this may be easier: students work on their PI’s research projects, win grants for/with them, and achieve results that benefit both the PI and the university as a whole. In the humanities, where students’ projects are largely independent from those of their advisors, this collaborative research model is more the exception than the rule; perhaps that makes it easy to interpret graduate students as nothing more than leeches on faculty members’ time, time which could be devoted to faculty’s own research, undergraduate teaching, or adequate fulfillment of administrative responsibilities. I do not want to suggest that graduate students such as myself are not receiving an education, or that we are all pure autodidacts (although unfortunately this is the case for many grads whose faculty mentors are unresponsive) and use no resources at all as we move through our PhD programs. No, on the contrary, if our labor is useless to the university, then we as graduate students are an immense drain on the budget and should never be paid for our labor – in fact, we should be forced to pay tuition to cover the cost of our education.
As universities complain about tight budgets, graduate students across the university are still getting paid. When we organize together, we even win pay increases and better benefits. The university makes concessions to our organized demands because it depends on our labor.
In the humanities, I would qualify the labor graduate students contribute through the list of CV lines we accumulate throughout our careers. For example: wrote a dissertation, published a book chapter, 2 articles accepted for publication, presented 6 conference talks, 2 book reviews, organized 2 workshops and a symposium, and assisted Faculty Member X for 2 years on a book project. Each of these items is a distinct product of graduate labor, and each reaches audiences that are important to the university and its reputation as a prestigious academic institution. (These are not my specific achievements, to be clear, but they represent a reasonable average in productivity for a graduate worker at my university.) If the mission of the university is the production of knowledge, then graduate students are at the forefront of that undertaking and should be recognized for their contributions over the many years they spend working for the university.
Certainly, the work graduate students do as researchers has a “learning through doing” component to it, especially when one regards the work process and the fact that we receive accreditation at the end of our programs, but the ultimate products of our labor are distinct and quantifiable contributions to the university out of which they emerge, and are not less valuable (or useless, for that matter) if they are produced before we earn our degrees. A publication is a publication. Graduate students such as myself are paid as workers in an industry of knowledge-generation, and our relationship with the university is therefore a relationship of employee to employer (which supersedes the student-teacher relationship we may have with individual faculty members). The university pays us for and profits from our work. Graduate workers therefore should be protected with rights under federal law, including the right to form workers’ unions.