NLRB COMMENT EXAMPLES
Labor Relations Board,
I am a PhD candidate at Georgetown University in Philosophy. For all but a single semester of my 7.5 years at Georgetown, I have worked as a Teaching Assistant or Teaching Associate. As a Teaching Assistant, I led discussion sections, graded papers and exams, held office hours and review sessions, and performed many more tasks. As a Teaching Associate, I taught my own classes as Instructor of Record. As Instructor of Record I performed the exact same work that tenured faculty perform: I was the person responsible for design and implementation of an entire undergraduate philosophy class. For both roles I was paid a yearly salary by my employer; I paid taxes on that salary just like any employee would. For these roles I have also been required to undergo training as a mandatory reporter of campus harassment and discrimination, just like other University employees.
Further, the reason it is taking me 7.5 years to finish the PhD is because I have held these employment roles at Georgetown every semester. If it were true that being a TA or teaching your own class is ‘part of your graduate education’ and furthers that education, why is it the case that for me, and so many of my colleagues, holding these roles extends one’s time to completing the degree and is experienced as a disruption of or distraction from performing the tasks one needs to perform to finish (e.g. writing the dissertation)?
My question for the NLRB is: if graduate assistants like myself must shoulder the burdens of employee status, from paying taxes to being Title IX reporters to many more things, how can you justify withholding the corresponding privileges of employee status from us?
The answer is that it cannot be justified. For these and many more reasons I ask that you uphold the Columbia decision and respect the labor and rights of graduate workers. We are workers and we will not back down from claiming our rights as such.
Labor Relations Board,
As a PhD candidate in German at Princeton University and a member of the AFT Academics graduate workers union, I would like to object to the NLRB’s proposed rule changes on graduate student labor organizing. Despite any claims that we do our labor as students and not employees, the work we do is fundamental to the smooth functioning of any institute of higher learning. My home department, for instance, is proud to boast of its success in recruiting enthusiastic students for its language programs and to become German majors, a task made possible only by the graduate workers who are undergraduates’ first exposure to our program. We teach all of the language courses from day one, taking time out of our research schedules to prepare lessons, respond to student questions and offer one-on-one help. This commitment to our students both inside and outside of the classroom is responsible for giving them the linguistic fluency employers in our summer internship program so admire, and for convincing students in introductory language to follow through to our upper-level courses and even to major in German. I have spent many hours – even in semesters when I was not teaching – meeting with students to talk about the benefits of our program, and have personally persuaded several to make the jump to becoming majors. The labor graduate students put in is a vital engine for the university’s productivity and prestige, and we deserve to be treated like the workers we so self-evidently are.
Labor Relations Board,
I am a graduate worker at Northwestern University, the co-chair of Northwestern University Graduate Workers, and I have been a teaching assistant for the last four years. The teaching, grading, and mentoring I do is invaluable to my department and the university.
It is a false dichotomy to say that my relationship with Northwestern is educational rather than economic. The university benefits tremendously from my labor. I have been the TA for a wide range of courses: 100-level classes in which we try to impart students who are not in math-intensive fields with the ability to think critically about quantitative arguments; large calculus courses to supplement what students have learned in high school; and upper division classes for those interested in being a math major. Along with my fellow TAs in the math department, we teach almost every student at Northwestern.
Through the last few years since the Columbia decision, NUGW has fought and won on several issues. These victories came only because we were able to act collectively. Consistently, we see the administration at Northwestern mistreat small groups of grad workers, simply because it can. They have levied outrageous continuation fees for doctoral of musical arts students, singled out international students with the burden of funding the International Office, and taken away crucial sources of funding for a few students without notice. These are only a few instances of how the administration takes advantage of the power imbalance and why it is crucial graduate workers unionize.
Dozens of graduate unions rely on the Columbia decision, which gave us the right to unionize. To reverse this decision in the name of stability is absurd on its face. Furthermore, graduate unions at Brown University and Georgetown have recently successfully petitioned their universities for voluntary recognition. We do the same work as the tens of thousands of our colleagues in public and private sector graduate unions, and it would be preposterous for the Board to pass a rule which fails to recognize that.
Labor Relations Board,
I am a PhD Candidate in French Studies at Brown University. As is the case in many “language” departments at Brown and throughout the country, grads in my department generally teach language classes. Though called “Teaching Assistants,” we are not assisting. We are the primary instructors for the courses we teach: we plan lessons, we show up in the classroom three to four times a week, we grade, we design activities, we hold office hours — essentially, we perform the same tasks as other teaching faculty at the university. Many of us are not new to teaching by the time we begin our doctorates, and consider it a meaningful part of the program: as language instructors, we often have the unique opportunity to cultivate students’ interest in the French language so that they might eventually pursue literary or cultural studies in the discipline, and enroll in the courses usually taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty.
My department could not function without graduate labor. On occasion, when not enough grads are available to serve as Teaching Assistants, the department is short-staffed. We are not merely receiving teaching “experience”: the university runs on our labor. I do believe that the faculty in my department recognize the important role of graduate work in the department. The NLRB must recognize this as well.
In addition, it goes without saying that a tenure-track or otherwise stable academic job with decent wages and benefits has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Because we are likely to end up in non-academic professions, PhDs can no longer be viewed as training for academic careers. PhD students are not only “in training” but are already junior researchers. It is unfortunate that current labor law does not recognize our research as work (even though we present at conferences and publish, just like professors). We also provide other crucial services to the university, such as planning conferences and serving on committees.
I am also a co-chair of the Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE) Bargaining Committee, and was previously involved as an organizer. Through my involvement in SUGSE, I can assure you that grads at Brown need better working conditions. We have grads who cannot afford healthcare premiums for their children, or pay for their own medications and medical devices. Many grads feel exploited, claiming that their TAship requires them to work above and beyond the hourly “limit.” Other grads who have experienced discrimination and harassment also report dissatisfaction with the grievance procedures currently available. For so many of us, a strong union contract that guarantees better wages and protections, and the solidarity and power that a union provides, are the only things that can truly make a difference in our working conditions. The university’s half-measures — a small bump in conference funding, the offer of a cooking class, a slight increase in dependent premium c overage — are not only insufficient, but insulting, considering the importance of graduate labor to the university.
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.