More Grad Students Want Unions

A growing number of graduate students nationwide are forming meaningful unions — labor unions, that is.

Several universities have seen their graduate students unionize in the name of fair labor practices — including the University of Wisconsin (search), eight of the 10 University of California campuses and New York University (search), among others.

Now an Ivy League college, the University of Pennsylvania, is tied up in its own student union fight, with many Ph.D. candidates demanding the right to unionize -- and university officials trying to squash the movement.

Unions have helped grad students, most of them Ph.D.s, get higher stipends, better health care benefits and other improvements in their working conditions -- like offices where they can prepare for classes and meet with undergraduates.

But the university says a union will compromise the educational, apprenticeship nature of the graduate programs and put a wedge in the relationship between student (mentee) and faculty member (mentor).

"The University of Pennsylvania, along with every other major private university, is defending the fundamental academic principle that graduate students are students, not employees," said Penn spokesman Peter Conn.

"Ph.D. education is so personally tailored and so much depends on the relationship between student and mentor that it is completely inappropriate to superimpose a collective bargaining, one-size-fits-all model on top of it," he said.

But members of the unofficial Penn union — Graduate Employees Together of the University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) — contend they're performing many of the same duties faculty get paid for, and deserve comparable wages and benefits.

"We are doing work for the university," said GET-UP co-chair Amy Heneveld. "I want it to be valued for what it is and have a say in my working conditions."

The number of grad student unions has seen a gradual increase in recent years, but the phenomenon has been mostly confined to public colleges. To date, NYU is the only private university to have successfully organized a student labor union — although Yale (search), Columbia (search) and now Penn students have launched movements too.

Clara Lovett, president and CEO of the American Association for Higher Education — who has been on both the graduate student and university administrator side of the fence — said her stance on the issue has changed.

"I used to think graduate students were apprentices learning scholarship and not employees in the normal sense of the word," Lovett said. "But over the last 20 years or so, we have turned graduate students into a very significant and very underpaid part of the academic workforce.

"Whether organizing unions is a good idea, I don't know — but I understand why they want to be heard," said Lovett.

Currently the process has been snagged at Penn. In February, GET-UP held union elections for graduate students, and exit polls, Heneveld said, showed a majority voted "yes" to organizing.

While states handle the issue for public universities, private schools are the federal government's domain, under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB already classified Penn grad students as employees in a previous court decision. But during the university's ongoing appeal of that ruling, the uncounted union election votes were sent to the NLRB in Washington — where they've stagnated. Heneveld and other pro-union advocates want the appeal dropped and the votes counted.

A Ph.D. in French at Penn who teaches her own class, Heneveld thinks her working conditions need improvement. Because she doesn't have an office, she said, she often has to meet with undergraduate students and do their oral exams in the hallway.

"They don't want to spend the money it would take," she said of the university. "And they don't want us to have any kind of power in this relationship."

Conn said money has nothing to do with it because for the majority of graduate students, the university pays their tuition, fees, health care premium and a $15,000 stipend — adding up to a total of about $45,000 a year per student.

"The University of Pennsylvania could teach its courses significantly more cheaply without graduate students than with them," he said. "Anyone who tries to characterize this as a cost-saving device is deeply misinformed. We make a tremendous, multimillion-dollar investment in graduate education."

Though she couldn't comment on Penn or any specific school union situation, the Association for Higher Education's Lovett believes labor groups are appropriate for some universities but not for others.

"There may be groups of students at some campuses trying to imitate what they see [at other schools]," she said. "You have to look institution by institution."