Perspectives on Graduate Student Unionization

Introduced and coordinated by Kris Palmieri

Editor’s note: Following the HSS Council’s endorsement of the AHA’s statement on unionization (see the July 2020 issue of the HSS Newsletter), graduate students and early career scholars hope to provoke a wider discussion of the issue of graduate student unionization by offering their takes on why it is so important and why the current pandemic crisis makes the issue more urgent than ever. We welcome responses from readers, which may be sent to

Kristine Palmieri
(University of Chicago)

Although HSS is an international society, most of the contributions here are from scholars working at American institutions. This is not merely intentional, it is inevitable. Debates concerning graduate student unionization have a unique valence in the American context. Elsewhere, even in the absence of formal unions, graduate students are generally protected by laws that recognize their labor as work. This recognition ensures that they have access to benefits and legal protections that many graduate students in the USA lack.

I experienced this difference firsthand when, during fellowships in Europe, I was classified as a member of staff or as an employee (and in the latter case even had paid vacation days). But at my home institution I am simply a student who has the privilege of learning and whose labor is not considered work. Case in point: in October 2019 the University of Chicago introduced a new funding model which reclassified teaching by PhD students as being “mentored teaching experiences and separate from funding.” The new model is admittedly generous overall, but this does not belie the fact that identifying graduate student teaching as a purely pedagogical exercise denies the labor that we do in the classroom.

Moreover, graduate students do not just work as teaching and research assistants, or as independent lecturers and instructors. We are researchers who produce scholarship that contributes to our field. And if we work, then the matter of unionization should be our choice.

Denying that graduate students have the right to unionize also drives a wedge between those with PhDs and those without. If graduate students are the future of our society, and I strongly believe that we are, such a wedge is detrimental. It inhibits us from uniting as a profession in order to advocate for the employment rights of all historians of science, regardless of their career stage.

HSS has already stated its support for unionization efforts by endorsing two AHA statements. This is a good start, but it is only a start. As we hope these contributions make clear, discussions concerning graduate student unionization do not, indeed cannot, take place in isolation. HSS needs to continue thinking about what it can do to support graduate students as well as those members of our community in precarious employment situations. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many issues into sharp relief, but has also presented us as an organization with the opportunity to address them.

Eric Gurevitch
(University of Chicago)

The university is changing: on that matter, everyone seems to agree. At the University of Chicago, where I am a PhD candidate, we have seen undergraduate admissions become markedly more competitive and the undergraduate class-size grow dramatically. We have also seen the explosion of expensive Master’s programs, the trimming down of PhD program size, and more normalized compensation for PhD students. The number of tenured and tenure-track professors has not expanded with the increase of the undergraduate college size, and the difference has been made up by post-docs and doctoral students, who are hired on a short-term basis, and whose positions at the university are always precarious. Some of these changes have been welcome. Others have not. But in both instances, graduate students did not have a significant say in how changes were effected.

In October 2017, graduate students at the University of Chicago in the Biological Sciences Division, the Divinity School, the Humanities Division, the Physical Sciences Division, the Social Sciences Division and the School of Social Service Administration voted with a 70% majority to form a union in an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The university administration contested the election, and dragged out court proceedings until the Trump administration appointed a new Chairman to the NLRB. The Graduate Student Union (GSU) and the university administration have been in a stand-off ever since, with the Union seeking voluntary recognition from the university.

In May 2019, GSU carried out a three-day work stoppage on campus. They demanded recognition, better processes for addressing workplace grievances, and dental insurance. The campus shut down for three days. With graduate students and a large number of supportive faculty refusing to work, campus life could not continue.

Graduate school is—it is to be hoped—a short period in the life of scholars. At the University of Chicago, that time is getting shorter and shorter, with strict new time-to-degree requirements recently having been put in place. Universities across the world are changing at a rapid pace, and the precarious and short-term position of graduate students puts us in a particularly powerless position as changes are enacted. Unionization ensures that graduate students receive representation even as individual graduate students graduate—and this in turn ensures the continuation of research and academic life at universities. We believe that unionization is essential to ensuring that as the university changes, research continues to be privileged. As the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become apparent over the next few years, universities will likely shift to new financial models. To ensure that pedagogy and research remain at the heart of the university mission, graduate student unionization is a necessity.

Patrícia Martins Marcos
(University of California, San Diego)

The COVID-19 pandemic did not create a crisis, it merely exacerbated an existing one. For decades, graduate students nationwide have exposed the increasingly entrenched economic and socio-professional inequities that threaten our profession in the long term. Between growing job precarity, below-poverty incomes, dilapidated working conditions, intermittent access to costly healthcare, and the uncertainties of the job market, academics of all ranks are called to normalize the anomalous. Thus, this is a moment to rethink existing ways of supporting, fostering, and upholding scholarly communities.

For the HSS, this opportunity involves rethinking its mission, purpose, and powers. Professional associations, by virtue of their ability to unite, possess resources unavailable to individual departments and universities, for example to build up a coherent defense for the profession as a whole. That is not to say that professional associations and unions are one and the same, as each institution possesses different aims. However, both share concerns with the lives and livelihoods of their members.

As higher education moves into new terrains—something that COVID-19 precipitated—and as the profession diversifies and grows, professional associations like HSS are called to reflect and reinvent themselves. Can associations dedicated to promoting dialogue and advocacy continue to exist divorced from the material conditions actively undermining the profession? What other aims preoccupy its members besides publishing a reputable journal and convening a yearly conference? How can graduate students and contingent survive a post-COVID 19 job market and keep hope in the face of retracted offers, cancelled searches, and hiring freezes?

While the HSS may not have answers to these questions, it is not only vital for it to pose them, but also important to formulate concrete, action-based answers. While crafting solutions to the profession as a whole, it is critical to acknowledge the historical role unions played in navigating these intractable problems. As the university’s corporate nature becomes increasingly naturalized, profits rather than education became its true purpose. The fiction of continuity crafted under COVID-19—epitomized in the overnight switch to online platforms, and the sudden overburdening of many with homeschooling and caretaking duties—is emblematic of that chain of priorities which places the imperative of profits above the health and welfare of professional educators.

Professional organizations like the HSS must have a role to play in this moment, too. The price of inertia is great: the unmitigated decline of the profession not only as we know it, but in its entirety.

Sarah Naramore
(Northwest Missouri State University)

In retrospect, I wish there had been a strong union when I was a graduate student. At Notre Dame, where I received my doctorate, the “union” was something that felt more akin to student government than a labor organization. While it provided some conference funding and a needed community it did not, from my perspective, empower graduate students to see themselves as workers. Early on I never really questioned the idea that graduate students were students first. I had just come out of my undergraduate degree and honestly didn’t know the kind of work I would face.

Several things have changed my mind and led me to think that, going forward, unions need to be part of academia, not only for graduate students but also for postdocs, contingent, and term faculty. Unions are essential for their ability to negotiate for both financial remuneration and for access to essential institutional resources. This has been made especially clear by graduate worker complaints in areas with a high cost of living, such as Santa Cruz.

Another advantage of unions is that they have the ability to collect the concerns of the group in order to advocate on behalf of the community. Such a measure ensures that the most vulnerable (due to illness, disability, family commitments, immigration status, or a host of other issues) are not treated as “special cases” in isolation from one another, but as important and fundamental parts of the graduate student cohort. In my own graduate experience, and as an early career scholar, I have seen that the tendency to take concerns on a case-by-case basis inevitably leads to inequality in treatment.

Finally, I specifically want to address the issues of health benefits and leave, from both a professional and personal standpoint. Graduate students and contingent faculty often have poor, confusing, or missing benefits. I had serious health problems as a graduate student and didn’t know what my realistic options were, in terms of paying for treatment and getting time off; nor did I know whom to ask. I was away on research out of my insurance network and had to choose between losing time going back to Indiana or losing money but gaining support by staying with family nearer my research. It worked out in my case, but things could have been much better. With the new challenges of COVID-19 these questions will be all the more pressing. Whether online or in person, we are all still at risk for getting sick and need policies to protect us. Graduate students are workers and deserve the protection of a union.

Sarah A. Qidwai
(University of Toronto)

Unlike students in many other North American universities, graduate students at the University of Toronto are unionized. Graduate students are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902, one of the oldest unions of teaching assistants in North America. Currently, it represents a broad community of some 9,500 members across five bargaining units, including teaching assistants, sessional faculty, and postdocs. The union has signed nineteen collective agreements with the University of Toronto. As a graduate student there, I have benefitted quite a bit from my involvement with the union.

Before union members organized in 1973, there were around 440 pay categories with very little job protection at the university. Successful unionization led to protections, not only for graduate students, but for the units, e.g. departments or schools, that they were in, as well. A good example of the latter is overwork protection. Each department has a Workload Review Committee and for each TA appointment, there is a DDAH form (distribution of duties and allocation of hours). This form is given to us before accepting the job and there is a mid-semester review of the workload.

Meanwhile thanks to the union, graduate students enjoy a wide range of union-related benefits, including guaranteed graduate funding for up to five years, subsequent job appointments for five terms, protection in the form of a grievance process and workload reviews, and paid leave. Union members receive health and dental benefits and access to various financial assistance funds including a tuition assistance fund for members outside the funded cohort, a trans fund for members who self-identify as trans, and a sexual and domestic violence survivors fund. With increasing precarity and scarcity of tenure track jobs, I firmly believe labor unions are an essential part of academia.

Simon Torracinta
(Yale University)

There is a long history of scientists mobilizing around labor issues. Perhaps the first official trade union of scientists, the National Union of Scientific Workers, was launched in Britain in 1917. Its aim, as its founding committee proclaimed in Nature, was to “make it possible for the scientific worker to make research his profession.” A century later this issue is still very much alive for scientists and historians of science alike.

What would make it possible to make research and teaching a profession today? In 1969, 78% of instructional staff at US institutions of higher education were tenured or on the tenure track; today that figure stands at 33%. Meanwhile the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center reports that a quarter of part-time faculty resort to public assistance programs to make ends meet. Part-time faculty in our field are patently not exempt from such a fate, and the austerity that will follow this pandemic is likely to make matters far worse.

The history of science teaches us that knowledge is inseparable from the practices and circumstances of its making. It therefore behooves our discipline to attend to the damage that rising academic precarity has on our collective scholarship. Job market numbers for the tenure track indicate that, to the extent that graduating PhDs in the History of Science wish to remain in academia, the large majority will do so as adjunct faculty. Unionization is therefore relevant to their material and professional conditions during their period of doctoral study, and for their professional career thereafter. Graduate students with uncertain futures, who often lack access to adequate healthcare and robust contractual protections against harassment or discrimination, are not in a position to flourish and renew the field.

Young scholars in our discipline have much to offer in a context where, for instance, epidemiological knowledge is subject to acrimonious political controversy. But we are facing a steeply impoverished professional future. While unionization is no panacea for the broader structural crisis facing higher education—not least declining state investment in public universities—it does allow graduate students (as well as lecturers, postdocs, and public university faculty) the crucial right to collectively bargain with our employers over the basic standards of our work.

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