Written by Ben

I have a riddle for you: I was not hired, but my boss can fire me. I am in school, but do not attend class. I earn credits each term, but not grades. My job is learning and I learn by working. I’m 27 years old, but I have never been unemployed, underemployed, or fully employed, nor have I ever been a part-time student, failed a class, or changed majors. Who am I?

And more practically, do I have the right to form a labor union with those like me?

I am a graduate student. But does that make me a student or employee? This is the riddle that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) answered last week, when it issued a ruling declaring that “students who perform services at a university in connection with their studies are statutory [(legally)] employees” according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This ruling overruled a previous ruling from 2004 (Brown University), which overruled an earlier decision from 2000 (New York University), which reversed a decision from 1974 (Stanford University), which ruled that “payments to the [research assistants] are in the nature of stipends and grants to permit them to pursue their advanced degrees and are not based on the skill or function of the particular individual.” This legal back-and-forth shows that many people don’t really understand who and what graduate students are.

The essential role of a student is to learn, and the essential role of an employee is to provide a service for their employer. A PhD student does a little of both. As a PhD student in Microbiology, I take courses and read scientific literature in order to learn what’s already known. But a huge part of my role is to add value to my institution by conducting novel research and publishing my findings, and this constitutes a full-time (or more than full-time) job that is compensated accordingly.



“Piled Higher and Deeper” #1892 by Jorge Cham


My direct boss, the Principal Investigator (PI) of my lab, makes her career by publishing the science that comes from her lab in scientific journals. She doesn’t have time to conduct all the experiments that go into these publications, so, like any employer, she delegates tasks and assigns projects. Her job is to keep the lab funded, contribute to the success of her department, and oversee her employees. In this way, the PI-student relationship is just like any employer-employee relationship.   

The difference is that I work at a school, and this school has different rules for students and its other employees. Employees get time off, floating holidays, retirement plans, etc. Since there is no reason for undergraduate or medical students to get these benefits, why should graduate students? The argument against allowing graduate students to unionize is that collective bargaining would disrupt the educational relationship between students and school. This makes sense if you think about a union of students bargaining for easier graduation requirements.

But that’s not what is going to happen.

Graduate students at public universities have been allowed to unionize for years without ill effects (employees at public universities are considered government employees, and thus are not covered by the NLRB). Instead, students are going to bargain like employees: insisting that their work is properly compensated, having reasonable procedures in place for lodging complaints against faculty and administrative policies, and having the NLRB able to mediate disputes between parties.

The school’s goal is to have me graduate with a PhD, which happens to entail getting work done that is good for the school. That happens to be my goal as well, which brings us to the question, why would graduate students want to unionize?

The answer to that question is the same as it would be for other groups of workers: to not be taken advantage of! One of the biggest arguments for unions is that graduate students are often treated as cheap labor and are asked to teach classes for low compensation, no time off, few if any benefits, etc. For example, schools may pay graduate students the same amount for being the head teaching fellow of a large course as they would for teaching a small section of a course. A union could demand a fair pay scale based on class size or teaching hours required (e.g. class time + recitations + office hours).

While I personally don’t feel the need to start a graduate student workers union (my school has a graduate student council that represents us to the administration), there are many graduate students out there who feel their school does not address their needs.

So who am I?

I am a human being who wants best for my fellow human beings.

Because graduate students are, first and foremost, human beings, who deserve fair treatment.

benBen is a sixth year PhD student in Virology and Microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in Public Health after finishing his degree.

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