Graduate Student Unions

While reading the comments in a particularly doom-y and gloomy NPR article about employment for PhDs after graduation I came across a discussion about graduate student unions.  I have attended a different university for each of my degrees and none of them have had graduate student unions so I can’t draw from any personal experience on the subject (although, if you have some insight please share in the comments!).

Anyone who has been a graduate student knows that grad school is hard and expensive.  This article quotes a professor telling graduate students that they must focus completely on studies to complete their degree and not worry about compensation.  That is all fine and good for a 22 year old with no debt, still on his or her parents’ health insurance,  and parents who can help out occasionally but it sounds very short sighted to a mother of two returning to graduate school after working for 10 years.  In a paper by researchers at Rutgers University they report that unionized graduate students fare better in pay.

As Engineering graduate students we are among the luckiest ones as we usually have at least partial funding and often full funding including a stipend.  However, I have spoken to graduate students with children who say it is impossible to support a family on a stipend.  Not to mention that poor health insurance options will result in excluding any potential student with an expensive health condition.

The topic has been in the news recently as graduate students at Columbia University attempt to be categorized as both students and workers in order to unionize.  The dual nature of graduate student assistantships adds another layer of complexity to a labor issues.

Beyond fair compensation could unions also provide protection against abuse and exploitation? Do Unions harm the professor student relationship?  The same article referenced above says no.  Conflicts that arise between graduate students and faculty are often not sufficiently resolved because of the imbalance of power.  Would a union help these situations?

There is a lot I don’t know about the subject and I would love to hear the opinions of our community.  Do you have a union?  If so, has it helped or hurt?  If not, did you ever wish you did?

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