College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

On Graduate Student Unions

By Eduwonkette — April 23, 2008 1 min read

I broke a few hearts with my take on graduate student unions. Mike Antonucci, who desperately wanted to out me as Randi Weingarten or Reg Weaver, probably won’t be able to crawl out of bed tomorrow. (But Leo, this is what the Walmart-sponsored anti-union flag really looks like.) So let me say a few words on this issue, and since my heels aren’t deeply dug in about it, invite you to convince me that I’m wrong.

I don’t have new angles to offer on the worker versus student question. Nonetheless, it strikes me that just as aspiring teachers must student teach to complete their degree requirements (performing the same job as other employees), graduate students are also students, not workers. (There are arguably many differences between student teachers and grad students as well, as I’m sure someone will point out.) The central purpose of graduate school is to train students to become professors, and part of that training involves learning to teach. Here’s the other side of the coin from FACE talk, a new AFT higher ed blog:

Beyond the legal and institutional definitions, the argument that graduate teaching and research assistants are students, not employees, and that their work is training as part of their student experience is problematic on at least two levels. First, graduate employees are responsible for a critical university function: undergraduate education. To suggest that they are not qualified to teach courses, run discussion groups, lead labs, etc.--that is, that they are untrained apprentices who should not be considered employees--is both demeaning and contradictory....Second, the notion that employees learn on the job should not affect their employee status....they are still considered employees from the moment they begin providing a service to an employer in exchange for wages.

Unrelated to the student vs. worker issue - the claim that graduate student unions will address the problem of contingent labor in higher ed hasn’t borne much fruit in public universities with unions, has it?

That’s all I’ve got for tonight. Readers, take it from here.

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