Workers’ Rights for PhD Students

Dec 29, 2016 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

A few months back, we reported that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of graduate students at private universities to have collective bargaining rights.  What does it mean?  It means that private universities, like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and others can no longer ignore unions.  It means that PhD students who teach at private universities must be recognized as employees—with the same rights and benefits.  For example, PhD students at Yale have organized for over 26 years.  Now, the university administration has to recognize and hear their requests.                                                        

What are their requests?  An anti-discrimination workplace.  Grievance processes for sexual harassment.  Mental health resources—so that graduate students can better manage stress.  Reasonable teaching loads.  Affordable childcare.

Perhaps one of the biggest requests?  Reasonable pay.  Some PhD students have seen their teaching loads double, with no pay increase.  At Yale last year, some graduate teachers had a 22 percent pay cut—for the same teaching assignment that they had had before. 

Why is this important?  If they have to ask for these things, then they’re not getting them by virtue of being a graduate student.  It means that students have no recourse through their university to file an anti-discrimination or a sexual harassment complaint—or if they do, their complaints have no currency.  It means they’re spending exorbitant fees on childcare.  It means that they don’t have access to mental health resources through their university.  It means that they don’t feel supported by their universities.  It means that instead of focusing on the work about which they feel passionate, they’re focused on maintaining an equitable place to work. 

The right to unionize will give PhD students the power to change their working conditions so that their work receives the merit it deserves—and PhD students can do the work and the teaching that truly motivates and inspires themselves and others. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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