Our Main Argument

Editor’s note: We received this email Sunday afternoon. If you read one thing on this site, read this.

Dear fellow graduate students,

I have grave concerns about unionization. I’m glad that students have begun to share their objections publicly, and I would like to offer my own. The key points of my letter are in bold.

There are many arguments that have been given in favor of unionization, but nearly all of them can be boiled down to two claims: first, graduate students are not compensated fairly; second, “you may have it good right now,” but this might change in the absence of a contract.

First, let us make an honest appraisal of our compensation. I will use my own payment and benefits as an example. Stipends differ across programs, and some students make more or less than me. But my experience is within the range of the typical.

I teach two classes per year, one in the Fall, and another in the Spring. These are 100-level undergraduate courses. If I were treated like an employee, I would be likely to earn approximately $12,000 per year ($6,000 per semester). I would also have no health insurance. This would be the full extent of my compensation.

Instead, for teaching these two courses per year, my stipend is approximately $21,500. I also receive health insurance, and the entire annual premium (about $3,000) is covered by BC. The deductible is extremely low, and the health coverage is comprehensive. The insurance is far superior to most plans available in the corporate world.

I also receive tuition remission. This is about $56,000 per year, for each year of coursework (over three years, this comes out to around $168,000). I do not see this tuition money. But it is a genuine expense on the part of the university, and it does genuinely benefit me (without it, I am not sure I could be here).

In short, my total compensation is wildly out of proportion to the actual work I am asked to do. Clearly, I am not primarily being paid for my work. I am not being treated like an employee. Our payment is not a “wage” (thank God). It is an honorarium: a payment designed to free us from the burdens of working a normal job, so that we can focus on completing our degree programs. If not for our stipends, most PhD students would be forced to work in low-end jobs during the school year. The stipend puts that burden aside (if we live even vaguely responsibly). It allows us to focus on being students. BC treats us, first and foremost, as students, not employees. This is an arrangement that is eminently fair, sensible, and beneficial to ourselves and the university as a whole.

My point is not that unionization might lead to a large pay cut (it wouldn’t). My point is one of principle: Boston College (and federal court precedent) is correct in claiming that we are students. The status of “student” has been distinct from “worker” from time immemorial, and in many important respects, we are treated far better than workers. To be a student is to be a recipient of profound privilege. We are mentees with mentors, and the University does not treat us unjustly.

Second, I want to address the claim that you should vote for the union, even if you are happy with the current circumstances. According to union representatives, BC now determines pay and benefits “unilaterally.” This description of the current state of affairs is, frankly, ridiculous. Students have enormous bargaining power, even without a union.

To see this, it helps to ask oneself a simple question: why doesn’t BC simply stop paying stipends? Or, why doesn’t it “unilaterally” end tuition remission? After all, the university could save a hefty sum by doing so. I don’t think a union representative could answer this question, except by conceding that our stipends are not really unilaterally determined.

I hate to say the obvious, but nearly every facet of our social world is the product of tacit negotiation. This is true of most prices, including the prices of our stipends. For the great majority of us, the stipend offered by BC was the best offer we received from any university. This is an important reason we chose BC.

The price of your stipend, like any price, is not “unilaterally” decided by one party. Prices are incentives that mediate knowledge between parties: knowledge that is widely distributed (for example, among thousands of graduate students). You know that you are willing to accept your current stipend. The administration knows that too, now that you’ve accepted it. This is hardly “unilateral.”

Without a contract, of course, BC can legally reduce our benefits. They have that legal power. But you also have the legal power to quit “unilaterally” and seek a better alternative. And BC knows this.

BC even has the power to stop paying stipends altogether. But it is a “power” they have only in the most abstract sense, just as I have the “power” to jump in front of a bus, or smash my own hand with a hammer. A drastic cut in stipends or benefits would bring about an exodus of graduate students, especially of those who are most capable. It would also mean a severe reduction in the quality of future applicants to BC. Serious programs at great universities offer full funding, especially to PhD students. That is how they attract the best applicants. Students do have “negotiating” power, even if we never sit down to formally negotiate and even if we have no union.

Unionization means bringing two additional institutions into the lives of students, besides BC: the UAW, and the NLRB. This will end the power of departmental groups who want to organize on a voluntary basis. If unionization takes place, it will be illegal for department student associations to bargain for better working conditions, as the philosophy students have (successfully) done. All such negotiation would have to be carried out by the UAW, representing the entire body of graduate students. Unionization means ceding our power of negotiation to a union, even if one that is supposed to represent us. If the students in your department want to engage in bargaining on their own, they would be legally powerless to act. The union claims we will be stronger together. But this “unity” is achieved by taking away much of the freedom that individuals and student groups have to take the initiative for themselves. If you disagree with the union’s chosen negotiation strategy, or are dissatisfied with the contract, you will be weaker, not stronger, as a result of unionization.

For BC graduate students, unionization is neither necessary nor wise. Union representatives always point to previous successes in increasing stipends or various benefits at other institutions. But there is never a mature discussion of the costs of these benefits, or even an acknowledgement that there are costs (aside from union dues).

One of the possible costs is in terms of academic freedom. At other universities, unionization has meant that opportunities are distributed on the basis of seniority and other contract-imposed work rules. Many grievances have already been filed at NYU, on the basis of such rules. https://provost.uchicago.edu/initiatives/summary-union-grievances-nyu-and-yale. The NYU contract is supposed to guarantee the freedom of the university on academic matters, but the union interprets “academic” in an incredibly narrow manner. As the provost at the University of Pennsylvania notes: “Such rules and restrictions might prevent individual students and faculty members from collaboratively deciding on student teaching opportunities. For example, if an individual graduate student wanted to teach in a particular semester in order to schedule around a research opportunity, the department might not be able to accommodate that student’s request under the contract” (https://provost.upenn.edu/education/graduate/faq).

If you are happy with Boston College, then you are happy with the results of (mostly tacit) negotiations that have occurred in an environment of free association: the opposite of a unionized work environment. To protect this unique institution, its academic freedom, and the proper role that future generations of students will have in it, I hope you will join me in voting against the union.

I apologize for writing under a pseudonym. I am doing so in order to avoid retribution, and also to protect my relationships with some of my colleagues. I hope you will give consideration to what I have said, on the basis of its own merit.


Peter Edmund