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The Absurdity of Grad-Student Labor Unions

Mises Daily: Monday, October 13, 2003 by


In the past half century, as unions in the U.S. workforce have seen their numbers dwindling, especially within private companies, American university faculties have been a virtual "amen chorus" for organized labor. According to those denizens of higher education, labor unions can do no wrong, as they "fight" for the "rights of working people."

Perhaps one can say that the irony is a bit delicious as graduate students at those elite universities that proclaimed "solidarity" with organized labor are now actively attempting (and sometimes succeeding) in organizing unions of their own—and doing it in the face of opposition from those same labor-supporting faculty members and administrators. But while it might be tempting to pour some more sauce on the gander, there is another side to this story, one that favors the "oppressive" employers over the "underpaid" and "abused" graduate students.

Both authors of this article served their time in graduate school (Auburn University), coming out somewhat unscathed in receiving our Ph.D.s (or what we call in academe, our "union cards"). Almost anyone who has persevered through graduate studies will say that the process is very difficult, and there are some situations in which some faculty members seemingly abuse their grad students.

(For the record, Auburn never abused either of us, as the faculty in the university's economics department made a concerted effort to be fair in their assessments and work assignments. However, no matter how fair the faculty members are, the process—by necessity and tradition—is very difficult, which is why most people who start fail to finish doctoral studies.)

In a recent news article, graduate students at the elite University of Pennsylvania were quoted as saying that since many of their teaching duties mirror those of full-time faculty members, they should receive the same pay and benefits. Unfortunately, they understand neither the traditions of higher education, nor are even aware of the main duties of their professors. At any rate, perhaps it is time for some of these students to "go back to school."

For those who are unfamiliar with the world of modern academe, there generally are two divisions, teaching and research. For example, both Wofford College and Frostburg State University (where we teach) are considered to be "teaching institutions," which means that faculty members have loads of 3–4 classes per semester and tenure depends mostly upon "effective teaching." 

The University of Pennsylvania and other major universities, however, are generally considered to be "research institutions," which means that faculty members are expected to publish in academic journals—and mostly "A" or "top" journals at that. These standards are rigorous, and even good scholars do not always meet them. For example, a friend of ours who is both an accomplished academic and teacher recently was denied tenure at a major university because he had not published enough papers in requisite "A" journals, although he did have a solid publishing record. Thus, he had to seek employment at another university.

Moreover, at the most elite universities like Harvard and Yale, it is understood that most junior faculty members will never be granted tenure. (In fact, in the first year at Harvard, junior faculty members cannot even attend some departmental meetings.)  Even if they have outstanding-to-good teaching evaluations and fairly strong publishing records, only a chosen few will be permitted to become tenured.

Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) face few of these challenges. While the teaching load may be comparable to that of most faculty, their research expectations are considerably less. The minimum requirement is that they produce a dissertation that passes the scrutiny of a committee selected by the student. Research faculty cannot choose the reviewers of their submissions to journals. And, while the dissertation may be publishable, publications are not required of graduate students—much less "A" journal publication.

The quality of the teaching done by graduate students also differs from that of faculty. Graduate students are almost wholly lacking in teaching experience, and are not the best candidates to teach advanced courses. In some disciplines, they do not even have the requisite command of the English language to communicate with students. A member of the faculty may be able to compensate for shortcomings in English by making great strides in research. But it makes little sense to pay graduate teaching assistants the same amount as faculty when they are not producing quality research that enhances the university's reputation.

Before one goes on about the unfairness of the grad student system, we should remember that everyone who takes part does so of his or her own free will. The employing department makes the expectations and conditions of work clear to graduate students from the beginning. And, despite the regular complaints of graduate students, graduate students are not slaves. They may forego their assistantship at any time and choose to pay higher tuition, or leave the school altogether.

At the University of Pennsylvania, one of the leaders in the unionization movement is a student named Amy Heneveld, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in French. She complains that the university is unwilling to provide an office, so that she has to meet with her undergraduate students in the hallway. "They don't want us to have any kind of power in this relationship," she said.

This is a version of the "economic power" argument against libertarianism, dealt with very efficiently by Murray Rothbard in Power and Market. Rothbard pointed out that "economic power," properly understood, "is simply the right under freedom to refuse to make an exchange. Every man has this power." In refusing to accede to the demands for higher wages or office space, the university-employer is only refusing to sell a certain sum of money and office space in exchange for the labor services of the graduate student. If the employer could force an exchange, economic power would be unequal. But this is not the case.

The terms of any employer-employee relationship are ultimately influenced by the preferences of the customer. As long as the employee is free to refuse to continue to make the exchange—that is, as long as the employee is not a slave—customers will produce rewards for those employers who pay no less and no more than the employee's labor is worth. If the employer is paying too little, higher-quality employees will tend to migrate to employers who pay them their value in the marketplace. If the customer is dissatisfied with the performance of a company with low-quality employees, that company will fail.

In this case, it is the undergraduate's parents (or, in rarer cases, the paying student) who are the customers. Ultimately, they will decide whether or not instruction from a GTA is equivalent to teaching from a member of the faculty. From our perspective, it appears that dissatisfaction with GTA teaching performance is a primary reason for the success of teaching-focused colleges like those that employ us. (When that dissatisfaction increases as the result of graduate student strikes, we will gladly take the transfer students.)

In any case, the pro-union graduate students are failing to account for significant portions of their total compensation. At some universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, graduate students have tuition, fees, and health insurance premiums paid for by the school, in addition to their stipend. At the University of Pennsylvania, the total package comes to around $45,000 per student. In some fields, that's at or above the normal starting salary for a brand-new Ph.D. in a tenure-track position at a teaching college.

The consequences of unionization for graduate education are grim. What of the other "currency" that graduate students work for—grades? Would a department facing increased teaching loads because of a GTA walkout be even slightly tempted to boot out the strikers with harsher grades? Even if they resist the temptation, the fact that a potential relationship exists would bring grading under scrutiny. Certainly American graduate education would suffer when GTA unions begin suing graduate programs for low grades, perceived stonewalling by dissertation committees or innumerable other offenses.

Labor unions in this country have not accomplished nearly as much for union members as they have for the union organizers and administrators. But by playing on common conceits among graduate students, union agitators have many of them absolutely convinced that market wages are the result of employer power and exploitation. There's exploitation going on all right—but it's the pro-unionists' exploitation of economic ignorance. When it comes to graduate education, unions should be denied tenure.


Timothy Terrell is assistant professor of economics at Wofford College and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He can be contacted at terrelltd@wofford.edu. William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive