Republicans Want Grad Students to Starve

Over 20 years ago, I was one of many graduate students at a certain East Coast university who fought for the right to unionize.

Why would academics-in-training at a prestigious university need a union to protect their rights in the workplace?

Many courses at U.S. universities and colleges are taught by graduate students. In the early 1990s, we were paid less than a living wage to teach college courses, while conducting research and writing dissertations; graduate students with families were, as you may imagine, especially hard-pressed. We had actions, grade-ins, rallies and joined forces with the maintenance and clerical workers unions.

On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives held a hearing to put a stop to just what we were working to do 20 years ago.

House Republicans Seek to Undermine the Rights of Higher Ed Workers

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) adopted new rules to make unionizing easier for private-college employees and to “[clear] the way for union elections at religious institutions such as Saint Xavier University and Duquesne University.” Such rules are necessary to prevent the exploitation of university employees, especially graduate student workers — teaching and research assistants — who are in a sort of “apprenticeship” status as they pursue masters and doctoral degrees under faculty advisors who they rely on heavily for their careers.

In particular, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the NLRB is reviewing a 2004 decision made prior to the unionization of graduate assistants at colleges and universities. It is also revisiting its standards about which faculty members at private colleges “should be classified as employees who can unionize and which should be classified as managers legally ineligible for union representation.”

The House’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training and the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions called for the hearing about graduate students and faculty unionizing. The NLRC is, the subcommittees claimed, “taking steps to impose changes on private postsecondary institutions by re-examining its jurisdiction over graduate students, university faculty, and religious institutions.”

But the hearing was really about Republicans objecting, yet again, to workers’ right to unionize.

College Teaching Isn’t What You Might Think It Is

Some professors only teach one or two classes all year, sit in book-lined and technologically-equipped offices, attend lectures by eminent colleagues, spend hours in quiet libraries or sparkling labs conducting research. But this is the Hollywood version of being a professor. Most of us juggle too many classes with demands to publish frequently in peer-reviewed journals, to advise a stream of students and take on administrative duties.

More and more faculty have no office to speak of but only a bag stuffed with student essays and textbooks. They also lack job security: 70 percent of college instructors in the US are non-tenure track faculty and adjuncts; the latter may teach two courses here, one there, two more there, a Saturday morning one there. Being an adjunct means you’re a casual worker with no health benefits and no job security.

Yes, Graduate Students Work At Jobs in Universities

As the Chronicle of Higher Education observes, the very title of the House subcommittees’ hearing (“Expanding the Power of Big Labor: The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion Into Higher Education“) had “an adversarial tone.” This was not surprising due to Republicans complaints of “recent attempts by the NLRB’s Democratic majority to reverse decisions issued when Republican appointees held most of the board’s seats.”

Higher education officials (Michael P. Moreland, vice dean of the Villanova University School of Law and Peter M. Weber, dean of the Brown University Graduate School) testified at the hearing as well as a lawyer, Walter C. Hunter, who represents colleges as the co-chairman of the higher-education practice group of the Littler Mendelson law firm. Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, also testified.

Weber argued that considering Brown’s graduate students as “employees” would do nothing less than “damage the fabric of graduate education at Brown University and institutions like it.” He also said that

At Brown, we do not consider teaching, research or proctorships to be “jobs.” That concept is so foreign to our academic mission that characterizing our Ph.D. candidates as ‘employees’ would irrevocably alter the essence of our programs.

Teaching and research, which graduate students devote hours and hours to in preparation for future careers, are not “jobs”?

Representative George Miller, D-California, the senior Democratic member of the Education & the Workforce Committee, pointed out that graduate students could have their workloads arbitrarily increased without worker protections. Indeed, he noted that ”depriving the graduate student assistants of the right to bargain collectively suggests they are not intelligent enough to exercise the right responsibly.”

The House hearing was not really about protecting private universities’ “freedom of speech” or keeping costs down for students as higher-education officials have been claiming. The hearing was politically motivated. As Citizen Vox says, the NLRB is not (as House Republicans claim) trampling on the “sacred ground” of private universities and colleges but carrying out its mission, “to protect the rights of employees and employer” — and, I would add, of students and those who teach them in our colleges and universities.


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Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin5 years ago

The GOP predator policies main goals are to empower the Vulture Corporations, the CEO Vampires, the Wall Street parasites to impoverish the 99%. Why is it the voters don't get it? RobMe/LyinRyan plans to gut the working families, they have said in so many words, " Students can go to hell, seniors can go to hell, workers can go to hell." Why doesn't the electorate get it?

Amber Martingale
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

This is yet another reason all political parties should be abolished.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Adjuncts get paid next to nothing because they want to teach because it is fun (at least at the college level), and most of them are very part time with another job to earn money to live on. Graduate students who teach get paid next to nothing because they are apprentices and need the experience teaching to qualify for a paid job teaching. K12 teachers get paid enough to live in modest comfort because it is difficult and discouraging to teach a very mixed bag of students many of whom would much rather be somewhere else doing something else than sitting in a classroom trying to learn whatever it is the teacher is trying to teach.

Nicole Gorman
Nicole Gorman5 years ago

While not arguing any of the points contained within the article, can we agree on the pure melodrama of its title?

Penny Bacon
.5 years ago

Interesting article.

Michael Kirkby
.5 years ago


Winn Adams
Winn Adams5 years ago

Republicans have NO intention of EVER cooperating with ANY Democrat in office. They are against women, children and the middle class. Why they have become so obstructive over the years I can only guess is that they want more money in their pockets and to hell with the rest of the nation. Vote Republicans out of office in every state and at every opportunity.

scarlett g.
.5 years ago

RIDICULOUS!! These articles, slanted,biased and designed to titillate simply DIVIDE this country further apart!!

Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle5 years ago

An excellent example happened at the RNC this year. The people who believe in the free market system used music that didn't belong to them. They are not about justice, freedom or democracy unless it's about benefiting themselves. Free market is wonderful if it means they make money but not if they have to pay. Welfare is a crime and detriment to society unless it's corporate welfare and they make money from it. Congress interfering with any business or industry is sacrilege unless it affects their profits.
Boil done the Republican rhetoric and it comes down to three simple little words. Pronouns. I, Me, Mine.
And these same people claim to be religious and fundamentalists. The sacrilege is glaring.

Cheryl I.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thanks for the article.