NEW HAVEN -- Last year, in a dramatic reversal, the National Labor Relations Board held that graduate teaching assistants at New York University are "employees" and affirmed their right to form a union and to bargain collectively with the university.
After being reassured by the United Auto Workers, with whom the graduate students are affiliated, that the students had no intention of bargaining over academic (as opposed to economic) issues, N.Y.U. reluctantly agreed to begin contract negotiations ― the first private university to do so. Recently graduate students at Columbia and Brown have also sought to unionize, and Yale students have been campaigning to do so for some time.
The unionization movement taps a legitimate discontent. At the country's great research universities, regular faculty members devote much of their time to their own scholarly work, which is the basis for appointments, promotions and tenure. The less prestigious work of teaching undergraduates is often shifted to graduate students, whose numbers must be kept high to meet the demand. It is easy for some teaching assistants to feel exploited ― they teach undergraduates whom the faculty have neither the time nor inclination to teach, and then, after receiving their degrees, are cast off into an inhospitable job market.
This is a serious complaint, which deserves a serious response. But unionization is not the solution.
First, it is more likely to entrench than to change the current situation. Unionization will define graduate students even more rigidly as the piecework teachers of undergraduates and will not meaningfully improve their career opportunities.
Second, despite the assurances of the United Auto Workers, it will be impossible to define, or to police, the line between academic an economic issues. On which side of the line should we place a demand that teaching assistants not be required to grade more than three papers per student in any course? Or that the papers have a specified length? Or that graduate students have some say in the selection of paper topics and texts for the course? Even if the line seems clear now, it is bound to blur in time; its contours will have to be redefined in every contract negotiation. If agreement can't be reached, litigation is likely to follow. Add the threat of a strike (something always present, no matter how friendly labor relations seem to be) and the situation becomes even more discouraging.
Most important, collective bargaining between a school and its graduate students is incompatible with the fundamental premise of their relationship: that the students are working to become individuals with distinctive views and voices, and that the school provides the means by which this goal may be pursued, further and more freely than in any other institutional setting. Collective bargaining, however appropriate in other settings, cannot help but change a university's relation to its graduate students in ways that compromise the culture and values they share.
Of course, universities need to be more imaginative and courageous in meeting their responsibilities toward their graduate students. They must engage the faculty more directly in undergraduate teaching, integrate the teaching and research that graduate students do, adjust the number of students admitted into Ph.D. programs to the job market and develop better career counseling for nonacademic employment.
But the graduate students who are fighting for unionization need to be more imaginative, too. They need to consider whether collective bargaining, with its demand that one voice speak for all, is compatible with the individualism of university life ― the life the students have chosen precisely because it leaves them free to follow their own path and to speak for themselves.