Jennifer Dibbern and Michigan Student Unionization

by Henry on February 3, 2012

Via a Crooked Timber reader, this story about a grad student organization effort in Michigan, and a possible retaliation against a student, Jennifer Dibbern, who has lost her position as a researcher at the university. The university provost’s account, claiming that Dibbern was let go because of ‘poor reviews’ is here. The union’s response is here, with a further timeline (which I found more persuasive than the union’s response, albeit hard to follow in places), and details of Dibbern’s awards here (including her college’s Outstanding Graduate Instructor award from a few months before the firing). To be clear: I have only heard one side of this story – while Dibbern has been quite specific in her claims, the university has only made very generic noises about the reasons why it believes that Dibbern was fired, and why this was justifiable. But there is enough there to be worrying to me.

I’ve seen what I understand to be the email in which Dibbern’s supervisor (who, by Dibbern’s account, was vehemently opposed to the organization effort) first states concerns about Dibbern’s lack of focus, a few weeks before she is summarily kicked out. The email, after laying out a number of general complaints (that Dibbern seems unfocused; that she had not emailed a colleague about doing some work on Sunday, although she had gone ahead and done the work) goes on to say:

I realize you have many other things going on but an increased [sic] in your focus on research is urgently needed. This will probably require you to decrease your involvement in non-research related activities.

Dibbern states in her timeline that in a person-to-person meeting a couple of days later:

Goldman repeatedly instructed Ms. Dibbern to stop all outside activity, this time in person. When Ms. Dibbern asked for clarification, Goldman stated, “you know what I mean.”

On the face of it, this seems problematic. If a student RA under my supervision was deeply involved in some political or social cause that I vehemently disagreed with, say, campaigning for the mass deportation of immigrants, I don’t think it would be at all appropriate for me to suggest that they stop doing this, especially in the context of an email suggesting they were falling down on the job and needed to start pulling their weight or else. Obviously, my students’ political opinions and activities should be their own business, and I think it would be entirely reasonable for the student to interpret my suggestion as a threat. If I felt that they weren’t doing their job properly, I’d say so – but I wouldn’t for a moment connect this criticism to their extraneous political activities (how they manage their time to carry out their various responsibilities is entirely up to them).

Under the most generous reading that I can come up with, communications along the lines described are wide-open to misinterpretation. And the generous reading is certainly not the only possible reading. It is quite possible that there is another side, or other sides to this story (supervisor-supervisee relationships can be complicated, and battles like this often have a Rashomon quality to them). Still, at the very least, there is enough of a question here that a blow-off ‘move on: nothing to see here’ press statement from a university official is very definitely unsatisfactory.

{ 113 comments }

1

Sandwichman 02.03.12 at 5:54 am

a blow-off ‘move on: nothing to see here’ press statement from a university official is very definitely unsatisfactory.

Is there any other kind?

2

js. 02.03.12 at 6:03 am

This seems pretty suspect. The first obvious question would be: how often are students kicked out of the program, and how “summary” can these kickings-out be? Any sort of precedent here? I’d be inclined to think this is related to the organizing effort. If it does turn out to be, or even clearly seems to be, I would be very interested to know if there’s anything people (ones not at UMich) can do–even if it’s something as small as signing a petition.

(And completely OT, I’m suddenly a lot more interested in “imaging microstructure” than I ever thought I’d be–those titles are awesome!)

3

TheF79 02.03.12 at 6:13 am

It’s also possible that her advisor is of the school of thought that graduate students are essentially slaves to the lab, and if you aren’t eating, breathing, and sleeping your research, why should I be paying you your $20k/year stipend if you’re only going to work 60 hours instead of 80 per week? It may be the case that it wouldn’t have mattered whether it was quilting club, unionizing, volunteering at a soup kitchen or a Klan rally, the fact that something outside of the lab was taking time out of research was the problem. From what I’ve seen on my campus, the number of academics who are of that opinion vastly outnumber the number of academics who would fire a grad student because they didn’t like their political activities.

4

Eli Rabett 02.03.12 at 8:47 am

FWIW, it is pretty clear that the student, Ms. Dibbern, was supported by Materials Science research grants held by the adviser, Prof. Goldman. The University did not stop supporting Ms. Dibbern, the adviser did and the Provost had little to nothing to do with it.

The Goldman group has about 12 graduate students working on different projects. This is a very different culture with future support for the group depending on current results and Materials Science is a very competitive, very support hungry area requiring very expensive tools (ever by a Transmission Electron Microscope/)

5

Andrew Fisher 02.03.12 at 8:49 am

Neither of the versions of this story makes the remotest sense.

– at http://www.umgeo.org/2012/01/20/response-to-administrators-claims-about-fired-gsra/ Dibbern says that she didn’t file a grievance because the relevant people wouldn’t meet with her. Why not submit it in writing?

– the email at http://www.annarbor.com/GSRAemail.pdf doesn’t show any evidence of long-term concerns about the academic quality of work – it relates to focus and communication over the immediately preceeding weekend as far as I can see. It cannot possible be appropriate to terminate a student on the basis of a short-term loss of focus or performance.

On balance, though, it seems to me that the university is the one in the wrong here. You can’t very well write an email to someone one day with a line like ‘I am concerned about your focus and would like you to start making detailed plans for each day using the biweekly goals sheet. Please let me know if you have access to a copy of it or if you would like me to send it to you. I would like to see a filled out version of it by the end of the day on Tuesday’ and then a few months later turn around and deny that that person is an employee.

6

StevenAttewell 02.03.12 at 8:54 am

I’ll throw it out there; there’s no way in hell “non-research related activities” doesn’t mean “union activism.” I’ve worked enough grievances to know when management is trying to lay down a smoke trail, but doesn’t pull it off, and this is one of those times.

7

StevenAttewell 02.03.12 at 9:03 am

Eli – doesn’t matter. The PI is the supervisor, and the university takes half the grant money off the top, handles the administrative tasks, runs the employee benefits and HR, etc.

8

StevenAttewell 02.03.12 at 9:06 am

Andrew – how do you file a grievance when there isn’t a contract which contains a grievance and arbitration clause? Without a union, all you can do is what she did – take it up with the chair, dean, etc. in a process where you have no rights and where the institution that wronged you decides your fate by itself.

9

Eli Rabett 02.03.12 at 10:02 am

Steven, it does matter. All grants specifically say that the PI is responsible for all activities including selection, supervision and letting go graduate assistants. Whether you agree or not with the PIs actions in this case, she was the one with the authority to do so and the University (e.g. Provost) had no say in the matter. As these things go if the Provost/Dean/Chair had TRIED to do so, they would have had their nuts/breasts cut off by the faculty.

Oh yeah, FWIW again, Ms. Dibbern’s prizes were irrelevant to these actions. Being an excellent instructor/winning a prize for a beautiful nanotech TEM picture does not affect research work for good or ill. What does appear to be missing is a list of papers and presentations where Ms. Dibbern was an author or co-author. That would be where the rubber meets the road. If someone wants to do a citation analysis for the other members of the group the question of relative productivity will be clear.

10

Chris Williams 02.03.12 at 1:33 pm

Blimey – there is no way I’d think about doing that to a student in the UK, not without risking a giant lawsuit and a massive payout. Here, if you want to give a student a formal warning, you base it on their progress, not on anything else, and you tell them about the evidence. And if you want to sling them out, you base it on the formal warning. If not, ouch. It must be our litigious culture, not like that American one . . . or perhaps it’s because we still (as of this month) have legal aid.

Does the US have any equivalent to the National Postgraduate Committee (relatively apolitical ‘staff association’ style group http://www.npc.org.uk/) which can advise on legal action in situations like this, or a system of University Visitors who serve (or their representatives serve, in the case of the Queen) as final points of appeal before you take it to the courts?

11

Andrew Fisher 02.03.12 at 1:52 pm

Chris@10 Agree completely. My first response to reading the OP was to feel pride in being British, which is not something we get to do very often these days…

Steven@8, maybe ‘grievance’ was a poor choice of words, but the procedure at http://www.rackham.umich.edu/policies/dispute_resolution/academic_dispute_resolution/ is pretty clear that the meeting/discussion is an optional first step in the process. Why would a union organiser, of all people, allow themselves to be put off using the process by milk-and-water management obstructiveness like refusing to schedule optional meetings?

12

Barry 02.03.12 at 1:57 pm

Eli @9: “Whether you agree or not with the PIs actions in this case, she was the one with the authority to do so and the University (e.g. Provost) had no say in the matter. As these things go if the Provost/Dean/Chair had TRIED to do so, they would have had their nuts/breasts cut off by the faculty.”

Has there been a case in the past decade where this actually happened? That administrative intervention to trash a grad student led to any backlash which actually gave the administration some worry?

13

Henry 02.03.12 at 2:05 pm

Eli – the university clearly sees itself as having some role and involvement here; otherwise the provost would not have said anything. The union is also saying (and the university has not denied this, whether because it is true, or it doesn’t want to get involved) that the proper procedures laid down by the department were not followed in this case. I could surely see how this is complicated further if, as is plausible given your arguments, the work is being funded through grants raised by the supervisor. I can also see how this would make the university reluctant to take action – especially if the professor is good at attracting grants. But this certainly doesn’t turn it into the non-issue that you seem to be suggesting it is. And most simply – do you think it’s appropriate that an academic supervisor should effectively tell a supervisee that she needs to stop engaging in political activities that she knows from other conversations the supervisor disapproves of? That is what Dibbern says happened, and it seems that there is some evidence to back this account up. Even if Dibbern were the worst lab worker in the world (something we have no evidence of), and was going to be fired in any event, this would be pretty problematic.

14

MPAVictoria 02.03.12 at 2:32 pm

Eli it is good to have you here, standing up for the rights of those at the bottom. Kudos sir, kudos…

15

bianca steele 02.03.12 at 2:47 pm

The e-mail refers to something called a “biweekly goals sheet.” In the corporate world this kind of thing can be used in an effort to create documentation for a subsequent process, although it could also serve as an attempted “wake-up call.” Normally, such feedback would take place fairly early.

16

Tim Wilkinson 02.03.12 at 2:56 pm

we still (as of this month) have legal aid

though I’m pretty sure employment tribunals are one of the many things it doesn’t cover.

17

Colin Danby 02.03.12 at 3:31 pm

From the timeline this looks like politically-motivated anti-union intimidation i.e. Rachel Goldman wanted to make an example of someone. The effect of this kind of action on other grad students is wide. An anti-union university administration will back her because they understand this effect.

18

KTL 02.03.12 at 4:27 pm

I have been a professor at large public universities for 19 years and held research grants from various federal agencies in the USA, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, and DoD. I also directed (for 6 years) a large graduate program at an R1 university that, at the time, was ranked number 10 in its sub-field by the National Research Council. The employment status of Research Assistants (RA’s) was one of the major issues I dealt with during that time as Graduate Program Director. There are small but important differences between the actual day to day aspects of holding a grant and having RA’s and the official version.

First of all, even though professors write federal grant proposals, grants go to the professors’ university (this is in contrast to some contracts awards and some foundation awards). Second, even though professors have great discretion in hiring RA’s, the RA’s are employees of the university and have rights and responsibilities as granted by the university. All major universities that I am aware of have formal processes for reviewing and evaluating RA’s in the context of deciding to end funding status. All professors, by virtue of hiring students through the university to work as RA’s, agree to follow such processes.

A very important question, and one where the university appears to recognize its vulnerability, is whether or not its own formal due processes were followed. The professor has a responsibility to follow the university’s formal processes in terminating a student’s support. I have cut the funding of graduate students who were either unable to perform the work or were not spending the time necessary to accomplish the work, and I have great sympathy for faculty who fear being bound by work rules that set an upper time limit on RA’s efforts. That said, a professor who does decide to cut off support has a responsibility (often a formal one and always a moral one) to provide very clear documentation for her or his decision.

19

Marc 02.03.12 at 5:41 pm

I think that Elis point is a simple one of academic culture: professors have wide discretion on graduate student funding, and it would be remarkable for a university to fire a student over the objection of their adviser.

It’s much more likely to be “antagonized her adviser, for whatever reason” than “fired by the university”. And “whatever reason” could very well be “because he doesn’t like graduate student unions”. Or it could be some poorly motivated personal reason, or it could be research performance. More information is needed, at least for me, to come to judgment – despite the temptation of speculating in the presence of little information.

20

Marc 02.03.12 at 5:56 pm

Also, the August 8th email linked there looked much more like

“you’re not working hard enough, and things aren’t getting done”

than

“stay away from that union stuff”

e.g. the student in question missed a deadline to submit a presentation for one meeting and was at risk for the same for a second one.

That’s pretty standard stuff.

Only one paper would be trouble in my field, but I know that other disciplines have different rules.

21

burritoboy 02.03.12 at 6:07 pm

Er, why should we care about Goldman’s lab? Dibbern’s unionizing is far more important than her lab work. Since I’m a taxpayer, I’m primarily concerned about labor conditions, not what Rachel Goldman is doing to pump a few extra dollars into some tech corporation’s bottom-line. Instead of constantly stealing money from taxpayers and then abusing them through layoffs, lobbying, and their abuse of their employees, Intel should actually pay for Goldman’s lab itself.

22

Eli Rabett 02.03.12 at 7:26 pm

What Marc said

23

save_the_rustbelt 02.03.12 at 7:40 pm

UM is an organization full of full-throated liberals, until it is time to buy a car (check the parking lots for non-union foreign nameplates) or to give union rights to grad students.

Then liberalism disappears.

24

GradGuy 02.03.12 at 8:04 pm

To Marc and others:

It’s a bit unclear from the Monday Aug 8 email whether Goldman was referring to that day’s events (the 8th) or the previous Monday’s events (the 1st). I’m pretty sure she was referring to the 8th, but either way it’s absurd to suggest that Goldman’s comments had only to do with Dibbern’s performance. Take a closer look at Dibbern’s timeline:

If Goldman was referring to Monday the 8th, then Goldman had MET IN PERSON with Dibbern that very morning. In that meeting she clearly told Dibbern that she opposed the union, saying it would ruin the university. Needless to say, emailing Dibbern only 12 hours later to ask her what she did that day seems more than little bit odd. In fact it looks like ass-covering for a union-related firing. Why? Because if Goldman had met with Dibbern only hours earlier, she knew what Dibbern was doing that day! And if she had any concerns about what Dibbern’s afternoon plans were, she could have asked Dibbern in the meeting! August 8th was, in fact, the day MERC handed down its decision against unionization. So it’s likely that Dibbern had some union-related meeting that day in response to the decision, and given her anti-union opinions Goldman likely knew the decision was handed down that day, too. But Dibbern couldn’t have very well told Goldman that she had a union event after Goldman had trashed the union repeatedly!

More significantly, according to the timeline, the previous Monday (the 1st) Goldman saw Dibbern leaving the unionization information session. So her pattern of comments to Dibbern clearly shows that she knew Dibbern was involved with the union and disapproved of it.

Even if the message of the email was “you’re not working enough,” the goal was to make sure she was working in the lab, rather than on unionization. Even in Goldman’s own critical email, it’s clear Dibbern worked on weekends, etc. For those of you unfamiliar with UM’s teaching assistant contract, there are clear guidelines for how much work a professor can require from an assistant in exchange for funding: There are rules on maximum number of hours worked. These guidelines exist to ensure that graduate students have enough free time to make progress towards their degrees, rather than just doing work for funding.

This issue is EXACTLY why many research assistants want a union. So even in the generous (to Goldman) reading of Goldman’s email, her expectations that Dibbern should work every day (including weekends) on Goldman’s project just serve to demonstrate why the unionization that Goldman openly opposed is necessary!

Goldman’s expectation that Dibbern should be available to work any and every day of the week and should be able to respond to emails within “9 hrs,” as she said in the email, is simply an unreasonable expectation for an adviser to put on a graduate student who has her own work to do, a personal life, etc. Too many professors see graduate students as their Kenneth (to throw in a 30 Rock reference). But grad students are not pages, they are individuals who have to balance work demands and educational demands. Many professors pretend as though these demands are the same, but most graduate students pretty clearly delineate between their own work and the research or teaching they do for money. Sure, they might get valuable skills from the latter, but that misses the larger point: You almost always only get “real” jobs due to your own research.

There’s a reason why fellowships that fund graduate students’ own research — think NSF, etc. — are so sought-after. The teaching/research assistant part of a graduate student’s life can be easily excised and it usually won’t hurt — and will often HELP — her/his career prospects. In contrast, many a grad student has had his/her career derailed by focusing (often because of the demands of people like Goldman, it seems) too much on the teaching/research they do for their funding, and doing so at the expense of their own research.

Research assistants want a union simply to get some guidelines about how many hours a day/days a week they can be expected to devote to their advisers’ projects in exchange for funding. Obviously, if Goldman expected Dibbern to be available to her 24/7, it’s clear why she was anti-union — but it’s equally clear why Dibbern was pro-union.

If Goldman truly wanted to be “professional” and make the issue about Dibbern’s research, she should have never brought up her views on the union in the first place. By doing so at length, she created a clear antagonistic relationship with Dibbern and made it impossible for her firing of Dibbern — which violated the department’s own guidelines — to be viewed as separate from her anti-union stance.

If Goldman only had a problem with Dibbern’s work, she had no reason to even mention unionization. That she did shows it was (at least) one factor in her firing of Dibbern, which is why Dibbern has legitimate case and the university is being so defensive.

25

Dan Hirschman 02.03.12 at 8:07 pm

To put my comments in context, I am a graduate student at Michigan and a department steward for the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO).

There are a lot of messy issues in this case. One brought up above is the ability of PIs to fire research assistants for whatever reason they chose, and how often that is used. At least at Michigan, it is not uncommon for a student to switch labs or to leave a program with just a master’s degree because of disagreements with a PI – personal or professional. That is precisely one of the most important reasons why GEO has pushed to bring RAs into the union (currently graduate student instructors (aka TAs) are covered, but not RAs). PIs should have the ability to fire students who fail in their research tasks, but they should be required to prove that the student has actually failed. (Whether or not PIs should be able to demand 80-hour work weeks and forbid their RAs from taking Christmas vacations is also something that will hopefully be up for negotiation – bearing in mind the complexity that many RAs work on their own projects in conjunction with their paid work.)

All this leads to a second issue: whether or not the University’s procedures were followed. The Department of Materials Science & Engineering requires students to be given notification of any problems with their work two months before any action is taken. Jennifer was first informed of any problem only three weeks before being terminated. The timing here is important, not simply because Prof. Goldman failed to follow the text of the department’s policies but because Dibbern’s firing took place soon after an important hearing about RAs before Michigan’s Employment Rights Commission (our state-level, public employee NLRB), and right after Prof. Goldman learned of the extent of Dibbern’s involvement in the RA campaign.

It may not be clear from the public statements and media coverage how outspoken an anti-union advocate Prof. Goldman is. She attended MERC meetings in Lansing (over an hour from Ann Arbor), as well as informational sessions, to keep tabs on the unionizing effort. She also spoke out against the union often inside her own lab. Although Prof. Goldman has a reputation for running a very intense lab, no other student was ever told (to my knowledge) to curtail other outside activities (such as participation in sports, or family obligations). The first allegations made by Prof. Goldman of specific failures were in the email linked above, dated August 8 (after having favorably reviewed Dibbern’s progress just two months earlier). Prof. Goldman fired Dibbern just three weeks later. If the issue were primarily Dibbern’s academic performance, why not follow the usual procedures, inform her of her failures, evaluate her responses, and walk through the appropriate procedures? While not an ironclad case, I believe the evidence – the timing, the failure to follow procedures, and Prof. Goldman’s outspoken anti-union stance – is together persuasive that Dibbern was fired for refusing to quit her union activities, not for her failures in the lab.

As to the University’s claim that no academic grievance is currently being filed, I agree with the above commenters that it is a convenient excuse. Dibbern was fired in August, and spent most of the Fall term attempting to meet with administrators inside her department, the College of Engineering, and Academic HR. At every turn she was stonewalled. Only after exhausting each of these avenues did she and the union go public. If writing complaints to the Chair, the Dean or the College doesn’t constitute an academic grievance, what does (especially in the absence of a formal, binding grievance procedure such as one provided by a union contract)?

Henry – Thank you for bringing this issue to Crooked Timber!

26

Henry 02.03.12 at 8:11 pm

Thanks Dan – that is very helpful additional information.

27

Henry 02.03.12 at 8:16 pm

Also – could I suggest that a narrative along these lines (ideally even more detailed) would be a helpful addition to the union’s website? The context that you provide here helps explain some issues that are obscure to people like me who haven’t been living and breathing this fight.

28

Dan Hirschman 02.03.12 at 8:37 pm

Henry – I’ll pass along the suggestion!

Two more quick things:
1. I should have also said that I am speaking for myself, and not on behalf of GEO. I stated my affiliation so folks understand my position, not to claim I was speaking for GEO.

2. If anyone is interested in expressing their concerns to the University, I would suggest emailing Provost Phil Hanlon ( hanlon@umich.edu ). GEO has also asked that University of Michigan faculty sign a petition calling for the University to remain neutral and allow GSRAs to vote on forming a union. That petition is available here: http://action.aft.org/c/984/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=3517

Thanks!

29

politicalfootball 02.03.12 at 8:53 pm

Also, the August 8th email linked there looked much more like
“you’re not working hard enough, and things aren’t getting done”
than
“stay away from that union stuff”

Which means nothing. Anybody who is illegally firing someone for union activity is usually going to avoid directly saying so, especially in writing. Dibbern’s account sounds pretty credible to my ear. Did she make up all those expressions of anti-union sentiment? Did she make up “you know what I mean”? Could be, I suppose.

30

hopkin 02.03.12 at 10:13 pm

The August 8th email sounds to me like ‘OK, you worked Sunday, but that doesn’t mean you get Monday off – I mean, do you think researchers get weekends?’

31

piglet 02.03.12 at 10:26 pm

I don’t know if you have seen this:

U-M faculty letter: Research assistants are students, not employees
http://annarbor.com/news/as-debate-heats-after-gsra-firing-and-dismissal-u-m-faculty-assert-that-research-assistants-are-stud/

This is of course BS. They are both students and employees. They have an employment contract and pay SS taxes, etc. And their GA salary is usually their main or only income. And I bet that the employer is the university, not the PI. I have never heard that academic supervisors have the power to fire their GAs at will. I was under the impression that TAs and GAs are normally employed for the duration of a semester or academic year though maybe I’m wrong here. This question of course highlights the point that GAs need better employment protection and that’s presumably why they would want to unionize.

In short, this stinks. Btw the fact that top brass are turning against the student is unsurprising. That is what they are paid for. In this case I suspect they might regret it because they now have a stink on their hands they might not be able to control.

32

Eli Rabett 02.03.12 at 10:37 pm

To start, if the work on the funded project that Ms. Dibbern was doing WAS her thesis research, how does asking her to concentrate on it take her away from her education and training? All of the things said about how PIs want students to work on their projects and not the student’s training and thesis work assume that the two are disjoint. In science and engineering that is not the case.

Further along the same track, rational faculty love students with personal fellowships because they don’t have to find ~$50-80K a year in grants to fund the students RA (add up tuition, stipend, travel, overhead and more). If the student has a TA, there is the additional factor that they have to spend significant time teaching and marking so their progress is slowed.

Yes, Goldman is an anti-union hard ass, but what is the solution here for Dibbern – to go back to Goldman’s lab? To continue in the same department? The usual is to find another adviser. If this is in the same department, well, you know how friendly departmental politics is, taking students that have left another group does not improve the atmosphere. Marc is right, this is messy but it is messy to require that PIs keep RAs that they are not happy with in their labs. That will never have a happy ending.

33

piglet 02.03.12 at 10:53 pm

Deeply disappointed by Rabett, who normally has more useful contributions.

It seems that responding in detail may be a waste of time but just this: “how does asking her to concentrate on it take her away from her education and training?” It seems that she was asked to “stop all outside activity”. This is not the same as “asking her to concentrate on” her research. In case the difference isn’t obvious enough, no employer has the right to tell employees what they should or should not do outside of work. All they can legitimately do is tell them: “this is the work that is expected of you. If you don’t complete it, there will be consequences.” Now whether the amount of work expected of her was reasonable is a separate question (can a GA supervisor really require the student to work 16 hours 7 days a week? That is another reason why unionization is of the order). The point is that this, like any, employer needs to be able to say: “I gave her these tasks to do and she didn’t complete them to my satisfaction, and that is why I’m firing her”. “She was involved in too much outside activity” is emphatically NOT a legitimate reason.

34

Dan Hirschman 02.03.12 at 10:53 pm

@Eli @32 – 1. In other industries, bosses are required to work with employees they may not approve of (different races, genders, sexuality, and so on) because they are expressly prohibited from discriminating against them. Moreover, employers in other industries are not allowed to retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union (ignoring for a moment the ineffectiveness of those laws for many workers). The GSRA-PI relationship is a professional one; requiring PIs to act like professionals should not be seen as a heroic request. If you don’t like your RA’s hobbies or politics, so what? Only because we have bought into the understanding of graduate school as a total institution (cf. Goffman) do we think that such absolute authority is a requirement of the position (see also Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds).

As for the specifics of the case: Dibbern’s requests to the university included asking for an apology and financial support to take a few courses to help transition to another department/field. More broadly, we are calling on the university to cease its anti-union campaign and to allow GSRAs to decide for themselves if they want to unionize. Notably, the UM Board of Regents voted 6-2 in favor of recognizing GSRAs as employees and allowing them collective bargaining rights:

“Consistent with the University of Michigan’s proud history of strong positive and mutually productive labor relations, the Board of Regents supports the rights of Graduate Student Research Assistants, whom we recognize as employees, to determine for themselves whether they choose to organize.” (Quoted in the Michigan Daily)

In spite of the Regent’s vote, the various Deans and President Coleman have made strong anti-GSRA unionization statements and advised faculty to speak to their students in opposition to the union.

35

Henry 02.04.12 at 12:46 am

Eli – you seem to have moved from ‘probably she was fired because she wasn’t up to snuff,’ to ‘well – if someone is so impertinent as to be a union activist when she knows that her boss is an anti-union hard-ass, there’s no good solution but to get rid of her.’ I trust that you see the problems in terms of basic values of freedom of political association, freedom to organize etc implied the latter position. More to the point – if it is indeed true that her working relationship with her supervisor was destroyed by the fact that she is pro-union, then this suggests that the problem is with her supervisor, not with her.

More generally, I find the whole ‘the university will be destroyed if we tamper with the mystical relationship between the professor and his/her RA’ shtick extremely annoying. We aren’t fucking Jedi masters initiating their apprentices into the Force. It’s a working relationship, with responsibilities on both sides. We can reasonably ask RAs to fulfil their work responsibilities. We can expect them to behave professionally towards us and their fellows – just as they can expect us to behave professionally towards them. We have _no right whatsoever_ to dictate their politics, or to fire them if they don’t agree with our own political notions. This is pretty basic stuff – and I find it somewhat startling that otherwise apparently reasonable people don’t seem to get it.

36

x.trapnel 02.04.12 at 1:13 am

We aren’t fucking Jedi masters initiating their apprentices into the Force.

… and even if you were, it doesn’t seem like self-regulation was without its costs there, either.

37

StevenAttewell 02.04.12 at 5:07 am

Glad to see some confirmation on the PI sole employer thing; felt vaguely like I’d taken crazy pills for a second there.

GradGuy and Dan Hirschman – thanks for putting meat on the bones of this story. My own knowledge of the post-docs who’ve unionized at the U.C gave me background on the kinds of shenanigans that happen to people even the faculty and employers admit are employees, so I was pretty sure about what went down, but it’s good to have the facts.

Henry – I think that’s an attitude of quasi-feudal patronage that runs throughout the academy when it comes to graduate students and faculty, whether they’re RAs, TAs, readers/graders, or just students. I know of cases where professors have asked TAs to do their drycleaning or walk their pets, and who didn’t think they had done anything inappropriate.

38

John Quiggin 02.04.12 at 5:25 am

It’s certainly true that, in situations like this, rehiring is often not a feasible solution. Regardless of who is in the wrong, a closely collaborative workplace can’t function if a relationship has totally broken down.

But that doesn’t excuse the university or the PI (assuming, as seems pretty clear now, that the PI sacked Dibbern unjustly and got the backing of the university to do it) – it just means that the avenue of redress ought to be financial in the case of the university and disciplinary in the case of the PI.

39

js. 02.04.12 at 7:21 am

I think that’s an attitude of quasi-feudal patronage that runs throughout the academy when it comes to graduate students and faculty, whether they’re RAs, TAs, readers/graders, or just students.

This, I think, is exactly, and extremely unfortunately, right. (Note btw the statement released by [some?] faculty that grad students are not employees because they are students! Frankly, I’d be happy to teach them elementary logic.)

The only real question is how you get (some or most) supervisors/advisors/PIs/mentors to realize they’re not Jedi masters (as Henry quite felicitously puts it). And the obvious answer is organizing of course.

40

StevenAttewell 02.04.12 at 7:47 am

js – quite. I think a part of it also comes from two failures of critical thinking on the part of professors. The first is a quite understandable tendency to base one’s initial reaction-type thinking about what grad students’ lives are like on their experiences a generation earlier; even professors who know intellectually about the massive transformations in academia over the last thirty years often compartmentalize that knowledge rather than integrate it with their mental image of grad student life.

The other is a unwillingness to think of themselves as bosses and to recognize that they are capable of exploiting their workers. Part of it comes from the nostalgia that creeps up over one’s memories of one’s own struggles as a grad student; with the comfortable distance of memory, professors are more likely to see exploitation as character-building, a rite of passage, a meritocratic sorting the wheat from the chaff, and at worst a war story to bring out over drinks. Part of it comes from the fact that virtually all professors are well-educated professionals who chose not to go into the world of business or who left the world of business to return to academia; thus they are unlikely to have a grounding on how relations of power function in the workplace and definitely don’t want to make that part of their identity.

Finally, there’s also the area-specific problem of one’s field of expertise. This happens less often in the sciences, but it crops up a lot in the social sciences and humanities, especially in disciplines that came out of the campus uprisings of the 1960s or which transformed in reaction to challenges made by the New Left, civil rights groups, women’s liberation movement, gay rights groups, etc. There’s a strong feeling in much of academia that what we do is a profession and a vocation in the old Catholic conception of those words, it’s a spiritual mission, a fulfillment of one’s innermost desires, and therefore not something that should be considered work, which we often think of as an unpleasant necessity. In these disciplines, this is added to one’s identity as part of a social movement or a progressive or a scholar who studies issues of inequality, injustice, or oppression who is therefore either on the side of or incredibly attuned to the underdog. Hence, the phrase I’ve heard over and over again, “I/we don’t exploit our grad students, we’re [insert discipline here]!”

41

Barry 02.04.12 at 1:39 pm

I would add that in a situation of severe power imbalance, exploitation is the natural human tendency. The PI/professor can always ratchet up things by trivial amounts, with limited opportunity for the student to push back. At the department level and above, this is a business, with grants, research and publications first and foremost. The economic position of the students is close to medium-term workers in a business, who are not expected to be around for more than 5 years, and most of whom will leave without a Ph.D. In many ways perhaps being an associate at law firm would be a good model.

Relationships between professors will last longer than relationships between professors and students, which puts a practical and emotional cost on intervention.

42

piglet 02.04.12 at 4:42 pm

“At the department level and above, this is a business”

Quite true and crucial to understanding what is going on. The University is now big business. They don’t like it to be put that way but that’s how it is. Thus, tenure decisions are based on the profitability of the professor and the rest is just pretend.

43

Colin Danby 02.04.12 at 5:44 pm

Steven Attewell’s comment @40 is one of the more insightful I’ve ever read on CT.

A bad argument you hear repeatedly in situations of grad unionization, which piglet also picks up on @31, is that being a student is metaphysically inconsistent with being an employee or worker. There’s a lot of unsurfaced academic ideology there. (This point goes both ways, though — piglet @42 falls into the error of assuming that because something has business aspects it cannot be anything else is “pretend.” Universities are hybrid institutions with all kinds of overlapping principles in play.)

Many academics happily participate in the much more widespread delusion that good intentions (especially one’s own!) are enough. The reason you need safeguards, good process, thorough documentation, and so forth is that even well-intentioned people will do bad things without checks and review, and the ill-intentioned will run rampant.

It’s also easy, picking up on Steven’s last paragraph, to believe that because one has an advanced theoretical understanding of oppression and privilege, one is personally incapable of oppressing or exercising privilege. I have heard that line more than once. Nope. You need safeguards, good process, thorough documentation.

44

MPAVictoria 02.04.12 at 6:17 pm

I think every here is being WAY to easy on Eli.

45

Pinko Punko 02.04.12 at 6:54 pm

I’m in between the Rabbett and the rest. Eli’s point appears that while there is smoke of possible inappropriate PI behavior, what is apparently underestimated in much of the rest of the thread is that productivity and progress by students are absolutely critical for lab function and existence. The PI is essentially a freelancer for grant money and the lab cannot exist without progress. In this way students are actually more like employees because they do not have the freedom to be useless, but they are employees in incredibly competitive fields. If a union existed, the appropriate way to fight for student/employee hybrid existence would be to push for student’s thesis advisory committees to have more teeth because this is the only way to have some sort of evaluation of the student that is not solely at the PIs discretion, and committee meeting should be used to officially document lack of progress if a firing is to happen. Departmental politics being a clusterf*ck means this would be a mess in practice, but it is likely the only fair way to do it.

Eli is probably more experienced with the fact that a bad student can poison an entire group. PIs live in fear of this. This story is not cut and dried I think.

46

Andrew Fisher 02.04.12 at 7:27 pm

Pinko@45 I think you have managed to miss the point by an unusually wide margin. It is Dibbern who thinks RAs are employees and wants to be treated like an employee. The university claims she is merely a student – which to them seems to mean she is less important than an employee, and certainly less deserving of due process.

I’d also note that PIs differ from your typical freelancer in having tenure, which seems like a rather critical difference.

47

MPAVictoria 02.04.12 at 7:31 pm

“I think every here is being WAY to easy on Eli.”

Yikes. That is a lot of typos. Sorry.

48

piglet 02.04.12 at 7:54 pm

“some sort of evaluation of the student that is not solely at the PIs discretion, and committee meeting should be used to officially document lack of progress if a firing is to happen.”

If they don’t have that at UM, they are seriously screwed. That alone would justify heavy criticism of the University administration. Coming back for a moment to the “student not employee” argument, if lack of academic progress was the cause of Goldman firing Dibbern, that lack must be documented somewhere. Don’t they have academic performance reviews for grad students? Can they produce documentation of negative reviews? You can’t give a student a bad grade without being able to document it (and they have a complaint procedure). But you can kick out a grad student from one day to the next on a the basis of “I have a gut feeling she’s not working hard enough”? Come on, that’s ridiculous.

49

Hogan 02.04.12 at 7:59 pm

@45: Eli’s point appears that while there is smoke of possible inappropriate PI behavior, what is apparently underestimated in much of the rest of the thread is that productivity and progress by students are absolutely critical for lab function and existence.

Which is why UM has a procedure for dealing with RAs whose performance is unsatisfactory. Which Goldman did not follow. Which appears to be fine with the UM administration. Which, in the absence of a union, leaves the RA no meaningful recourse. You see the problem.

50

Pinko Punko 02.04.12 at 8:01 pm

Andrew,

I am certain I haven’t missed the point. The questions are what involves due process for a student as an RA and what involves due process as an employee. What are those procedures going to be? They will have to relate to the student’s progress and presumably be tied to some sort of evaluation from the advisor and the student’s dissertation committee. These things should already exist, and if policies are not followed, then I am UNION YES if that is what is required to get those academically based policies enforced.
However, it is also possible that this student is both a union activist and a terrible/problematic student. Since terrible students are much more common than I think some in the thread realize (at least in the sciences), Eli was perhaps alluding to the possibility that this could also be the case even solely based on basic probability. The advisor being a jackhat in terms of documentation of alleged terribleness is a problem.

In the sciences at medical schools, positions are soft money so tenure has no meaning. Tenure does have some meaning here, but if you are a researcher and research is what you want to do most, followed by teaching, which I hope you at least enjoy and take seriously, you ARE a freelancer for your research and laboratory teaching (which is what funds graduate students in the sciences). You are not a freelancer for your classroom teaching, which is what moves undergraduates through the sausage and adds some seasoning to graduate students, but in terms of graduate student teaching has a much lower impact.

I would favor unionization for the strengthening of student benefits and making sure stipends are reasonable. I think faculty appear to have issues in terms of unionization of RAs when it comes to determination of academic policies that relate to student retention, though if these policies are not enforced appropriately, the union has value here.

51

Pinko Punko 02.04.12 at 8:18 pm

Hogan @49,

Policies should definitely be enforced, but pragmatically how is it going to work if an advisor decides a student is intolerable? Normal academic policy should be document issue but do so officially in form of meeting/deliberation with student’s dissertation committee- academically this makes the most sense. But Dept. politics being what they are, what if this committee signs off on whatever the PI says, what next? In the sciences progress in between papers (which can be few, so a low n on those data points) can be subjective (what amount of work constitutes a possible publishable unit, some labs have different standards for the data that they wish to publish and where), and papers are collaborative (the advisor usually has to sign off on the paper, etc.) create a situation where if the advisor does not like the student and the advisor’s grants pay the student, the entire system can be manipulated such that the whole thing can be gamed. What is the policy that can deal with this reality? Does the union have to agree to student termination? What are the metrics that could be involved?

I cannot stand advisors that function this way in terms of arbitrary and exploitative behavior towards students, but what policy would function that was academically reasonable- who will be making these decisions? The expert in the field is the PI- let’s say they are a scumbag, the next level of experts would be the dissertation committee- let’s say they are the PI’s buddies- where next? A university ombuds (hopefully not the WaPo or Times Public Editor level)? This person feels that policies were followed but they don’t have the experience to judge whether the PI/committee are evaluating the student fairly because there are very little objective criteria. What comes after that? A student committee? This doesn’t seem academically appropriate.

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Eli Rabett 02.04.12 at 8:31 pm

As PP said, about the only protection is the grad student grapevine. In extreme cases (and Eli believes it has happened) the Department can forbid a PI from taking grad students, but there are all sorts of issues with that too.

53

Eli Rabett 02.04.12 at 9:53 pm

Let’s start at the other end, someone who is doing, for example a degree in English or Math, where the thesis work is completely independent of what the adviser is working on although it may be in the same area. Typically the adviser is not a co-author on papers and books. Even if the adviser has a research grant and hires the graduate student to assist, the research that the student will do for the adviser is not part of the thesis work. No one would (big guess:) object if that research were limited in time and subject to a collective bargaining agreement, it is pure work for pay. If personal problems arise between the faculty member and the student whether the student should be allowed to continue can be evaluated by the commitee/department. What if the committee says that unless the student spends more time in the library she will be terminated from the program? Should a union have a say in that?

What if the student is receiving a stipend for work on her thesis research? It is not straightforward to separate the “work” from the “education”. The accounting fiction is that the student can only be supported part time on the RA which is paying her stipend and tuition, but how much (unpaid) time should she spend on her thesis research which is the same thing? Should the union insist that she only can spend 20 or 30 or 40 hours in the lab working on the project which is part of her thesis research? What if that is not enough to get the project done before the funding runs out? Who supports the student then?

Yes there are advisers who are asshats about being in the lab, given, as well as there being students who don’t show up, but let us discuss the basic issue of how much time a student should be expected to spend on her research supported or not and how that can be handled in a unionized environment.

54

Chris Williams 02.04.12 at 9:55 pm

Eli, no it isn’t just the ‘grad student grapevine’. The only protection is regular reports on the student’s progress that the adviser (UK ‘supervisor’) needs to write and file. This ought to be the case whether we are discussing the RA as a student – in which case the adviser has responsibility for their intellectual development – or as an employee – in which case the adviser is a line manager and needs to tell them what to do and make sure that they are doing it. Either way, saying “You’re a bit behind” out of the blue, and sacking someone a few weeks later, is not on. If the PI can in fact get away with it, it would imply that U Mich are not very good at research or employment quality assurance. And they are evil union-busters . . . time for a boycott?

Back to the grapevine: has _anyone_ ever heard of a PI so badly thought-of that s/he couldn’t fill salaried positions s/he was offering, even with regard to the most desperate, badly advised and out-of-the-loop applicants? Relying on the grapevine automatically has equal opps implications, because the blue-chip students of Professor X’s old friends/sparring partners will be warned off Prof X’s projects, whereas the clever but badly connected students won’t know to avoid them.

55

Akshay 02.04.12 at 10:47 pm

For those interested in this discussion I highly recommend the lecture and discussion on fear and power by Brad Epps at the occupy harvard teach-in. He got his audience expressing their fears about speaking out, starting at around 19 min (first video on the page). Epps’ intuition that fear is pervasive even at Harvard seems to get to the heart at the issue. Notice for instance in this very thread Pinko’s comment @45 about PI’s living in fear of single students who are rotten apples and could bankrupt their labs. Perhaps they are right, and exploitation is a necessity for surviving in the cut-throat world of university “capitalism” (or whatever we should call it)

On the thread since then, I believe fears that the specifics of a job termination procedure can’t be made to work out are exagerrated. Look at countries with stronger unions than the USA: it’s not like they have this perfect algorithm for solving job conflicts, but they have a different balance of power, which leads to different results when people exercise their judgment. These results are still imperfect, but I think they express a better work-life balance and a more reasonable level of job security.

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piglet 02.04.12 at 10:59 pm

Part of the confusion in Rabett’s comments stems from the question whose research the student is actually doing. Is it her own research? Or is it the PI’s research?

Some students get scholarships for their studies. Academic progress is all that should matter. Some get teaching assistantships to pay for their studies. The teaching duties are normally separate, and evaluated separately, from the studies and research.

Research assistantships are more complicated. The student depends on the supervisor both as employer and academic adviser. The adviser may genuinely mentor the student, or he/she may exploit the student as cheap labor. The interests should ideally be aligned – both should want the student to make progress – but what if that’s not the case? The situation is worse than in any private corporation because the employee/student’s dependency is so total. To argue that precisely that group of workers shouldn’t have any employment protection is rather perverse. If the relationship becomes untenable, whether or not it is the supervisor’s fault, the University could surely, if they wanted to, find a solution that would not destroy both the livelihood and the academic career of the assistant.

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piglet 02.04.12 at 11:06 pm

Notice also (further to Akshay 55) that the “rotten employee” argument championed by Rabett is not distinguishable from the argument made by any union buster: “union protection will protect the bad apples, where would we get if we couldn’t fire an incompetent employee on the spot, look at all those bad teachers wrecking the school system because they can’t be get rid off” etc. There is really nothing special at all to Rabett’s argument that couldn’t be applied to any other workplace. In any profession, in any workplace, there are bad bosses and bad employees. Research labs are not fundamentally different, although perhaps they are worse.

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Meredith 02.04.12 at 11:16 pm

To second Colin Danby’s praise of Steven Attewell @40. And to add a little.

Exploitation of research assistants in many areas of the humanities is less likely to be severe, I think, simply because the work an RA does in, say, English or History, is less team-oriented than an RA in a research lab does and less directly tied to the professor’s next grant or fellowship than a PI’s is (although, of course, pressures of deadline and hopes for more grants or fellowships are real enough for any professor). I know I was pretty clueless about the world of contemporary research labs/groups and PI’s until recently (via my son’s partner, who does biomedical research and has worked under several “PI’s” in several labs, in the US and Canada) — boy what a grueling world, for the PI’s as well as everyone working for them. The PI’s do vary a lot, but even the kindest and most thoughtful are unbelievably demanding and under their own pressures (competition for grants, especially, just to keep their research going). I compare what its like for people in these labs to the grad students and post-docs I knew in physics 35 years ago or so, and I see no comparison. Incredibly hard as those physics students worked, they also had some time for lives — and it was just different. More a sense of shared enterprise with the professor and less of being a cog in a machine that was always being speeded up.

You’d think the guidelines unionization promises would be helpful all round. Especially if unionization went national, the insanely frenetic pace of research might be slowed a little to one that made everyone’s lives better. Within the workplace/space of shared scholarly endeavor (call it what you will — I think both are apt), formal guidelines would make it easier for everyone to conduct themselves professionally in the midst of personal relationships. I was thinking about this in a different context recently, when my adm. asst. had her annual “performance review.” She and I are friends certainly in the workplace and sometimes outside it, which is part of why we work so well together. But which also makes it useful to have very formal review procedures — time set aside from any considerations of personal friendship to review both her work and what I could do differently or better so that, together, we can accomplish our shared goal of serving the department.

One caveat concerning Steve Attewell’s last paragraph, about 1960’s activists and notion of scholarship as mission (or, if you will, pro-fession: yes, there is a religious history to this). If that notion is now confined to us of that generation, I am saddened (though I appreciate the larger point SA is making). But more important, I don’t see that notion of mission to be at all in conflict with unionization (see my last paragraph).

As someone who worked to form the TA’s union at Michigan in the early-mid 70’s (minor role, but one large enough to lose me my initially arranged thesis adviser — common response then, and like sexual harassment and such in those days, not only perfectly “legal” but also unlikely to prompt outrage anywhere), I’d be curious to know how many professors truly of “the ’60’s” generation oppose unionization of UofM’s RA’s. Not too many of us from that “60’s” generation who got Ph.D.’s — and who were also political activists — actually got tenured positions in academia, at least at elite universities and colleges (Camille Paglia’s vision of things notwithstanding). Professor Goldman herself must not have been born till the mid-late 60’s. There’s a tendency I’ve observed among many born in and since about 1980 or 1985, to collapse late 70’s, 80’s, and even early 90’s generations with “the 60’s.” I’d compare that to collapsing the WWII generation with the Korean (which would be a very strange thing to do). I am truly curious to know: are there (a significant number of, not the odd occurence) 60’s generation prof’s at the U of M, who were real activists in their 60’s youth, who oppose unionization?

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Linnaeus 02.05.12 at 1:44 am

My institution had an (ultimately successful) academic student employee unionization drive about ten years ago, and RAs are included in the bargaining unit along with TAs, graders, tutors, etc. When our union won its representation vote and wanted to represent both TAs and RAs, the university objected on the same grounds that U-M’s administration is, i.e., that RAs are primarily students and that their funding goes to support their academic work, which means they’re not employees. Our union’s response was that 1) RAs often do work that is not directly related to their own research/thesis/dissertation and 2) regardless, RA work is integral to overall research mission of the university (like the work of faculty) and because of that, they are employees. The state public employment commission ruled in our union’s favor, and RAs have been covered by a collective bargaining agreement ever since our first one back in 2004.

Some faculty voiced concerns during all of this, and I’m sure there are individual faculty who would prefer that their RAs were not unionized. But on the whole, the inclusion of RAs (and there was significant support among RAs to be unionized) hasn’t created any serious institutional problems. To my knowledge, neither the university’s central administration, the faculty senate, or departments have lodged any serious complaint against or made any serious moves to exclude RAs from our bargaining unit. Indeed, the university routinely touts the productivity of our RAs and faculty can always be heard talking about how vital graduate (and some undergraduate) work is in making the university work as a whole.

I suspect that a lot of faculty concerns about RA unionization could be alleviated by better understanding of what an ASE union does and how CBAs work. I also suspect that a few faculty might not be satisfied by this because they see their labs/research groups as their own personal fiefdoms.

60

StevenAttewell 02.05.12 at 3:32 am

Meredith –

First of all, thanks to both Colin and yourself for the praise; I’m blushing.

In terms of the humanities, Teaching Assistant-ships and Readerships are the major source of exploitation, because that’s where the high volume of work actually gets done and it’s where the rubber meets the road when funding cuts intersect with higher enrollment – more students and fewer people to run the sections and do the grading, the academic equivalent of speed-up and stretch-out.

You’re quite right – a well-enforced union contract is the best way to counter-act this trend by brute-forcing a ceiling on hours of work.

Regarding the 60s (and you’ll note that I was also discussing people from later generations in disciplines and sub-disciplines created by the 1960s and later movements) – many of them don’t outright oppose unionization; in fact, quite often they are pro-union in the abstract. The problem is that they disassociate their political stance from their workplace, and thus get upset when their lives get made difficult by the union challenging their work practices. Suddenly they view this union as outside meddlers even as they support unions in the general.

However, you do see the tendency for progressive-identified academics to take the stance that “grad students aren’t Houston janitors [or sweatshop workers, etc.] and thus aren’t being exploited and shouldn’t worry about unions.”

61

Marc 02.05.12 at 4:28 am

If I get a million dollar grant I’m on the hook to produce results. If I’m working on a team, I’m expected to do my part or there are chain reaction consequences to others. If I screw up, or don’t do what I said I’d do, then I lose my funding. And in a lot of the sciences it’s incredibly hard to recover and regain it. So a student who is not producing in the lab can be a serious and active problem.

It isn’t just that a bad student can drag down an entire c0llaborative effort. You have deadlines, you have competition, and not everyone will agree to abide by 40 hour week rules. Not everyone is well suited by temperament or circumstance to deal with this, but it’s a fact. Other people willing to work 80 hour weeks are applying for the same jobs that you are.

By the same token, research work is intensely co-operative and collaborative; students are relying on advisers to give them recommendations that are crucial for their career.

If unions mean “doesn’t work on the weekend” or “lengthy grievance procedures to deal with academic judgements” – yup, you’re going to get a lot of well-justified opposition from faculty. If you’re talking about health care or salaries – there would be support.

It’s also very relevant, by the way, that science graduate students typically get good stipends, are supported by grants, and have decent benefits. Different disciplines have radically different graduate student experiences, and I get the feeling that a lot of the people posting here are coming from a humanities background and don’t have a feeling for the culture involved on the science side.

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StevenAttewell 02.05.12 at 4:44 am

Tell me, Marc, what’s your justification for the argument that research assistants shouldn’t enjoy the same right to an eight hour day and a 40-hour week that private sector workers got in 1938?

FYI, the highest PhD stipend in the country in biomedical and biological sciences puts you at $32k in New York City. The median stipend is more like $25k a year. Which brings me to this point – how low should people’s income go before they have the permission of their employers to unionize? 30th percentile? 20th?

63

Marc 02.05.12 at 4:55 am

Steve – because you’re training for a professional career where the people involved don’t work 40 hour weeks. Science is creative work, like music or art. Writers don’t turn off after 40 hours, painters don’t, and scientists don’t. We work more than 40 hours a week many years after we have to because it’s a joy to do what we do. People continue to come in and do research for free after they retire.

I get paid to figure out how the universe works; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. What price would most people pay to get that sort of job description?

64

Enda H 02.05.12 at 5:00 am

@Marc

If unions mean “doesn’t work on the weekend” or “lengthy grievance procedures to deal with academic judgements” – yup, you’re going to get a lot of well-justified opposition from faculty. If you’re talking about health care or salaries – there would be support.

I’m a TA in Michigan. As Meredith pointed out, the TA’s have been unionized since the 1970s (sincere thanks for your efforts, Meredith) and forty years later I’m in the library at 11:52 on a Saturday night grading exams that I proctored on Friday afternoon. Working on the weekend isn’t the issue. It never was and I expect it never will be.

As for the lengthy procedures to deal with academic judgements: UM wrote up their own rules on academic administration and it appears failed to follow them in this case. If nothing else, this gives the appearance of impropriety rather than fair procedure for dismissal.

In the abstract, Jennifer Dibbern’s case isn’t a pro-union issue at all. There are of course arguments for and against RA unionization. Let there be a free and open debate on the referendum.

The referendum was endorse by the Regents of the University. Campaigning is authorized and part of the democratic process. Now we see a member of the ‘Yes’ side was kicked out of her program by a member of ‘No’ side. There may well be an innocent explanation. Nonetheless this looks like punishment for political activism. That should worry you, be you pro- or anti-union.

65

Linnaeus 02.05.12 at 5:24 am

If unions mean “doesn’t work on the weekend” or “lengthy grievance procedures to deal with academic judgements” – yup, you’re going to get a lot of well-justified opposition from faculty. If you’re talking about health care or salaries – there would be support.

These issues can be – and are – dealt with at the bargaining table. RAs have been represented by a union at my university for several years now (and we’ve gone through several successive contracts). It’s worked out well, at least well enough that RAs continue to join our union; the university and individual departments accept that and have not on the whole made attempts to stop or reverse that. The concern that RAs would somehow not show proper diligence in pursuing their work hasn’t materialized in any noticeable way, at least not from what I’ve learned in working with my union and from talking to various RAs, faculty, etc. Granted, I can’t say for certain that there’s never been a problem with an RA not pulling his or her weight, but I’m sure that happened before unionization and I’ve seen no evidence that RA unionization at my university has made any of these instances worse. And RAs have – as they should – access to the full scope of representation under our collective bargaining agreement

It’s worth keeping in mind that academic student union bargaining teams are comprised of student workers themselves, from a range of disciplines, and so they’re going to be aware of what work is like in various academic environments.

I get paid to figure out how the universe works; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. What price would most people pay to get that sort of job description?

That’s great and you’re fortunate to be able to do so. The problem that I have with these kind of “psychic wage” arguments (and I’m not saying that you meant it this way, Marc, only that I’ve seen this before from others) is that they can be used to justify poor treatment, e.g. “hey, we’re cutting your health care coverage, but you still get to work on the secrets of the universe, so count yourself lucky.”

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js. 02.05.12 at 6:58 am

Steven @60: However, you do see the tendency for progressive-identified academics to take the stance that “grad students aren’t Houston janitors [or sweatshop workers, etc.] and thus aren’t being exploited and shouldn’t worry about unions.”

This and your post @40 are totally and exactly right. What’s sort of sad about this is that it has a huge effect on how grad students very often think about their own position and role. I remember early in grad school, a decade or so ago, talking to some friends who were organizers, and them suggesting that we unionize, and this seeming crazy to me at the time. Even though, abstractly, I was extremely pro-union. After all, I was a student, not a worker. I guess this is really neither here nor there, but I think there’s this sort of feudal vestige to the mentor-advisee relation, and wide-scale unionization is really the way to rid ourselves of it.

Marc @63: Science is creative work, like music or art. Writers don’t turn off after 40 hours, painters don’t, and scientists don’t.

Yes, it’s all very beautiful, but the point is about fair terms for paid employment, so I’m failing to see how this matters.

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Emma in Sydney 02.05.12 at 7:21 am

Just as a data point, other countries have unionised university workforces who bargain fair hours, pay and conditions for research assistants and other staff — here’s my former union right here — and research still gets done. Oddly enough.

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Eli Rabett 02.05.12 at 8:44 am

Steve writes “FYI, the highest PhD stipend in the country in biomedical and biological sciences puts you at $32k in New York City. The median stipend is more like $25k a year. Which brings me to this point – how low should people’s income go before they have the permission of their employers to unionize? 30th percentile? 20th?”

Counting tuition? The cost of an RA to a grant includes tuition (it also often includes overhead, but that is an entirely different story) and materials and equipment usage fees. If the student were not supported by the grant she would have to come up with that out of whatever salary she was earning elsewhere. A reasonable range is that a student cost to a grant is about 60-100K$/year depending on the local rules about tuition and overhead. While universities are not allowed to charge overhead on tuition, they often do so on stipends.

The problem is not that unions are incompatible with research in science and engineering, the problem is that there are real tensions between the thesis research and the work parts of the job which have to be dealt with.

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kris 02.05.12 at 9:28 am

Marc,

If someone is getting large, million dollar grants and has a lab where students are expected to work 80 hr. weeks, you are not being paid to figure out the mysteries of the universe. She(he) is instead being paid to be a manager. Grant writing is a job in itself, and as with any creative work, there are diminishing returns to longer work hours.
Besides, the universe is not going anywhere, and I am sure there will be secrets still left to be discovered, if students don’t perform slave labour, and a smaller number of papers are written.

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Zamfir 02.05.12 at 10:05 am

Counting tuition? The cost of an RA to a grant includes tuition (it also often includes overhead, but that is an entirely different story) and materials and equipment usage fees.
That’s true in every other kind of job as well. People require training, facilities and other overhead to get their job done, so adding an employee to the payroll costs far more than their salary.

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purple 02.05.12 at 10:06 am

Grad students are contractually required to work a certain number of hours a week; anything beyond that is unpaid labor, and illegal. Only in the wooly minds of academia is this a complicated issue. In the private sector this is a class action lawsuit.

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Marc 02.05.12 at 2:31 pm

@71: Here in the US you’re flatly wrong. Salaried workers, like me, have no 40 hour work week limit.

@69: And with this sort of abusive horseshit I’m out of here.

I’m sorry that you have a job that you hate and that you count the minutes until 5 PM. I enjoy what I do; I see no relationship between my training, my current work, and the environment of the students in my profession with the bitter and distorted blather that I see here. Doing what you love isn’t slave labor in any meaningful sense of the word.

And, yup, other countries have other rules. In fields like mine this has the direct consequence that US scientists are far more productive than those elsewhere, and that many of the most talented people in the world come to the US. (The fact that the pay is a lot better in most cases doesn’t hurt either.)

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djw 02.05.12 at 3:12 pm

Marc, I find the notion that a) gaining significant satisfaction from one’s job, and b) maintaining interests, priorities and commitments outside of work and wishing to maintain a healthy life-work balance are in some sense incompatible quite bizarre.

At any rate, it’s moot: I suspect that if most research assistants feel the way you do, RA unionization won’t get too far. I know from my own organizing work at the UW that that was manifestly not the case; many were very concerned about the ability of the faculty running the labs they worked in to abuse their power. An overwhelming majority of them wanted to join the union–including many who were treated very well and happy in their own working environment .

This, to me, is the point; if your view prevails, RA unions won’t succeed, nor should they. In my experience, however, that wasn’t the case at all; there were a wide variety of concerns regarding the power imbalance and the potential for abuse of that power given the current configuration of power in the labs and in the larger context of the university–that many hoped could be improved through unionization. It’s both inaccurate and insulting to suggest that such a desire indicates these people aren’t serious about their jobs or their vocation.

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MPAVictoria 02.05.12 at 5:02 pm

“Counting tuition? The cost of an RA to a grant includes tuition (it also often includes overhead, but that is an entirely different story) and materials and equipment usage fees. “

If I work at a factory should the owner be able to subtract the cost of the equipment I am using from my wage?

“And with this sort of abusive horseshit I’m out of here.”

Marc what was so abusive about 69?

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spencer 02.05.12 at 5:58 pm

kris @69 was abusive? It’s a wonder a skin as thin as yours manages to hold your body together, Marc.

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Eli Rabett 02.05.12 at 6:22 pm

MPAVictoria ever wonder why science and engineering grad students don’t emerge from their PhD’s with a mountain of debt the way medical and law school students do? It’s because someone else (the PI through grants) PAYS THEIR TUITION. It is a real cost and a benefit. Same as health insurance (btw, that gets charged to the grants also), social security is an interesting issue tho.

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MPAVictoria 02.05.12 at 6:27 pm

Eli you are being evasive.

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js. 02.05.12 at 6:35 pm

Eli @76,

Odd comparison, this. Since, after all, grad students in the humanities and the social sciences ALSO FINISH THEIR PHDS WITHOUT INCURRING A MOUNTAIN OF DEBT. (Sorry, wanted to see if all-caps makes an argument stronger; it doesn’t.) Grad students in humanities etc. are the right comparison class because in both cases, tuition is waived or otherwise paid in return for working—as an employee of the university, whether as a TA or a RA.

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Barry 02.05.12 at 9:48 pm

Eli Rabett, about stipends:

” Counting tuition? “

Most grad school tuition is as ‘real’ in the same sense as communist system prices were.
You try running almost any field on straight up market principles (students take out loans, labs hire pure employees), and your classrooms would empty out immediately.

The tuition is nothing but wooden nickels.

Marc – you weren’t abused, you had facts written to you. It’s hilarious when somebody who thinks that grad students can’t be abused gets hypersensitive about simple debate.

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William Eric Uspal 02.05.12 at 9:50 pm

Graduate tuition is a trifle absurd when your typical late stage grad student (myself being one) isn’t taking classes. What, exactly, is it paying for? Not facilities, because that comes out of overhead. Is it more than an accounting fiction? (The economics of running a lab are opaque to me, as you might have gathered.)

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StevenAttewell 02.05.12 at 10:12 pm

Marc – this isn’t complex. We’re not talking about people working more than 40 hours a week because they want to, we’re talking about them being required to do so in order to keep their jobs. The 40 hour week established by the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t prevent anyone from working more than that, it just means that you can’t be forced to, and that employers must pay time-and-a-half to compensate them for going above and beyond the call of duty.

Also, while it may be your experience that grad students in the labs you frequent don’t seem to be exploited, there’s plenty of people in those labs who feel that they are.

Eli, js:

Let’s get some facts to work with. 42.7% of postsecondary students took out loans in 2007-8, up from 26% in 95-96, and the average amount of debt is up from $11k to $18k. 37.3% of humanities grad students, 57.7% of social/behavioral scientists, 36.6% of life and physical sciences, and 19.3% of engineers/comp sci/mathematicians took out loans. Even if we focus exclusively on doctoral students, 25.7% of humanities, 47.9% of social/behavioral, 12.6% of life and physical sciences, and 15.5% of engineers/comp sci/mathematicians took out loans. (http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/npsas/graduate.asp)

So even with tuition breaks, large numbers of graduate students are covering substantial (and increasing levels of) debt on low incomes.

I wonder if unions could help with that?

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kris 02.05.12 at 10:29 pm

Eli @76,
Sorry to be blunt, but grad students get paid for work, which the PI and the university by extension live off. I don’t think that grad students are responsible for the issues with tuition and overheads that PI’s often complain about. The fairness or otherwise of the grant allocation structure is properly a matter for faculty to discuss with university administrations, not something that grad students should be indirectly made to bear the cost of (As I read it, this is one of the reasons that you feel that grad student RA’s should not be treated as employees).

Marc @72,
I am sorry you feel that you were abused. Personally, I think I was just stating the obvious, although I can see how some people find that insulting.

You see, many people who are RA’s also love their work. They probably just don’t think that their passion for scientific research should be made into a hook for abusive and unreasonable treatment. People are not generally masochistic enough to forego a decent income and a regular career to put up with the often unreasonable demands of grad school research unless they really like their work.

You say:
“And, yup, other countries have other rules. In fields like mine this has the direct consequence that US scientists are far more productive than those elsewhere, and that many of the most talented people in the world come to the US. (The fact that the pay is a lot better in most cases doesn’t hurt either.)”

I am sorry to be so rude, but this is condescending rubbish. US scientists are more “productive” because a) the US spends far more on scientific research than pretty much any other place, and b) it has a liberal immigration policy which allows american scientists to hire grad students and postdocs freely from elsewhere in the world, with the consequence that the US has a lot of people doing research. This is not because they disregard the concern for workplace rights, that you think is so unnecessary.

In many fields (e.g the biomedical sciences), academic lab structures resemble a pyramid scheme with far more grad students and postdocs than there are PI’s (or positions available for that matter). It is not surprising that a PI with a big lab with several grad students and postdocs is fairly productive. The PI has to be a truly incompetent manager for this not to be the case. After all those personnel have ideas too, and spend all their time working.

Finally, as a practising scientist, I should point out, that (in my opinion) a lot of modern scientific research is best described as a lot of “sound and fury signifying nothing”. I doubt scientific research is going to suffer if there is a bit less “productivity”. Certainly, treating the people who do science better is worth this imagined loss of productivity.

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Eli Rabett 02.05.12 at 11:27 pm

Steve, your figures (and following tables) show that there is significantly less debt among the s&e students, part of which is the value of tuition remission and the stipend. Others appear to think that tuition charges are monopoly money that do not need to be paid and that overhead is simply a scam. Eli wishes. If you think the latter is a scam ask yourself what commercial rental rates would be for lab and office space and don’t start on library costs

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StevenAttewell 02.05.12 at 11:43 pm

Yes – but there still is debt across the disciplines in significant levels (note that S&E has more debt than life and and physical sciences), despite tuition remissions being a pretty ubiquitous form of financial aid. Which suggests that tuition remissions aren’t doing the trick in terms of freeing graduate students from financial burdens, and that graduate students still face financial burdens from education on weak salaries.

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SamChevre 02.06.12 at 2:11 am

We’re not talking about people working more than 40 hours a week because they want to, we’re talking about them being required to do so in order to keep their jobs. The 40 hour week established by the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t prevent anyone from working more than that, it just means that you can’t be forced to, and that employers must pay time-and-a-half to compensate them for going above and beyond the call of duty.

I would just like to note that this is absolutely not true in the US for employees classified as “salaried” (AKA “exempt”–it’s that rule that they are exempt from). I can be required to do any amount of work, at any time, without any pay beyond my salary–and that’s been true since I was hired, with a BA, at $40K/year. (And keeping my job can be (and was) contingent on passing professional qualifying exams, which require study on my own time of about 20 hours a week.)

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StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 2:27 am

Right. Hence my statement at “Tell me, Marc, what’s your justification for the argument that research assistants shouldn’t enjoy the same right to an eight hour day and a 40-hour week that private sector workers got in 1938?” The FLSA is far from universal, unfortunately – and expanding the ranks of workers operating under a union contract is the best way to make it universal de facto.

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MPAVictoria 02.06.12 at 4:02 am

“Steve, your figures (and following tables) show that there is significantly less debt among the s&e students, part of which is the value of tuition remission and the stipend. Others appear to think that tuition charges are monopoly money that do not need to be paid and that overhead is simply a scam. Eli wishes. If you think the latter is a scam ask yourself what commercial rental rates would be for lab and office space and don’t start on library costs”

Again, employers are supposed to provide the materials needed for work to be conducted. Why should universities be different?
/Also why do you keep talking about yourself in the third person? It seems more than a little pretentious to me.

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js. 02.06.12 at 5:41 am

Steven @81,

I didn’t at all want to suggest that student debt is not a (growing) problem for grad students across all or most disciplines. Though, thanks for the numbers–actually a bit surprised at how widespread indebtedness is, esp. for doctoral students, had a much better sense 0f this for non-doctoral grad programs. Anyway, my point was only that Eli’s reference to med and law students seemed entirely besides the point.

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Meredith 02.06.12 at 7:16 am

We’re talking about people becoming indebted to banks but giving of their time and energy to their PI’s or whoever it is they’re working for (excuse me, being students of).

Okay, so I’m going to do it again, cite David Graeber (as one of a number who could be cited). We’re all, each of us, operating simultaneously in different, often competing systems of evaluation and exchange, and we’re all invested in each of these systems, whether by choice or necessity. The problem: how to balance it all, how to weigh, how not just to live sanely but to thrive in our exchanges with one another?

A place to start: acknowledge the tensions and contradictions. The teacher-student, master-apprentice model is a remnant of a gift economy, a powerful (and, if I may, often noble, in the best sense of “noble”) remnant and one not to be tossed out the window — which is what I suspect good-faith opponents of unionizing RA’s fear unionization means. (I’m not bothering to try reaching the bad-faith opponents.) But unionizing RA’s doesn’t mean just tossing out the gift way of thinking, anymore than unionizing teachers means that teachers will only teach for the money. (To give of yourself as a teacher for larger purposes, and also expect to get paid so you can eat and have a roof over your head, is not to teach simply “for the money,” after all.)

But/and that noble gift way of thinking also has its pitfalls.

However noble “the gift” may be, gifts can be tools of aggression and domination, too, even if their users don’t consciously realize it. Gifts can very readily become such tools when short-term thinking is at work in a prestige-oriented world (not to mention the monetarized world of grants) that demands immediate “returns.” “We” need to get this project done by next month, so “you” need to work 80 hours this week and next, forget your sick baby at home. What cosmic insights can’t wait on this sick baby, I want to know? How about everyone just having time for some evenings with friends, for cooking decent meals at home? We were better off as hunters and gatherers, gazing at the stars together.

Well, no, we weren’t — a sick baby was more likely to die. So, it’s hard. But let’s struggle together rather than against one another. I see unionizing RA’s as a move in struggling together.

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Eli Rabett 02.06.12 at 9:29 am

What Meredith said.

Also what Paul Campos has been saying.

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EKR 02.06.12 at 2:57 pm

I don’t know how much difference this makes, but one distinct feature of grad students as opposed to (say) workers on an assembly line, is that grad students are *apprentices* rather than just employees. I don’t mean that this implies that they somehow don’t have a right to good treatment, but rather that their condition is explicitly temporary, and indeed they are hoping to find themselves in the position of the manager in not too long. [And even though the academic job market is bad, at least in the field with which I am most familiar with, CS, it’s not hard for a CS PhD from a good school to get a job in industry.] I suspect that that produces a rather different attitude than that of someone who expects to be labor for the next 40 years, with no real prospects for advancement.

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Henry 02.06.12 at 3:11 pm

On traditional apprenticeship systems, the conditions and abuses attached thereto are the subject of much historical research – the title essay of Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” is an excellent and accessible reading on this. Also, modern discussions are relevant – the differences in condition e.g. between Germany’s apprenticeship system, with specific legal obligations and protections, and the abuses of Italy’s _apprendistato_ system are pretty remarkable. On Graeber – I think he hopelessly romanticizes gift exchange systems as an alternative to formal systems of exchange (as do a long line of anthropologists). I’m quite convinced that gift-exchange/diffuse-reciprocity-governed-by-informal-institutions can do an awful lot of good things – I have indeed written a book on the topic. But only in the absence of substantial power asymmetries.

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Steve LaBonne 02.06.12 at 3:21 pm

…indeed they are hoping to find themselves in the position of the manager in not too long.

And for a large % of them that hope will prove to be a delusion. A fact which graduate departments don’t exactly go out of their way to advertise.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.06.12 at 3:25 pm

There may also be an equality of opportunity aspect. Certainly there is where very low pay is concerned, as in the case of unpaid internships, but presumably single parents and others with similar commitments should be considered analogously ‘time-poor’.

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Barry 02.06.12 at 3:47 pm

EKR: “I don’t mean that this implies that they somehow don’t have a right to good treatment, but rather that their condition is explicitly temporary, and indeed they are hoping to find themselves in the position of the manager in not too long. “

I can’t read this sentence any other way than that they have at best a reduced right to good treatment.

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Colin Danby 02.06.12 at 4:39 pm

The “different, often competing systems of evaluation and exchange” point is great, and even stronger with the critique of the romanticization of The Gift. (There’s also useful non-romanticizing work on this in anthro e.g. Bourdieu.) Strongly hierarchical systems are often suffused with gifting ideology, particularly the idea that the oppressed are the recipients of an infinite boon, a gift so great they can never fully repay it, from their oppressors.

Where different systems of evaluation/exchange are present simultaneously, the question is what’s the larger system that supports them all. The seams are visible when the discourse of one system gives way to another e.g. when people suddenly switch from talking about time sheets and grant dollars to teh wonders of science. (To take a less contentious example from another area, think about how a real estate agent switches from the cold discourse of “good investment” to the emotional language of “home.”)

The most basic point, though, to return to the politics at hand, is that people who are vulnerable need formal protections and somebody who is on their side when trouble arises, and that’s what a union is for. Of course, many managers don’t like that — Rachel Goldman’s actions in this case are completely rational if she wants maximum control over RAs. Nor is it surprising that a university administration interested in grant dollars will let itself be guided by people like Goldman.

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MPAVictoria 02.06.12 at 4:49 pm

“What Meredith said.”

What? Are you switching sides Eli? And what does Paul Campos’s admittedly great writing on law school have to do with this case of obvious union busting?

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Tybalt 02.06.12 at 5:04 pm

Pinko @ 45 : “what is apparently underestimated in much of the rest of the thread is that productivity and progress by students are absolutely critical for lab function and existence”

How is that different from ANY OTHER WORKPLACE? Productivity and progress by employees is absolutely critical for any firm’s function and existence. It does not excuse attempts to impose medieval relationships between employer and employee. **** a duck.

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SamChevre 02.06.12 at 5:24 pm

Productivity and progress by employees is absolutely critical for any firm’s function and existence.

Right. And most employees who don’t work for the government (probably 90% of private-sector workers) can be laid off at any time, for any reason.

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Tybalt 02.06.12 at 5:38 pm

“The tuition is nothing but wooden nickels.”

Thanks Barry @ 79. People forget this far too often in universities in all sorts of areas.

Colin Danby @ 96 put the point about “gifts” beautifully as well. As a lawyer I hear it all the time in our profession as well. Most of which is code for a master/servant ideology that would have been out of place in 1920.

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Tybalt 02.06.12 at 5:41 pm

“And most employees who don’t work for the government (probably 90% of private-sector workers) can be laid off at any time, for any reason.”

Tell it to the NLRB – this one looks like a firing in response to organizing activity.

Employers are required, also, to follow their own written termination procedures. Which wasn’t done here.

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c.l. ball 02.06.12 at 5:47 pm

The apprentice v. employee distinction much beloved by provosts is silly — many plumbers’ unions have an apprentice, journeyman, master system, so unionization and apprenticeship are compatible.

Faculty in labs have legitimate concerns about how unionization would affect the way labs work, but that’s what bargaining is all about. If individual PI’s bargained fairly with their RAs now, then the RAs would see no need for a union.

Of course, the faculty could always accept an exchange or auction system: RAs would list their work-schedule, and faculty could be bid for them. Some students might take low-stipend/low-hour offers, and others high-stipend/high hours. Smarter student could command premiums, as could those working nights and holidays. My guess is that PIs would run out of money before their labs were fully staffed.

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EKR 02.06.12 at 7:34 pm

Steve@93:
I certainly agree that this is a problem, especially in fields where the major career paths are academic. As I implied, in CS things are a little different because in general it’s pretty easy to find an industry job.

Barry@95:
I’m not making any kind of normative claim about what rights people should have in good treatment vs. reduced treatment. All I’m saying is that people might well be willing to accept inferior treatment in cases where they expect to only have to endure that treatment for a limited time and expect to be in the “management” rather than “labor” position soonish. Unless you’re claiming that people’s rights are delimited by what they are willing to accept.

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Steve LaBonne 02.06.12 at 7:40 pm

All I’m saying is that people might well be willing to accept inferior treatment in cases where they expect to only have to endure that treatment for a limited time and expect to be in the “management” rather than “labor” position soonish.

And I will pop in again to say that to take advantage of that disposition, when for many that expectation is in fact delusional, is unethical.

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StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 7:45 pm

How does that answer, EKR? The history of labor in America is replete with this form of self-exploitation; it’s a strong part of 19th century free labor ideology. The problem is, as Jurgis Rudkus found out , is that in situations without legal rights or a union contract, the employer can use the most-accommodating employee to run roughshod over anyone who scruples at a higher level.

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EKR 02.06.12 at 7:49 pm

Steve@104: I’m not arguing with you that it is. However, as I say, the degree to which it’s delusional varies a lot between fields.

Steven@105: Again, I’m not taking an ethical position. I’m just trying to explore why so many grad students (especially S+E students) not only are accommodating, but don’t in fact feel that they are being exploited. You could of course say that this is false consciousness, as Steve LaBonne suggests, but I think it’s still an interesting question what motivates them.

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SamChevre 02.06.12 at 7:51 pm

Steve Labonne,

Isn’t the delusionality of the expectation the problem? IF every PhD student got a tenure-track or equivalent job — if being an RA were, like being a medical resident, a true apprenticeship that you reliably graduate to a professional position from — would the current working conditions of RA’s be unacceptable?

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Steve LaBonne 02.06.12 at 7:56 pm

Isn’t the delusionality of the expectation the problem?

On the whole, yes (though I think some limits ought to be set to the extent even of rationally justifiable self-exploitation). But it was at least somewhat delusional even when times for academia were pretty good, and those relatively good times are not coming back in the foreseeable future, so while I actually do agree that EKR might have a point if the premise were accurate, it isn’t (and never really has been) so he doesn’t.

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EKR 02.06.12 at 8:08 pm

Steve@108:
Again, I don’t understand what you think our argument is. Are you saying that the expectation (yes, yes, it’s largely false) of a PhD leading to a good job isn’t a large contributor to grad students being willing to work under conditions they otherwise wouldn’t? Because I’m not saying that it’s right, I’m just saying that I think that that’s what’s in their heads. Do you disagree?

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Steve LaBonne 02.06.12 at 8:16 pm

EKR, the question is, where are you trying to go with what is a fairly uncontroversial point. Since you agree that the expectation is largely false, I take it you would agree that it certainly can’t be used as a justification for the current state of affairs. If you want to say that the students should be better informed- something that could be greatly aided by unionization- then I would heartily agree with you. So what’s IS your take on the significance of this kind of voluntary self-exploitation?

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EKR 02.06.12 at 8:52 pm

Steve:
I wasn’t going anywhere with it. It was purely a descriptive observation. I didn’t think it was entirely obvious that that was a significant motivating factor. If it was, then I apologize for wasting your time.

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StevenAttewell 02.06.12 at 8:56 pm

Ok then, so if you’re not arguing about what should be done, then can we move on from the factual point that “some people let themselves be exploited”?

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EKR 02.06.12 at 9:24 pm

Steven: sure. You and Steve just seemed to be sad about what I had written, so I was trying to respond to that.

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