Tuesday, August 23, 2016

NLRB: Graduate students are employees, can unionize

Via Gary McDowell, the National Labor Relations Board has reversed a 2004 decision on the ability of private universities to bar graduate students from unionizing: 
Board: Student Assistants Covered by the NLRA 
August 23, 2016 
3-1 Columbia Decision Overrules Brown University 
Washington, D.C. — The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014. The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483) saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.” 
For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia. In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the Act to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court. 
Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage. The majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act. (emphasis CJ's)
The full decision is linked here. Here's Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik on the decision:
Graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are entitled to collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday. The NLRB said that a previous ruling by the board -- that these workers were not entitled to collective bargaining because they are students -- was flawed. The NLRB ruling, 3 to 1, came in a case involving a bid by the United Auto Workers to organize graduate students at Columbia University. 
The decision reverses a 2004 decision -- which has been the governing one until today -- about a similar union drive at Brown University. 
Many graduate students at public universities are already unionized, as their right to do so is covered by state law, not federal law. 
The ruling largely rejects the fights of previous boards over whether teaching assistants should be seen primarily as students or employees. They can be both, the majority decision said.
I'll be honest and say that I can't imagine that this will have much of an effect on things - someone still has to organize the union, and I can't imagine that graduate students will want to spend the time to make this happen. I just don't see an organized constituency that will want to go do the work, and that it will be sustained over the years. Nevertheless, there are a fair number of graduate student unions.

That said, it is interesting to me how, if you're a private university assistant professor, the cost of labor (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) have gotten higher than it was 2 years ago. 

55 comments:

  1. I think the chemistry graduate students don't "have the time to spend to make this happen"; but some departments (humanities, social sciences, etc) not only have the time, they could probably get independent study credit for "social activism".

    I doubt if the chem departments spearheaded unions anywhere, but as you say there's a lot of them out there now.

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  2. I wouldn't normally comment but I find the dismissive attitude of the above comment troubling. As a grad student (and worker!) at Columbia, I can say there are plenty of active members in the department. Further, if we're going to complain about the PhD glut and other problems in academia related to grad students and postdocs, I would like to think that empowering students through unionization could be part of the solution.

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    1. The pervading feeling here (a top 5-10 private school) is, "you get whatever scraps we deign to give you, graduate scum," and, "we can change the conditions whenever we want, w/o notice." Since the chemistry graduate population here is largely a collection of either gormless sheeple kicking the can down the road or arrogant masochists explaining that their chemistry is 'higher impact' b/c they work 72 hr/wk I think that unionizing should protect us from screwing ourselves over too much (especially if someone who is 1) sane, and 2) motivated spearheads the union).

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    2. Well then things must have changed at Columbia. When I was there only the humanities students wanted a Union. The science students were busy doing research. A union won't get the research done for you. A union won't get papers in JACS for you. But a union will happily take your dues. Only you can save yourself.

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  3. It's about time they came down on the right side of this issue. Graduate research assistants have always been de facto employees, but universities have preferred that they legally remain as students so that they can avoid the additional costs that would be brought to bear, from safety regulations for employees, to workers compensation, and collective bargaining issues. The universities are right that there is an educational component, but so that's also true with other apprenticeships. However, we don't call the apprentice plumber a student and ignore all employment regulations. In much the same way, PhD students are apprentices and should have been protected all this time.

    Sure, it sucks that labs are being squeezed on the cost front, but perhaps universities and labs will think twice about hiring on too many people. No longer can they simply squeeze every last bit of savings on the backs of their lowly employees.

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    1. But how are we going to screen 1000 conditions for one reaction, then? Those tables don't just fill themselves in with high numbers!

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    2. The safety regulations are the most important implication to me. Maybe universities and faculty will take safety seriously after they've been slapped with a few OSHA fines. And if/when another tragic accident happens, there might be enough of a paper trail to hold any negligent parties responsible.

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    3. So was Lovecraft's. It's a common middle name for people with classic English family names.

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  4. "However, we don't call the apprentice plumber a student and ignore all employment "In much the same way, PhD students are apprentices and should have been protected all this time."

    I'm unsure what the difference between an apprentice and a student is functionally: both get paid less that full workers for a period of time in which they learn their skill. Maybe 'student' sound higher class than 'apprentice'?

    I'm actually unsure what demands chemistry grad students would make. AFAIK, they make more $ than grad students in most other departments, not sure if working conditions can be improved but unless people want to pay more in taxes (and no one does) to better fund the NIH/NSF that ain't gonna change. Maybe max 60 h/week? Probably a good idea, but in the end it screws the students who still need to get the same amount of work done, but will have to string it out over more weeks (depending how efficient they are).

    Unions are probably fun for students in the arts and social sciences.

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    1. @biotechtoreador:
      There is a functional difference when it comes to how employment law was treating the two. Apprentices were still employees, whereas graduate research assistants were students. That meant that worker safety laws, workers compensation laws, and minimum wage laws would not necessarily apply to students.

      So besides the worker safety issues, there are also other issues that graduate students in science might want to bargain for - better health insurance, dental coverage, maximum hours worked per week, child care benefits and a host of other issues related to the workplace and compensation. Just getting academia to take work place safety alone is something I would like to see.

      As for the taxes, stipends are already considered taxable income under IRS regulations, except for the parts that go towards tuition and required materials for classes. Just because some universities somehow get by without issuing W2s to their students doesn't mean the money isn't taxable. Plus, tax law can be weird - a definition of employee for the National Labor Relations Act might not be the same for SS/Medicare tax purposes.

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    2. I think there are plenty of things aside from salary that can be addressed by unions for grad students in chemistry. Off the top of my head:

      1) There was little protection or formal institutional policy for parental leave when I was in grad school (and I graduated in 2015, so I'm not talking about the olden days). It was really an individual PI-to individual PI kind of situation, and those who found workable situations had PIs who found it reasonable to accommodate a 2-3 month (usually unpaid, and if not they were on an individual fellowship) maternity leave. Also even places that have established policies for maternity leave do not have policies for paternal leave. Given the macho culture of chemistry, guys usually come to lab one day after their baby is born. I mean, I know parental leave in the US is a mess, period, but the situation for grad students is especially bad. It would be helpful to have some sort of formal policy, at the very least, and to have some sort of accountability for PIs who try to bully their students into coming to lab immediately after their child is born.

      2) Medical leave in general. There were generally poor policies in place to deal with people who developed medical problems, needed surgery, etc. in grad school due to your nebulous status somewhere between employee and student.

      3) Benefits. At my grad institution if you got an external fellowship (NSF predoc for example) your health insurance got taken away, as you were not longer an employee of the university. It doesn't have to be this way; at my postdoc institution, they do not do this because they have structured their benefits differently. This was a big onus on students who should be rewarded for getting their own funding!

      4) Formal vacation time and sick days. My husband's advisor said he had 14 personal days, including Saturdays in grad school. He could do this because there was no policy on vacation time for graduate research assistants. My postdoc university has formal protocols for taking vacation days and sick days. Conversely other PIs don't really care as long as you get your shit done. The latter approach is probably the most compatible with the flexible nature of grad school, but having a formal policy probably provides the most recourse for PIs who are being ridiculous.

      5) Visa related issues. Visas are confusing! And usually the school is not that helpful with helping people navigate a really complicated process. This includes understanding how to navigate visas right before graduation and understand what policies are in place and what the options are to stay in this country when you have been on a student visa and need to transition into an employment visa.

      6) Helping students navigate bad situations with advisors/switch groups/etc. without getting thrown out of the program. This inevitably leads to a lot of talented students leaving, and can be a really tricky process without a lot of institutional policy behind it, or much to protect the interests of the student.

      7) Safety. Safety in academic labs is atrocious! And it's encouraged to work late nights/long hours/often alone which leads to lapses of judgement and bad accidents. This has been discussed above, so no need to discuss it further.

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    3. Points 1 and 2 are really good. Clearly issue with where $ to pay it comes from, but it is shocking to me that grad students don't have these rights. I'm also shocked by 3. So by being, presumably, a superior student and winning an award schools actually charge you? Wow.

      "My husband's advisor said he had 14 personal days, including Saturdays in grad school." Am I reading this right that he had to count Saturdays as personal days (and just take 14/year?)? If so, I don't know a clearer sign of a--hole PI I would steer clear of.

      5 makes sense, and I'd think most schools already do this (all of the 2 I attended did) as it's in their best interests to have accessible cheap labor to exploit (err, 'train'). 6 is a nice idea, but will take a quantum leap in PI attitudes. 7 should currently be in place, but obviously isn't. The macho "I work more hours than you" is also unlikely to leave chemistry grad school (unsure if same is prevalent in philosophy or art history grad students).

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    4. Submitted: Worker's conditions are not wholly dictated by whether or not there is a union involved.

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    5. Submitted: While some bosses are reasonable, a union can help protect workers in an otherwise completely one-sided power dynamic

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    6. The real questions are these:
      1. Does the union have a credible threat of going on strike? For TAs, i think there would be a general willingness to go on strike for better pay/benefits. However, for RAs, I doubt many people would be willing to up and leave the bench, put their research on hold, and potentially strain the relationship with their advisor. Without an ability to deliver a strike, any concessions by the university to the union would only be charity.

      2. Will the benefits gained by unionization outweigh the dues paid to the union? Depending on how the union is organized, dues may range from 2-4% of salary. For a fast food or autoworker, this is a small price to pay in a field where they can easily be replaced for cheaper labor. For graduate students, to have that 2-4% due break even, the union must in turn get AT LEAST a 2-4% raise every year + what the raise would have been without the union. Salaries for graduate students have been increasing over the past decade or so even without unions (currently hovering high 20s or low 30s for chemistry), so that means a 1.5K raise or so every year would probably have to be the norm.

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    7. My grad institution froze stipend levels between 2008-2015 due to state budget issues (public university). I wouldn't assume the 1.5K raise per year is universal.

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    8. BTT: Most organic chemistry faculty consider Saturday a working day (for themselves as well as their students). In some cases it's treated as a "half" day (meaning 6-8 hrs versus 10-14). In others, it's how you round out your 72-hour work week (and turn the corner to 80 by coming in Sunday for another 8 hour day).

      If you used this policy as a litmus test for a--hole PIs, you'd likely have to find another field to do your Ph. D.

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    9. @Anonymous 2:05 pm: Not all relationships between the bargaining unit and the university are this hostile. The UO grad student union went on strike two years ago (for various reasons), but this year and in previous years bargaining was concluded without resorting to a strike. Striking only happens if an agreement can't be met, and our union does a good job of negotiating for us. That being said, while many chemistry graduate students did not strike two years ago, nearly the whole physics department did, and some chemistry researchers (my lab included) walked the line during our "working" time (because of the way our contracts are constructed, we "work" 20 hrs a week at research and the other hours are considered contact hours for the research credits we register for).

      And yes, the benefits of being unionized clearly outweigh the dues for the vast majority of graduate students, and even for the small minority which are chemistry grad students. If you look at my comment below, you'll see that focusing just on chemists is really myopic-- everyone else is struggling to keep their heads above water, and from my perspective it costs very little for chemistry grads to lend their voices in support and their dues to the union to do that.

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    10. "Points 1 and 2 are really good. Clearly issue with where $ to pay it comes from, but it is shocking to me that grad students don't have these rights. I'm also shocked by 3. So by being, presumably, a superior student and winning an award schools actually charge you? Wow."

      Yes, I am serious. The only options were 1) to go on COBRA and pay out of pocket (expensive) 2) Get a student health plan (they were somewhat crappy, especially compared to the insurance provided for those working as TAs and RAs) and pay out of pocket 3) after the ACA, go on the exchange and pay out of pocket or 4) get on a spouse's insurance (if married). People still went on fellowship for the prestige/freedom from TAing or specific funded projects, but it felt like being punished for an accomplishment.

      "My husband's advisor said he had 14 personal days, including Saturdays in grad school." Am I reading this right that he had to count Saturdays as personal days (and just take 14/year?)? If so, I don't know a clearer sign of a--hole PI I would steer clear of."

      You are reading this correctly. He let up after several years when his travel schedule got busy enough to make it impossible to micromanage his group like this. This policy was not made clear until after you joined the group (working Saturdays was clearly expected, but it was not made clear that he considered taking a Saturday off taking a personal day). Total a-hole, but a) people make ill informed decisions, especially when they are young and b) no one airs all their dirty laundry during recruiting.

      "5 makes sense, and I'd think most schools already do this (all of the 2 I attended did) as it's in their best interests to have accessible cheap labor to exploit (err, 'train'). 6 is a nice idea, but will take a quantum leap in PI attitudes. 7 should currently be in place, but obviously isn't. The macho "I work more hours than you" is also unlikely to leave chemistry grad school (unsure if same is prevalent in philosophy or art history grad students). "

      As far as visas go, I don't have personal experience as a US citizen. However, I know plenty of people who struggled with visa stuff as they were finishing up. The issue wasn't getting a visa to stay in grad school--the issue became getting good legal advice for how to stay in the country after grad school and what your options were, what the timeline was, and how to best work with employers. It was kind of like, after you graduate we cut you loose.

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    11. "unsure if same is prevalent in philosophy or art history grad students"

      There are issues with mental health and sexism in philosophy from working crazy hours, but if you work to the bring of exhaustion you are not going to physical injury or burn down a building. This is where I think the macho attitude of chemistry is especially insidious--the physical harm that can occur from working ridiculous hours.

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    12. @Anonymous 2:28 pm: I'm currently in the private fellowship insurance hole, which thankfully coincided with marrying my husband, another chem grad, to save my health insurance. However, I am planning on trying to get that included as an exception in our next collective bargaining agreement since chemistry grad students on private fellowships are doing exactly the same work as students on government fellowships and students with union contracts, all of whom are covered. Another example of how the benefits of a union extend beyond those whom they bargain for directly.

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    13. 2:05 here: Annie, most of us in science don't go into it to so somebody can study philosophy or classics somewhere else at the university. We are in it to extract the secrets of the universe and make contributions that lead to advancements in technology and medicine. I'm not sure what your motiviations were, but the motivation I just outlined is the mentality of most successful chemists that I know.

      That's why we are willing to work 60-80 hours a week without overtime pay. We are doing good for the world, and it is enjoyable work. Also, we know that the publications we put out will directly benefit us when it comes time to looking for academic/industry jobs. I've seen many people placed into very good academic and industry (6 figure starting salary) positions right after their postdoc. This is not the case at all ph.d programs, and unionization may be worthwhile at very low ranked places that pay nothing and give minimal job prospects...It definitely is the case at places like Columbia, though.

      Here is my questions for you: 1. What is the salary for chemistry grad students at your program? 2. What is the union due that they are required to pay?

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    14. Are you sure that you understand how unions and union dues work? I didn't say that my union dues went to actually pay graduate students in other departments-- my dues go to help support protections which I also benefit from. Given the harsh abuses of chemistry graduate students at high-ranked universities (admittedly not all of which can be directly remediated by a union), I would argue that unionization is most beneficial for chemistry grads at those high-ranked schools you are mentioning, because what use is a PhD if you are too burnt out on science to work in the field after you get it? Graduate student unions are there to protect and help students while they are teaching or doing research, rather than afterward when they are seeking jobs. Chemistry graduate students in my program make ~$26K, as I stated below, and full membership union dues are 2%. Fair-share dues are about half that. For reference, full membership dues are half the cost of my internet bill.

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    15. By pay other departments, I meant they do so in a de facto manner (you are paying a due that does not benefit you). At 26K, your salary is lower than all offers I received for non unionized grad schools (top 25 programs, health care included. UO is a good school and competitive with them). Despite 40 years of unionization, the salaries of UO chemistry students is lower than or on par with most non-unionized peer institutions. What does that tell you?

      On top of having a similar salary, you also pay a $520 a year fee for your union. That fee would be $600 at my program. To many of us, that is not some negligible amount of money to give up "for the greater good." It can be the difference of being able to afford grad school and not being able to do so.

      Also, I don't think chemistry grad students are abused at top programs. In fact, it's the opposite...There are endless opportunities that people elsewhere don't have, and I feel lucky for it. Obviously, grad school isn't a 9-5 job though. Those who feel that they are being abused are either working for an unreasonable mentor or are on projects that they do not find interesting enough to dedicate themselves to. Usually it is the latter, as I have seen first hand. For the former, the easy solution is to join a different group, which happens every so often.

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    16. I think we're going to have to agree to disagree as to whether or not I am "paying a due which does not benefit me," as I have articulated several times how I believe union dues benefit me as a member of the chemistry graduate department. Many comments here have focused on wages while ignoring all other benefits which a union can confer, such as excellent health insurance (better than student or faculty insurance).

      I can't answer your question about what my salary being lower than yours means without knowing where you live. As I have said elsewhere, the chemistry department wage at UO is set by the chemistry department, not by the union, which sets the minimum campus-wide graduate teaching/research fellow wage. Chemistry graduate students have the highest annual wages on campus, because we are being paid to work so many hours. The cost of living in Eugene is pretty low, especially compared to the top 25 chemistry programs, which are almost all in major cities with incredibly high costs of living (basing off U.S. News rankings because I don't know which list you're referring to). $26K was in the middle of the grad student packages I was offered during my applications, but the ratio of wage to cost of living was dramatically better in Eugene than anywhere else. Based on your comment about $600 being "the difference of being able to afford grad school and not being able to do so," I'm going to infer that you're living somewhere pretty expensive. I'm also curious what "health care included" means to you, and how the union-negotiated health insurance at UO would stack up to yours.

      You continue to reference the amount of time that chemistry graduate students need to put in to their programs; I have not said anywhere that I disagree about how much work goes into a chemistry graduate program. Having protections against abuse does not mean that everyone is abused, but that we think people should be protected anyway.

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  5. I am currently at a top 10 institution for chemistry. When I had raised the possibility of unionization in the past, my colleagues seemed recalcitrant; the fear of a bad recommendation letter outweighed the desire for collective bargaining.

    That said, the main reason I had wanted to start a union was to have my university create a retirement program for its graduate students with the possibility of matched contributions. When I asked a dean about this, they said such a program would not be possible because as students we receive a FICA tax exemption that contributes significantly to our take-home pay. Does anyone have any idea of how this decision may change that calculus?

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    1. I was going to point out some of Anon7:30's list was more for permanent employees than relatively young students and use retirement contributions as an extreme example, so thanks for bringing it up. You're asking for a retirement system to be in place for people whose median ages is 22-27. Anon's asking for maternity (+paternity) leave (average maternal age in US is about 25). I'm not much further out but I didn't give these issues thought until a postdoc, and while most of those issues were covered, there was no postdoc union here either.

      I sympathize but these are your major issues you certainly are not thinking of yourselves as students. You are employees who set your own hours and think that if you show up for work for 4-6 years you will have a degree. The difference between the slave driver schools/groups and lackadaisical schools/groups is only getting bigger.

      I realize the departments have extended time to graduate so much that they have probably created a lot of this themselves, but unfortunately despite their penny-pinching they do not have sufficient funding to afford to give everything the students wish.

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    2. "You're asking for a retirement system to be in place for people whose median ages is 22-27."

      Worth pointing out that contributions at this stage of life represent a disproportionately large amount of a lifetime's retirement savings.

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    3. I object to the idea that these concerns are not concerns for "relatively young students." As a grad student, if you start at 22, you will likely be 27-29 when grad school is finished. Many people don't start their PhD right after undergrad, and many international students have masters degrees and are more like 24-25 when they start. Thus, most people are somewhere in their late 20s or early 30s by their last year of grad school. This is when most (educated) people start thinking about having families. I know several peers in my program (more men, but some women too) who had their first child in their year or two of their PhD. So having some sort of policy in place is not really a niche concern--it's a relatively common issue/concern.

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    4. 1:32 here--I meant several people who had their first child in their last year or two...it's pretty uncommon for people to have children in the beginning of grad school

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    5. "Worth pointing out that contributions at this stage of life represent a disproportionately large amount of a lifetime's retirement savings."

      Not really. Assuming one makes 25k/yr in grad school (no idea what real # is today), saves 5% and enjoys a 7% annual compounded return on savings while working from 22 to 27 as GS, 28 and 29 as PDF at 45K, and then 30 to 65 as chemist at 100K, one would have amassed $1.2 mill at 65, $117 k of which would have come from grad school. So important, but not critical.

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    6. sorry, this assumes that salary as chemist increases 3% annually.

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    7. Huh. This is really worth thinking about - thanks!

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    8. Another assumption going into CJ's logic is that the value of the investments in your 401k rise continuously over the course of your lifetime. This is certainly not the case for the money that went into my 401k when I was 22-27. I was 22 in 2004. By the time I was 27, my IRR was worse than -50%. It didn't recover its original value until a couple of years ago. So the money that went into my retirement account during this period will not be making up a large portion of my overall returns.

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    9. If a grad student is unmarried, their stipend income is going to put them into the 15% or lower tax bracket, which means dividends and long term capital gains are taxed at 0% (for Federal). They can do plenty of tax efficient saving and investing even without being eligible for a 401k or IRA.

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  6. I was at Berkeley when the union passed for Cal schools. My co PI was pretty upset. He said that the union could decide at what time everyone has to arrive and leave. He also said it could prevent him from giving higher raises. It seems the main issue where a union could be useful is if you have kids or are pregnant. I don't think the union is going to provide any value added service to help anybody navigate a bad situation with an advisor. As for the retirement program, you won't necessarily get matched contributions. Union dues will take a slice out of your take home pay, which is already low and limits what you can contribute. Also, keep in mind that matched contributions do not mean 100% matching. When I was at Cal we had to put a certain % in a retirement account, but there was no matching contribution. You are probably not going to gain much, and likely no matching contribution. Better to have a Roth IRA if you are able to save money while in grad school. Some people argue that unions are needed to control naughty PI's. Better to just not join those groups. Even with a union, it will still be unpleasant, unless you just fake data and don't get caught, not that I would ever recommend it but it seems like an obvious result of an overbearing PI who won't tolerate a negative result.

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    1. At UCSD in the early 2000s, all employees were encouraged to use the 403(b) plan--except postdocs, who were barred from participation. I guess what you're describing is progress?

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    2. I don't know much about the graduate student assembly. Do they have collective bargaining rights?

      As far as the postdoc union goes, I think it has gone a long way to impact the quality of life as a postdoc at Cal, and I disagree that it is not helpful to people who do not have kids. The postdoc union have kept the minimum postdoc pay at the NRSA level, which is way better than many universities (I've heard of Harvard paying chemistry postdocs as low as 30K). What does he mean giving higher raises? The salary guidelines are a minimum--you can pay your postdocs more.

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    3. @Anon 12:27: He said that he does pay higher than the minimum, but that the union could force him to pay a lesser amount, not below the minimum but less than what he was paying.

      On another note(since this is such an active thread), I think it's better to face your boss if they are putting too much on your plate. I had to do this while I was in grad school and I was able to reduce some work I felt was unnecessary. I would much rather do it myself than have someone else do it, which could be upsetting. You never know how the letter of recommendation will go. If a third party is involved I wouldn't know whether or not my requests were truly respected. Maybe this is just a male attitude and that it's quite different for females who are generally, imho, treated with less respect in academic environments. I will say this, grad students are workers and should be recognized as such. I would not vote to join a union though.

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    4. @Anonymous 3:22 pm: For what it's worth, the union at UO would generally not be who would get involved in the kind of issue you're describing, that would start as conversation between a student and their PI. Just because the union is there doesn't mean that every issue rises to the level of a formal grievance. They are there to be backup if, after a conversation, it was clear that part of the employee/employer contract was being abused, and to help provide support on the teaching side, which is also prone to those abuses.

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  7. IIRC, it's worth noting that you can only contribute to a Roth IRA if you have earned income, as defined by having income in box 1 of a W2 form. My school never issued a W2 for research-associated stipends.

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  8. As a current chemistry grad student at the University of Oregon, which has had a graduate student union since 1977, I will say this: the NLRB decision is a huge win for graduate students at private institutions.

    The main reason that this is a win has been woefully neglected in this thread so far: chemistry graduate students are far from the only grad students on any campus. At every institution, we are the privileged few. PhDs in the sciences are funded degrees, with wages that are designed to allow us to live somewhat comfortably (depending on your location) without having to get a second job. If we're not teaching, we set our own hours. Generally, we expect and are expected to learn enough during our degrees that we can challenge our advisors when we think they're wrong about the science.

    That is not the case for the vast majority of graduate students. If you're outside the hard sciences, there are very few funded degrees; instead, those grad students lucky enough to get teaching positions teach. Unlike chemistry students, who either TA labs designed and overseen by faculty, a history grad might have to teach several different classes in a term, each with distinct curricula. As much as I thought grading lab reports was tedious when I was a TA, almost every other field relies on essays to assess undergraduates and nothing will make grading those go quickly. And while each chemistry student brings home ~$25K a year (set by our department), the other graduate students who are lucky enough to have paid positions can bring in as little as $9.6K if they're lucky enough to have a teaching position during every term.

    The "graduate students are students" concept relies on a definition of work which doesn't apply anywhere else. Everywhere else, teaching is work. Graduate students who teach (in all fields) are doing work. It doesn't matter if teaching advances their career goals or is a requirement of their PhD program; it is still work that should be paid. (Similarly, lab research is work. Chemistry graduate students enter into an agreement to be paid below their market value for five years in exchange for a PhD, but they're still doing work that benefits their employer and deserves to be paid).

    During its history, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation has won the following (among many other things) for students at the UO: standardized workloads, written criteria for appointment/reappointment, employer-paid health insurance, and a graduate student assistance fund which all graduate students can apply to benefit from. Because we have a union, the health insurance I have now is likely the best I will ever have access to. Students in car or bike accidents or who have children (or whose spouses have children) during graduate school can get a financial benefit if they have to take time off from teaching or research. TAs are protected from faculty or departments that require more work than they are being paid for. Even graduate students that can't be part of the union benefit: NSF fellows and other students on governmental training grants (although not on private fellowships) still receive the health insurance that the union has negotiated for us.

    (continued)

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    1. There is a lot of attitude in this thread that says "chemistry students are busy doing real work, so other grad students can just play around with the union," that "real chemists eat research and crap out JACS papers for five years without other needs," or that "you should be smart enough to avoid a bad boss, and anyone who doesn't deserves it." All of these views are disconnected from reality. Yes, chemistry graduate students make a lot more money than any other department-- because our wages are set by a market for chemistry graduate students, which should tell you that we are employees and that we need protections that employees need. Real chemists do research, but they also get in to car accidents or have major health crises, and a union helps to guarantee that insurance is there to protect those students. As for avoiding a bad boss: graduate school is just like the real world. There are shit bosses out there, but they should not be allowed to persist in being abusive.* Without a union, there are few processes available to graduate students in combating that.

      And for all the attitude that chemistry graduate students just don't need unions: I came to the University of Oregon in large part because it had a union, because I knew I wanted protections that went above and beyond a benevolent PI. Now, in the face of a major health crisis for my husband (also a chemistry grad here), we can rely on the health insurance and crisis assistance fund the union has won for us and on the goodwill of our bosses.

      So here's the takeaway: Chemistry grads aren't the only graduate students on a campus, and even we need help. Unions are insurance against bad bosses, bad departments, and crises which you cannot foresee. If graduate students want to unionize they should be allowed to, and it's good that the NLRB finally recognized that.

      If you want to know more about our union: http://gtff3544.net/about/history-of-gtff/

      *Bad bosses here being who a grad student is contracted to work for; this is often the teaching faculty member that you TA for.

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    2. Congratulations! The UO grad student union is the thing that turned me against unions 4 life. All they ever did for me was take $ our of my sad paycheck and in return push a lot of political candidates I didn't agree with.

      I noted even then that it provided some sort of hook for those more interested in "community organizing" than science. One may note how much you feel like you've been cornered by a cult member trying to sell you on coming up to the compound whenever they start shilling for it.

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    3. I'm sorry, but it's not fair to extract dues form chemistry graduate students to benefit humanities graduate students. How much is the due at UO? Unions are great because they represent the interests of their collective membership against a big, powerful corporations. They fall apart when they only represent a particular subset of their membership, but extract $$ away from others. What is the salary at UO, and how does it compare to non unionized grad schools? Is it worth the dues paid over 5 years to get this difference in salary (if there even is a difference at all)?

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    4. @Anonymous 3:41 pm: When did you graduate? Our wage is more than livable at the moment so I'm wondering if there has been a big increase since you left. If you graduated recently, I'm sorry you didn't feel like the wage was workable. When I started grad school UO's pay was better compared to the cost of living than any other school I looked at.

      @Anonymous 4:50 pm: As I responded to another anon above, union dues are not some radical form of wealth redistribution. Humanities graduate students are paid by their departments, and they pay for their health insurance. The dues go to the union to fund our collective bargaining efforts. Additionally, I never said that I or other chemists are not represented by the union (although Anon 3:41 may disagree): my interests are represented because I am interested in having health insurance, an equal distribution of labor in teaching, etc. The chemistry grad salary at UO is ~$26K and is set by our department, not by the union. The wage benefit that the union provides is setting the grad student salary minimum across the university; the chemistry department has to compete with other chemistry departments and therefore makes sure that our wages increase apace.

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    5. "Unions are insurance against bad bosses, bad departments, and crises which you cannot foresee."

      I'm a big fan of unions in general, but I just don't see how they would help chem grad indentured servants (I mean students.....). Unless a union can mandate a PIs letter of recommendation and that papers are published in a timely manner, complaining to the union that work hours are too long or the boss is a meany isn't going to help one career, and may make things worse.

      I do think the fundamental nature of graduate indentureship, in which ones PI exerts such a profound influence, is toxic. Unless a whole new system is devised, which has little chance of happening, I doubt grad school is going to change.

      Are there any examples of how life for grad students at public universities got better after unionization?

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    6. @biotechtoreador: I think I've articulated this elsewhere, but at least at UO the union is not the first line between the student and the PI, and would really only be brought in in the most toxic of situations. It is not there to dictate your relationship with your PI or the faculty member you teach for, only to protect you when unreasonable or illegal demands (which can be part of the toxic relationship you mentioned) are being made. Chemistry graduate students don't complain to the union about our lab hours being too long or our bosses being meanies-- like graduate students everywhere, we complain to each other about that, and reserve talking to the union for real, intractable problems. I have seen no evidence that students in other departments whine to the union either.

      This link is part of my original comment: http://gtff3544.net/about/history-of-gtff/. Are you looking for different examples of life improving for graduate students?

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  9. I'm sure the humanities folks will have plenty of time to organize since that is what they do anyway. I was in the UC the first time unionization was voted on--back in the 90s. It was voted down then because most students understood that the union would just get in the way of the relationship with the major prof. We had one chem grad student who agitated for it then because his girlfriend from English was leading the fight but pretty much everyone else voted against.

    If you strongly object to being forced to pay union dues, there are plenty of right-to-work states with universities where you won't have to pay even if the majority of grad students vote to unionize. I'd be more impressed if these grad student unions affiliated with, you know, a teachers union like AFT. Instead, you see them affiliating with UAW, a clear sign that it is a money grab for a union that has collapsing membership in its traditional area. UAW did wonders damaging the automobile industry, no doubt they will increase the velocity in which much of the education industry becomes untenable too.

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  10. When I was in grad school at UIUC in the early 00's, they unionized the grad students, but the chemistry folks were in near-unanimous opposition. The union explicitly only covered grad student teaching duties, and not research work. My classmates and I resented that we were being forced to pay dues for a union that only had relevance for humanities students with large teaching loads.

    We did have a serious problem with abusive PI's in my department, but I see no point in a union that only covered my 0-1 class a semester TA assignment. I felt like I was making a large mandatory donation to help people in other departments (and the national K-12 teacher's union, which was behind the whole thing).

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    1. To be fair, I TAed nearly the entirety of the time when I was in grad school chemistry, as did most of the students in my program due to funding shortages. If there is a large enough undergrad population at a university to sustain a high level of TA positions, it is becoming a more and more common way to sustain a graduate program that is otherwise too large to fund.

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    2. Anon 9:29 again. TAing is still a small part of how a chemistry grad student spends his/her time, even for those in lower-funded labs who did it every semester. The unionization push was motivated by humanities types who taught multiple classes per semester and didn't have enough time to work on their dissertations. The chemistry faculty wanted us to focus on research, so we were intentionally given TA assignments that could be done with minimal prep time, like classes with canned lecture PowerPoints or labs with canned experiments.

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  12. @Annie: I am the UO alum anon above and I had meant to return to this topic when I had more time but alas... anyway, let me just point out that at UO most of the faculty and virtually all of the students were liberals who moved there for a relaxed work/life balance, so pretending that the department were Robber Barons who enslaved you and would insist on no vacations and no benefits seems.... counter-factual.

    1. I have some sympathy for The humanities grad students (much different system/lifestyle/training/future employability) so i'll just call it apples and oranges if they want a union. Chemistry students have many more employment options. Do you think you will be in a union in your jobs after graduation? Won't you be management?

    2. The problem was not that the stolen %age of my stipend was so high but that it was there at all. Let me ask you: what if you were forced to pay into another political party, one which fought for (eg) gun rights and abortion limits? Would that be cool with you? What if they sent you letters every week thanking you for the money, and telling you about all the progress they've been making. Would that make you happier or no?

    3. You thank the union for health care, which students at other schools without a union have, and which is supposedly going to be coverable by Obamacare anyway. So what's the point now?

    4. One of the faculty there was at Cal when it unionized and he said that the grad students had had a better deal before that, which was lost to parity with the humanities students.

    5. My only real advice for students with tyrannical bosses/departments: Vote with your feet. Sooner or later bad bosses and depts will wither when they can't get students.

    Food for thought:
    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2016/08/unelected-representatives-94-percent-of-union-members-never-voted-for-a-union?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=othtwitter

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