It's Time Undergrads Care About Graduate Student Unions

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 01:  People walk past the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus on July 1, 2013 in New York
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 01: People walk past the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus on July 1, 2013 in New York City. An interest rate hike kicks in today for student loans, an increase for 7 million students. Congress left town at the end of last week failing to prevent rates on new Stafford student loans increasing from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Fellow undergrads, we need to start caring about graduate student unions.

I know you might have mixed feelings about grad students. When I tell people I have an amazing grad student professor, some look at me like I've just announced I have a pet unicorn.

But if you've had that unicorn-like grad student research or teaching assistant, or are thinking of going to grad school yourself, or just care about basic human decency, please listen: you need to start caring about grad student unions, especially if you go to one of the many schools that doesn't have one.

As undergrads, we're the ones on campuses who benefit most from grad students' labor. Perhaps grad students lead your discussion sections, explain the answers to your problem sets, or give feedback on your papers. I have a grad student professor this semester who's the person I can talk to when I'm having a rough day, will gossip with me about trashy reality TV, and rant with me about Donald Trump. Grad students work not only to graduate themselves, but to make sure we -- undergrads -- graduate.

Last school year, hundreds of grad students at Columbia University, where I go to school, delivered a letter to Columbia's President, Lee Bollinger, demanding the right to unionize. President Bollinger, unsurprisingly, ignored the mistreatment of grad students on campus. Columbia apparently insists, in line with a 2004 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determination, that grad student workers are "students" and not "workers."


At Columbia, many grad students in English PhD programs are required to teach sections of University Writing, a freshman writing course that I'm currently in. The course often asks grad students to read and give feedback on over a dozen undergrad essays -- sometimes totaling upwards of 30,000 words combined -- in a week or less. How is that not work?

Columbia grad student workers continue to petition the NLRB for the right to unionize. In the interim, I can still go to my grad student professor to sort through a Judith Butler essay or tighten up a thesis statement, and that grad student continues to give me feedback.

To be clear, Columbia is far from alone in its apathy; hundreds of schools refuse to let grad students unionize, leaving grad student workers nationwide with no choice but to fight legal battles for their rights. While some schools, such as NYU, have finally allowed the unionization of grad students, other campuses continue to only give grad students insufficient medical insurance, late pay, or stipends too small to completely cover housing, among other things.

The harsh reality is despite what the colorful, laminated brochures in admissions offices tell us, many of our campuses run on the exploitation of workers -- on unsafe working conditions and insufficient compensation. For institutions that claim to care about "quality," they don't seem to care about the quality of workers' lives, even though workers are the people who give these institutions things to brag about.

So I ask you, fellow undergrads, to please start caring about grad student unions, at your school and all schools nationwide. As long as we benefit from the tireless labor of grad student workers on our campuses, this is our problem.