Speaking out on the graduate student unionization debate, University President Larry Bacow told faculty members yesterday that a union would run counter to the interests of the Tufts community.
A group of students known as the Association of Student Employees at Tufts (ASET) are working to gain representation on issues of stipends, working conditions, workloads, and health benefits. Their efforts gained new momentum earlier this week when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided to recognize graduate students as employees.
ASET sought collective bargaining rights through the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and filed a petition with the Boston office of the NLRB on Dec. 7. The group also created a website to argue their case.
In the Feinleib Lecture Hall yesterday, Bacow led Tufts’ faculty in a discussion about the unionization process. Saying that he was “not anti-union,” Bacow insisted that this is not an issue of ideology but rather a question of “whether or not the UAW representing our graduate students here at Tufts will strengthen the graduate program.”
Bacow was not weighing in on the debate for the first time. On the Tufts’ website, he wrote that “I believe it would be a mistake for graduate students to unionize. The relationship between faculty member to graduate student is not one of employer to employee.”
Yesterday, faculty members at the meeting were divided over the question. English Professor Liz Ammons said it was an issue of ideology as well as practicality. She asked listeners to think about “how workers with very little power can improve their lives.”
Other faculty members, like philosophy Professor Daniel Dennett, were undecided on the issue. For them, the main concern was that restrictions might come about in a unionized faculty-graduate relationship. “If they are severe, that’s what will sway me,” said Dennett.
Whatever the ramifications, the issue is far from being resolved. The NRLB must now decide which students belong to the “bargaining unit,” or group of graduates who will vote in on-campus elections. While a majority of votes cast by secret ballot will determine if graduate students are to unionize and be represented by the UAW, the University is concerned about students who may be excluded.
“If we think its appropriate for students to vote [by the National Labor Relations Act] then we think all students should have the right to vote,” Bacow said.
In a letter to the Daily, graduate student Tiffany Magnolia claimed responsibility for calling the UAW. “Only with a united voice can graduate students have a say in the terms and conditions of their employment,” she said. Many at Tufts have disagreed, and some have formed an opposition group: Why Have a Union at Tufts (WHUT).
Comprised solely of graduate students who claim no link to the administration, WHUT runs a competing website created “to provide information to fellow graduate students about the implications a union may have on all graduate programs.”
WHUT members say that dues, lengthy contract negotiations, and strikes would be the detrimental effects of unionized graduate students. They also content that the Graduate Student Council (GSC) could address these issues better than a union.
Fellow graduate student Carl Martin disagrees, saying that while it is true that the GSC can address specific issues, “the administration hasn’t been listening.” With the UAW, he says, the University will be “obliged legally to negotiate”.
Graduate student Joe Ramsey said his connection to the University is more than just as a scholar. In a recent viewpoint, Ramsey wrote, “I myself am a graduate student and a teacher here at Tufts. I lecture for the English department, providing a service for which I am paid, and upon which the University depends.”
Martin agreed, saying that the jobs graduate students perform at Tufts are the type that they would put on a future resume. The jobs are part of the educational process but “that doesn’t invalidate the very real employment.”
Similar issues have arisen in other Universities nationwide. In the spring of 2001, graduate students at New York University overcame heavy opposition to unionize, setting a precedent among private institutions of higher education. Groups at schools such as Colombia, Brown, and UPenn, are now working to follow suit.
Bacow welcomed this debate at Tufts between students on campus, saying that he respected that “others may have different views and that’s what being a university is all about.”