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Doctoral Candidates of the World, Unite! By: Joseph J. Sabia
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Union density-defined as the proportion of unionized workers in the public and private economic sectors-has declined precipitously over the last sixty years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of American workers belonging to unions declined from 35% in the late 1940s to 13.5% in 2001. Thus, a greater proportion of workers are choosing to voluntarily negotiate their employment contracts rather than trust massive political bureaucracies to negotiate on their behalf. With union membership in free fall, union bosses are looking to find new members to bolster their political power. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has found its target-university doctoral candidates.


The 2000 March Current Population Survey reports that only 1.01% of all American adults have doctorates. Given that a doctorate is the highest educational degree possible, aren't doctoral candidates America's future "oppressors" rather than the oppressed? From whom do these students need protection? Nonetheless, students are easy targets for the UAW because they tend to be socialist, myopic, naive, whiny and militant. It really is a match made in heaven.

So how do these union drives get started? Usually, there is no undercurrent of support for unionization among graduate students. Most students are fairly content, enjoying the safe world of academia-free from hard deadlines, free from 60-hour plus workweeks, and free from personal accountability. In order to drum up support, the UAW hires individuals-often without public disclosure-to work full-time to organize graduate students and pressure university administrators to hold a binding vote in which graduate students choose whether to unionize. For instance, at Cornell University-where a union drive is currently underway-the UAW is paying graduate student Joan Moriarty to work full-time to bully fellow students into supporting her cause.

The notion that America's most-highly-educated individuals need a union to protect them from "Big University" is pure lunacy. First, graduate students always have the option of voting with their feet. Universities compete for graduate students by offering admissions packages that include research opportunities, teaching opportunities, academic courses, wages, health benefits, etc. There is no evidence of collusion between universities; hence, there is no reason to believe that students are not being offered competitive admissions packages. If a student does not like his offer from University A, he can choose to attend University B (or even forego graduate school for a real job).

Second, on equity grounds, most Ph.D. candidates will be earning salaries that put them in the top 15% of all income earners when they graduate and enter the labor market. The decision to accept a lower salary during graduate school (approximately $14,000 for nine months of work at Cornell University) is part of the investment cost associated with pursuing an advanced degree. Graduate students are not oppressed workers. Rather they are making a rational choice to invest in higher earnings profiles later in life.

Despite the absurdity of graduate student unionization, recent trends indicate that students are voluntarily choosing their own "road to serfdom" and, perhaps, getting exactly what they deserve.

At the present time, 12 universities have graduate student unions run by the UAW. As expected, there have been disastrous outcomes at several of these universities. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the national UAW unilaterally placed the local union under an "administratorship." Under this administratorship, locally elected UAW representatives were thrown out and replaced with an unelected, unaccountable union boss. This thug was given total power over contract negotiations and local finances and union members were screwed.

At the University of California at Santa Barbara, the UAW was alleged to have rigged a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-sanctioned union membership vote. According to graduate students there, "UAW officials refused to allow independent observers of vote counting and open[ed] the door to potential voting fraud." In response, graduate student union representatives resigned en mass, throwing contract negotiations into chaos. Once again, the UAW screwed its membership.

At the University of California at Berkeley, graduate students did not receive a wage increase for over seven years due to protracted, contentious negotiations between university representatives and union thugs.

Unionization has also caused erosion in student-professor relations, as the mentor relationship is replaced with an adversarial one. This problem is exacerbated at universities where graduate students have gone on strike, which is becoming increasingly common. In the recent past, there have been strikes at Michigan, California, and Wisconsin, all of which resulted in strained relations.

Strains have also resulted from the mere threat of unionization. In December 1995, teaching assistants at Yale withheld undergraduates' grades in hopes of forcing the administration to cave into their demands. In response, faculty members repudiated graduate students' actions and called for "a thorough reexamination of graduate study."

International students are often surprised to learn that they are on the UAW chopping block. UAW union dues are used to lobby against the H-1B visa program. H1-B visas are generally granted to immigrants working in high-technology industries. During the 106th Congress, legislation was proposed that would expand the cap on H1-B visas. This expansion was targeted toward those individuals that would work at research universities. In response to this bill, the UAW proudly proclaimed:

"During the 106th Congress, the UAW strongly opposed legislation pushed by the high-tech industry to substantially increase the number of H-1B Visas for skilled foreign workers…colleges and universities in this country are graduating more than enough Americans to fill demand for these types of jobs."

Under closed-shop rules, foreign students will be forced to pay UAW dues that could be used to lobby Congress for their deportation. There is also no conclusive evidence to suggest that unions will raise graduate student wages. According to a recent paper by Cornell labor economist Ronald Ehrenberg, titled "Collective Bargaining in Higher Education":

"[Our findings] suggest that the impact of graduate student unions on economic outcomes does not appear to be very large…"

In fact, the only thing that is certain to be very large is the union bureaucracy. Even if the UAW is able to negotiate small wage increases, the money has to come from somewhere. There is no guarantee that wage increases will not be paid for at the expense of other graduate students through (i) a reduction in the number and size of fellowships made available, (ii) a reduction in assistantships (as departments substitute toward non-unionized undergraduate or post-doctoral labor), or (iii) a reduction in the number of graduate slots available. Dr. Ehrenberg concludes by stating:

[Graduate student] unions provide a structure under which activist students can develop leadership skills… Our preliminary evidence suggests that graduate student unions do not have a large impact on the economic well-being of their members is unlikely to sway diehard adherents from the notion that graduate student unions will help alter the imbalance between graduate students and their mentors that is often alleged to exist."

In other words, facts and evidence will never matter to union activists. Their socialist agenda is a religion, where collective bargaining is inherently good and individual liberty is bad.

Recently, Cornell sociology student and union organizer Robb Willer appeared before a room of budding economists. Willer spoke in vague platitudes about how bringing a union to Cornell would lead to greater "democracy." When one economist pointed out that preserving individual liberty was preferable to living under the tyranny of the majority, Willer scoffed and referred to Cornell's graduate student contract regime as "totalitarian." This proclamation came as a great shock to some of the foreign students from the former Soviet Union.

Despite the hysteria, union efforts are, sadly, moving forward. In April 2000, the National Labor Relations Board granted graduate students at a private university (NYU) the legal right to unionize. In response, union drives have expanded in size and scope. Several private universities (including Brown) have filed appeals with the NLRB and there is some hope that-with Bush appointees now in place-the April 2000 decision will be overturned.

But if unionization is permitted to move forward, academia will reap the socialist seeds that it has sewn over the last 40 years. Perhaps there is some justice in that.

Joseph J. Sabia is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Cornell University.

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