Have your graduate students unionized and how is it working out?

Started by GuyRien, September 19, 2023, 04:20:57 PM

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GuyRien

I'm at University in California where the graduate students just unionized. It's all new to me. The mentor/mentee relationship is now morphed into a employer/employee relationship with strict boundaries (i.e. only 20 hours a week work), time off, sick days etc. All things that were previously handled organically.

I'm eager to learn from other people's experiences so I can avoid common pitfalls (what-ever they maybe) and embrace the positive aspects of this change (if any).

Puget

Our grad students are covered by a union contract while serving in teaching roles (TA, grader, instructor, etc.) and are now preparing for a vote to extend that to when they are being paid as RAs. So far it hasn't been a problem at all nor changed much. Extending it to RA roles will be a little different, but I think it will be for the good. Remember, that 20 hours doesn't include work for their own thesis, so for most it shouldn't be a problem (i.e., most of their lab work is also for their thesis anyway, so no problem). It should be helpful for protecting students where that's not the case and they are being exploited for cheap lab labor.
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Kron3007

Where I am, they are unionized for teaching only.  We don't have the 20 hour RA thing though, they just work on their thesis which contributes to my overall research program.  More of a team mentality I suppose.

However, I spent some time in the US as a grad student and this was one of the main differences.  In my case, I had to meet repeatedly with my advisor to tell them that the "work" part was taking up too much time (and was menial labour).  They always agreed and had flowery words, but nothing changed and I ended up leaving.  I had other reasons to leave, but this was definitely a factor.  My lab mates would have also left (one found a new advisor), but they were international as well, but didn't want to be sent home.  I didn't hate being deported to Canada....

In the US system, I think it is a good move.  Many may not see the problem, but there are faculty abusing students.  It is especially problematic with international students, who's immigration status are ties to their advisor.  Unionization won't eliminate the problem, but at least provides support.

apl68

Much as I hate to see mentor/mentored relationships replaced by rigid union rules, I can remember from personal experience how grad students are open to exploitation in the absence of more formal protection.  I don't recall there being any abuse of students by profs in the department I studied in, but the university's treatment of them was becoming more and more exploitative.  They just wanted cheap labor for teaching assistants and such.  If that's all an institution's grad students are to it, then the institution shouldn't be surprised when they start organizing to try to get better treatment.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

Kron3007

Quote from: apl68 on September 20, 2023, 06:34:14 AMMuch as I hate to see mentor/mentored relationships replaced by rigid union rules, I can remember from personal experience how grad students are open to exploitation in the absence of more formal protection.  I don't recall there being any abuse of students by profs in the department I studied in, but the university's treatment of them was becoming more and more exploitative.  They just wanted cheap labor for teaching assistants and such.  If that's all an institution's grad students are to it, then the institution shouldn't be surprised when they start organizing to try to get better treatment.

I dont know that union rules need to be overly rigid.  Our postdocs recently unionized, and it really dosnt change the relationship, just sets more formal rules around specific aspects and gives them a resource to use when there are bad situations.

As mentioned, these situations can be very toxic, especially for international students who have their immigration status directly tied to the professor.  That is far too much power for one person to hold over another IMO, and ultimately leads to exploitation (not always of course).  Many international students have a dream of a North American degree, and will tolerate a lot to make that dream come true.

There are a couple professors here who are notorious for recruiting and exploiting international students and postdocs.  It is fairly well known, but without rules in place to stop it, there is not much that can be done. 

apl68

That's definitely a fair point regarding the need to protect vulnerable international students.  The department I worked in didn't have international grad students, so my awareness of those issues isn't as high.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

GuyRien

The captive relationship is both ways. I have an international student now who is working on a critical project but has decided to work remotely for the first two weeks in his home country. It will be interesting what the union says, because the agreement is they are present in California during the GSR.

Quote from: Kron3007 on September 20, 2023, 07:09:55 AM
Quote from: apl68 on September 20, 2023, 06:34:14 AMMuch as I hate to see mentor/mentored relationships replaced by rigid union rules, I can remember from personal experience how grad students are open to exploitation in the absence of more formal protection.  I don't recall there being any abuse of students by profs in the department I studied in, but the university's treatment of them was becoming more and more exploitative.  They just wanted cheap labor for teaching assistants and such.  If that's all an institution's grad students are to it, then the institution shouldn't be surprised when they start organizing to try to get better treatment.

I dont know that union rules need to be overly rigid.  Our postdocs recently unionized, and it really dosnt change the relationship, just sets more formal rules around specific aspects and gives them a resource to use when there are bad situations.

As mentioned, these situations can be very toxic, especially for international students who have their immigration status directly tied to the professor.  That is far too much power for one person to hold over another IMO, and ultimately leads to exploitation (not always of course).  Many international students have a dream of a North American degree, and will tolerate a lot to make that dream come true.

There are a couple professors here who are notorious for recruiting and exploiting international students and postdocs.  It is fairly well known, but without rules in place to stop it, there is not much that can be done. 

mythbuster

I was a unionized Graduate Student at UC Davis back in the early '00s. I might still have my UAW card form that time.  I'm surprised it took this long to come to your campus. For myself, it meant that we got dental insurance, which we did not have before. It did not significantly change how much time myself or any of my cohort worked in the research lab.
   I had a few friends in the humanities and they reported at the time that unionization did lead to increased transparency as to who TA-ships were awarded too, and more standardization of what was expected as a TA.

I would look to those schools where this has been long standing. I have a feeling the impacts are more subtle than you may be envisioning.

Kron3007

Quote from: GuyRien on September 20, 2023, 11:14:59 AMThe captive relationship is both ways. I have an international student now who is working on a critical project but has decided to work remotely for the first two weeks in his home country. It will be interesting what the union says, because the agreement is they are present in California during the GSR.

Quote from: Kron3007 on September 20, 2023, 07:09:55 AM
Quote from: apl68 on September 20, 2023, 06:34:14 AMMuch as I hate to see mentor/mentored relationships replaced by rigid union rules, I can remember from personal experience how grad students are open to exploitation in the absence of more formal protection.  I don't recall there being any abuse of students by profs in the department I studied in, but the university's treatment of them was becoming more and more exploitative.  They just wanted cheap labor for teaching assistants and such.  If that's all an institution's grad students are to it, then the institution shouldn't be surprised when they start organizing to try to get better treatment.

I dont know that union rules need to be overly rigid.  Our postdocs recently unionized, and it really dosnt change the relationship, just sets more formal rules around specific aspects and gives them a resource to use when there are bad situations.

As mentioned, these situations can be very toxic, especially for international students who have their immigration status directly tied to the professor.  That is far too much power for one person to hold over another IMO, and ultimately leads to exploitation (not always of course).  Many international students have a dream of a North American degree, and will tolerate a lot to make that dream come true.

There are a couple professors here who are notorious for recruiting and exploiting international students and postdocs.  It is fairly well known, but without rules in place to stop it, there is not much that can be done. 

Perhaps, but the consequences are not equal. 

When I withdrew from the program in the US, the US government told me I had ten days to leave the country.  This is ironic since Canadians can visit the US for up to six months without a visa of any sort, but that was the situation. 

For me, that was ok, I packed up my belongings, drove home, and ended up doing a PhD here in a high quality university.  For the others in my program, withdrawing would have meant they had ten days to pack up and fly home, where their future prospects were much more bleak. 

So, your student may delay your research progress by a couple weeks, but you could de-rail their career. 
I hardly see that as a two way captive relationship.

AJ_Katz

My last institution did not have a grad student union and my current institution does.  I don't see much of a difference.  At both institutions, graduate students have become more vocal about fair treatment.  Where I have seen students complain about treatment, it has more to do with personality conflicts and poor communication than it does with a faculty member holding unreasonable expectations.  It can also arise when students think graduate school is simply an extension of their undergraduate education and that they are only responsible to themselves.  Most of our grad students have not worked a full time job.  New students also do not realize that the research that they're doing as part of their paid research assistantship need not be the same project that they are working on for their thesis or dissertation.  Unfortunately from my perspective, most graduate students do not take full advantage of the opportunities that a graduate training program offers – unionized or not.  FWIW, the reasons above are why I've created a first semester graduate student course to help them become successful in graduate school.

Kron3007

This kind of reminds me of discussions about how non-unionized car manufacturers paid similar etc to unionized ones.  However, they often set their standards based on their competition, so the effects of unionization can be felt across the board. This is obviously an aside, but interesting none the less.

As for new graduate students, we have a lot of orientation to help them understand how grad school is different etc, but a lot of this does fall on the advisor and a course is an interesting approach.

As for the research being their thesis work or not, that really varies.  Here, the GRA generally does just support them to do their thesis work, so expectations on this are not universal.

Caracal

#11
Quote from: GuyRien on September 20, 2023, 11:14:59 AMThe captive relationship is both ways. I have an international student now who is working on a critical project but has decided to work remotely for the first two weeks in his home country. It will be interesting what the union says, because the agreement is they are present in California during the GSR.

[/quote]

I guess I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect that regardless of official rules, this kind of thing is unlikely to be affected by a union contract. It's already against the rules technically, but I imagine that it's protected because
a. nobody is likely to complain
b. two weeks is a short enough period that if someone in administration did find out for some reason, everyone could maintain the fiction that this is unplanned in some way, or shorter than it is, or whatever.

The only difference could be what would happen if it did become some source of contention. Really there are only two ways I can imagine that happening. In one, you agree to the student's request to work remotely, but then become convinced that it was a bad idea or that the student wasn't actually doing the work, or that it messed up the project in some way, and take some action against the student. In the other, another student asks to work remotely and you refuse and that student complains about unequal treatment. In the first scenario I'd be inclined to say that this is exactly the point of a union. Grad students are really vulnerable when advisors or directors tell them one thing and then abruptly switch course and blame them for doing the thing they said was fine. Before allowing a student to work remotely, you should make sure you trust the student to do what they say they'll do and make sure it won't mess up the project. If you miscalculate, you just have to eat it and can't blame the student.

The other one gets more complicated, but I'm not really sure the California part would end up being relevant in a labor hearing anyway since it would presumably be about a different case entirely...

GuyRien

The union contract explicitly states the workers should be present in California during the contract period. So the student is in violation of the union contract they just negotiated.

Quote from: Caracal on October 02, 2023, 05:33:52 AM
Quote from: GuyRien on September 20, 2023, 11:14:59 AMThe captive relationship is both ways. I have an international student now who is working on a critical project but has decided to work remotely for the first two weeks in his home country. It will be interesting what the union says, because the agreement is they are present in California during the GSR.


I guess I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect that regardless of official rules, this kind of thing is unlikely to be affected by a union contract. It's already against the rules technically, but I imagine that it's protected because
a. nobody is likely to complain
b. two weeks is a short enough period that if someone in administration did find out for some reason, everyone could maintain the fiction that this is unplanned in some way, or shorter than it is, or whatever.

The only difference could be what would happen if it did become some source of contention. Really there are only two ways I can imagine that happening. In one, you agree to the student's request to work remotely, but then become convinced that it was a bad idea or that the student wasn't actually doing the work, or that it messed up the project in some way, and take some action against the student. In the other, another student asks to work remotely and you refuse and that student complains about unequal treatment. In the first scenario I'd be inclined to say that this is exactly the point of a union. Grad students are really vulnerable when advisors or directors tell them one thing and then abruptly switch course and blame them for doing the thing they said was fine. Before allowing a student to work remotely, you should make sure you trust the student to do what they say they'll do and make sure it won't mess up the project. If you miscalculate, you just have to eat it and can't blame the student.

The other one gets more complicated, but I'm not really sure the California part would end up being relevant in a labor hearing anyway since it would presumably be about a different case entirely...
[/quote]

Caracal

Quote from: GuyRien on October 04, 2023, 10:23:50 PMThe union contract explicitly states the workers should be present in California during the contract period. So the student is in violation of the union contract they just negotiated.



I'm looking at the union contract and I don't see anything of the sort in there. Perhaps I'm missing it...

GuyRien

The contract says explicitly that the employment should be consistent with the requirements of the funding source. Most federal grants (NSF/DoD/NIH) requires the worker to be present in the US.

Personally, I think the university is turning the screws on the students, effectively saying, if you want to get paid more you have to give more.

Quote from: Caracal on October 09, 2023, 09:36:37 AM
Quote from: GuyRien on October 04, 2023, 10:23:50 PMThe union contract explicitly states the workers should be present in California during the contract period. So the student is in violation of the union contract they just negotiated.



I'm looking at the union contract and I don't see anything of the sort in there. Perhaps I'm missing it...