Elite graduate student struggles are not class struggles

Over the weeks that Harvard's dining workers were on strike, some Princeton graduate students decided they wanted the opportunity to threaten to do so, too. A small group is seeking unionization, and it is the threat of strikes – the deployment of “economic weapons,” as labor law puts it – that gives them their negotiating power. But if Princeton graduate students were to strike, it could only be for a small portion of their time, and could only cover a small fraction of the financial support they receive from the University.

Graduate students' worker status pertains only to teaching and paid research assistance, as per the recent National Labor Review Board decision following the case at Columbia. At Princeton, research assistance, primarily in the science labs, is usually indivisible from work towards one’s own dissertation, and teaching requirements are minimal. Even in the very rare case that a student’s costs are fully supported through teaching assistance for four years (the first year is a fellowship), over a five-year program a graduate student will spend on average less than 10 hours per week on qualifying work.

Ten hours of work a week sounds like one of the bad “gigs” in the new economy, including those offered to rising numbers of adjuncts. But Princeton graduate students receive, for five years guaranteed, a 12-month stipend of $31K (on average across departments), which is annually upgraded in line with housing costs and the policies of other Ivy institutions. This is double the poverty line, even accounting for higher costs of living in Princeton. It is not far from the annual $35K, covering the summer, that Harvard finally conceded to its full-time dining staff; staff who, unlike graduate students, do not have an additional $45K spent on their training and development.

On top of the stipend is a benefits package that rivals those offered by the top employers in America. Families receive up to six months of fully paid parental leave (12 weeks plus a term), with potential for an unpaid leave of absence, up to $5000 per pre-school child to pay for any form of childcare, and other services. It is a dream family policy, one which even Bernie Sanders might consider too ambitious. Add to this subsidized housing for most students who want it, free local transit, an excellent healthcare package, conference travel, research funding, and confidential harassment services and robust sexual assault procedures, and it becomes clear that Princeton graduate students have a high degree of economic security compared with most workers around their age, and indeed most people training for similar professional credentials, such as MDs.

Why does the University  provide this economic security to its graduate students – on top of a degree of autonomy over their research and time greater than even tenured faculty at many universities receive? It is not because the University is getting up to 10 hours work assistance out of them a week. If the administration decided not to use grad students for teaching or research assistance – if it wanted to break a strike – it could surely find good enough assistants or adjuncts for less than the nearly half a million dollars it invests in each graduate student. Nor is it because students have bargained through a third party. It is because students have successfully voiced their needs and concerns through the Graduate Student Government, including its minority caucuses – and the Graduate School has, with scant exceptions, listened and responded.

Princeton ultimately operates as an academic institution and not a company. Because of this, graduate students are not among the many exploited workers, but are in fact relatively protected and have had their voices heard. Independent of both state-political and profit requirements, Princeton is free, in a way fewer and fewer universities are, from having to apply a narrow economism to its activities. Unionization would replace successful, ongoing democratic and direct student engagement with an adversarial, contractual, majoritarian and bureaucratic approach. It would replace an academic ethos and mission with an industrial production model; precisely the move in higher education that students and faculty seek to resist. It would, as the substantive dissent in the NLRB ruling discusses, see the lecture hall as a factory floor.

Pursuing a PhD facing a competitive academic job market is not easy – it can be an anxiety-ridden, exhausting and lonely process. Too often the Lego Grad Student comic rings painfully true. We can and should work for more support – whether that’s in improving housing, advising, mental health, diversity and women’s services, or parties. But we are far better off doing so through existing forms of student representation, confidential reporting and direct means of addressing individual cases than through a union, whose authority to negotiate on any of the above issues is legally uncertain. And doing so through a dialogue based on shared scholarly values, rather than through claims based on our sellable value-add and economic contributions, would preserve the spirit of the graduate student-University relationship’s original intellectual purpose.

Undeniably, some Princeton graduate students are struggling, but ours is not a class struggle. We belie solidarity with the true workers – the dining workers, the adjuncts, and even students in public institutions – when we claim our situation is equivalent. For graduate students at elite institutions, the case against unionization is not the usual, union-busting “right to work” argument. It is about protecting the right – which even in academia is an increasingly rare privilege – not to be a worker.