300 Michigan Science Faculty, Collectively Paid $45M/Year, Sign Letter Protesting Union For Their Grad Assistants
by P.D. Lesko
The bumper sticker is a classic one: If you’re against abortion, don’t have one. Limiting the rights of others is often mistaken for standing on principle. The University of Michigan graduate student research assistants (GRSAs) have decided to unionize. They signed cards in order to show that there was solid interest among the group in unionizing, and then they petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote. It was the same thing U of M’s non-tenured lecturers did, hoping to improve pay, benefits, job security and treatment of faculty who did not have the benefit of tenure-track appointments. It’s a simple equation: workers who believe they can collectively negotiate better working conditions may choose to unionize in Michigan.
At the University of Michigan, however, 772 spoiled sports sent an open letter to the Regents (two regents signed the letter) protesting the fact that university officials recognized the union. The letter begins thusly:
With all due respect, we, the undersigned faculty and graduate students of the University of Michigan wish to express our strong disagreement with your decision to recognize graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) as public employees, and we are deeply disappointed that you would take an action that is so detrimental to the University of Michigan and its faculty and students. In 1981 the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) determined that while graduate student instructors are considered public employees, GSRAs are not. The rationale underlying that decision was based on the fact that the primary role of GSRAs is to conduct research in support of attaining graduate degrees. That rationale and attendant role are equally true today in 2012 as they were in 1981.
At the heart of their argument (an old, hackneyed, paternalistic diatribe) is that the GRSAs are not employees who are entitled to organize, but rather students who must conduct research as a step toward a Ph.D. In 1995, The Chronicle of Higher Education published the results of a survey that concluded “Unions Don’t Hurt Professor-Advisee Relations.” Yes, in 1995. The “grad students are not employees argument” was unsettled in 1995. It’s old now. Ancient. In 1999, NPR’s Morning Edition did a story on “Grad Student Unionization.” Here’s the teaser: “NPR’s Kathleen Schalch reports that an increasing number of teaching assistants at graduate schools are organizing and joining unions. They are no longer willing to accept substandard pay for teaching classes, grading papers, and doing research for their professors. Three years ago, about a dozen university campuses had unionized graduate students. Now there are union organizing drives at 25 more.”
Yes, graduate students who worked for their faculty advisors were paid substandard wages in 1999. Those who’re not unionized, are still paid poor wages.
In 2003, the New York Times published “Eggheads Unite.” In that piece, the logic behind what drives graduate students to form unions is presented elegantly and in simple enough language that even a tenured Department Chair such as Dr. Daniel J. Inman, who works in the Aeorspace Engineering department at U of M, and earned a $205,000 salary in 2011 teaching for just 9 months, can understand:
University fund-raising depends primarily on high-profile faculty publishing, so the smart money cuts the total number of professors in order to spend big on a few stars and give them enough free time to stay famous. Graduate students, serving as T.A.’s and even as lecturers, pick up the teaching slack. This makes for a great fiscal model — tenure produces high fixed costs, while disposable T.A.’s work for peanuts. But it also creates an ever-greater oversupply of Ph.D.’s competing for ever-fewer tenured jobs. Back when graduate students could reasonably see themselves as apprentices bound for glorious lecture halls, the low pay was tolerable, but when T.A.-ships look like the university’s way of balancing the budget at the expense of their graduate students’ futures, it feels like an outrage. Administrators have made the mood only worse by sending their own salaries through the roof; Penn’s president, Judith Rodin, the highest-paid of them all, makes more than a million dollars a year if you include other corporate-board fees.
Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, the highest paid public university president in the U.S., certainly recognizes this dynamic and just as she did with the lecturers’ union, she chose not to fight her own GRSAs wishes to form a union. Unfortunately, 311 faculty members chose to demonstrate highly-paid hubris and Back to the Future argumentative reasoning.
The letter they signed goes on to try to claim:
1. Scientific and engineering research entails a complex, multi-step, often circuitous, process that might involve a mix of theoretical modeling, statistical sampling, computer simulations, and experimental measurements. The role of a student pursuing a graduate degree–regardless of whether he/she is a GSRA, an NSF Fellowship recipient, or a foreign student funded by his/ her own country–is to learn the a-to-z of this process by carrying out a research project to answer an original question or to advance current technology capability to a higher level. The corresponding role of the faculty advisor is to guide and train the student in how to develop and execute the research process.
The truth is that in labs and research facilities all over the United States, GRSAs and Post-Docs are used as cheap labor by highly paid faculty who need help with the grunt work on their research projects. Professors in the sciences have well-earned reputations as habitual cribbers of the work of their student researchers. It is a Dickensian model that college faculty and administrations have been keen on fighting to protect.
The 311 faculty members who signed the letter earn, collectively, between $40,000,000-$45,000,000 million dollars in salary, alone, each year, according to the 2011 salary information released by University of Michigan officials. Figure in fringe benefits, and, well, those 311 individuals, overwhelmingly male—(because if we brought up the subject of women in the sciences that would be a whole different can of academic worms) could easily enjoy collective compensation somewhere in the $70,000,000-$80,000,000 million dollar range. The gross per capita income in the United States in 2010 was $47,140. These 311 faculty members (public employees), collectively, gobble up as much as 1,591 U.S. wage earners.
The thought of sharing that meaty money pie must give many of those faculty members some serious indigestion.
As for the GRSAs who signed the letter, I can’t be the only person to think that some of them may have been asked to do so by their “faculty advisors.” On the other hand, certainly others simply are against unionization—staunchly against unionization. I’ll be waiting for the piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that reports over 400 University of Michigan GRSAs who signed the open letter have refused the pay bump and benefits offered them.
Here’s what will happen: every one of the men (and, yes, the occasional woman) who signed this open letter will belly up to the buffet when and if the union is certified, smug in their valiant efforts to stave off the evils of higher pay, better working conditions and access to a fraction of the “resources” available from the university for those whom it employs.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The university’s Graduate Employees’ Organization, which is leading the union drive, has responded with its own petition objecting to efforts by faculty members or current or former administrators to sway the unionization vote. An administrative judge is holding hearings this week to decide whether the university’s graduate research assistants should be thought of students or employees under state law.”
Oh, just a couple more points.
1. Someone needs to tell all of the tenure-line and tenured faculty members who signed the open letter that they are de facto members of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a union. The AAUP has an excellent set of guidelines on the treatment of graduate students, a set of guidelines that includes, of course, supporting graduate students in their right to union representation.
2. The University of Michigan AAUP local had an excellent lecture by Yeshiva professor Ellen Schrecker in October 2011: “The Lost Soul of Higher Education—Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University.”
To view a video of Dr. Schrecker’s talk, click here. If you signed the open letter to the Regents in opposition to the unionization of the GSRAs, watch the video twice, or until the message sinks in, whichever comes first.
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