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.

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=13087

21 Comments for “300 Michigan Science Faculty, Collectively Paid $45M/Year, Sign Letter Protesting Union For Their Grad Assistants”

  1. A2P – one thing you don’t seem to be presenting fairly (given your day
    job, I can’t imagine it is due to lack of awareness) is that tenured faculty
    have to perform several jobs at once – lecturing, leading a research
    group, participating in committee work and – most tedious of all –
    fund raising.

    Lecturers, to my understanding, only teach classes. There may be cases
    of non-tenured researchers taking on most of those tasks I have
    listed, but I don’t think so.

    Also, Grad student researchers tend to get their tuition covered. Now
    we can debate on how that should be valued, but it is a large expense
    that must be covered from the research grant.

    Further, the cost of healthcare keeps rising due to our pathetic for-profit
    health care system. Another long side discussion, but it adds in to the
    overall cost of hiring students.

    As a former female grad student, I do support the idea of a union to
    give protection due to the great degree of power the adviser has over
    the student. For example, I have seen many difficult cases where women
    were harassed by another group member and when it is left to the discretion
    of the adviser, the results are mixed at best. Students need a structure to
    protect each other from abuses of power.

    Thanks to A2P for covering this and many other vital issues in our

  2. I also worked as a GSRA and was approached by GEO last year to sign on to their campaign.

    I refused. I honestly had a great experience as a GSRA and the benefits — tuition coverage, stipend, health care — are terrific. I do not mean for my action to undercut any union, but refusing to sign on to GEO is entirely rational. Why would I pay several hundred dollars a year for nothing! GEO would offer nothing else than I already receive. And I do not want a union structure imposed between myself and my faculty member.

  3. By the way, thanks to all of the grad students who have commented here. In my day job (when not wearing my A2Politico cape) I write about higher education hiring practices and policy. You can read my missives at The Chronicle of Higher Education and http://www.AdjunctNation.com.

  4. @AA GRSA No one except football coaches go into Academe for the money, right? Yes, of course tenured faculty are greedy. The pot of money for instructional activities is finite. If you get a 38 percent raise, that money has to come from somewhere, right? Maybe the prof. for whom you work, will get only a 2 percent raise instead of a 3 percent raise. It’s like a tube of toothpaste, and the non-tenured faculty and grad students don’t even have a toothbrush. When your teeth fall out, it won’t be a surprise.

    Every grad student BELIEVES s/he will end up on the tenure-track and enjoy the life of the tenure-line/tenured faculty member with whom s/he works. It’s a cruel myth that is perpetuated within Academe. Hiring data do not support the idea that all of you (2200) will end up on the tenure-track. The hiring data indicate that 70 percent of you will end up in FT temporary appts.

    You don’t want a union because you’re Living Large. Enjoy that $17,000 salary. It may be the last time you have health insurance and an office, unless you are represented by a union like LEO.

    • I can only speak for myself, but what you describe in no way matches my experience. I recognize that there are some greedy faculty, some naive grad students, and some situations where unions provide benefit to the system.

      – The tenured faculty I have worked with have been open with lab finances. If my stipend increases by 38%, then there is less money for the research supplies I need to complete my dissertation or to pay the salary of the research technician whose help I rely on.

      – I am well aware of the competitive nature of Academic hiring. My mentors have made the challenge clear. This is reality and not myth for me.

      – As a student, I am able to comfortably support a family of four. I am content with that. If my career path takes me to a Lecturer position, then I will consider whether union representation is best for me at that point.

      Your broad generalizations do a to well-intentioned faculty and grad students.

  5. @A2 Politico, come on. Of all people to attack in this world for being greedy, you attack professors – most of whom could make twice or more if they worked solely in private industry. The majority of faculty I know work their asses off and deserve every penny that they make.

    Also, lets do some math (which apparently you have issues with) 45,000,000 / 300 faculty members = $150,000 / year on average – where’s the crime there? If you think making $150,000 / year is greedy, you’re out of touch.

    • anotherGSRA if you think the pot of money for faculty compensation is divvied up fairly, you have got to wake up and smell the facts. Michigan has 1,400 lecturers, many of whom have Ph.D.s and most of whom earn less per year than the unionized painters employed to spruce up the classrooms, according to UM salary data made available to the public. Making $150,000 in Ann Arbor puts you in the top 5 percent in terms of income. Making $227,000 puts you in the top 3 percent. The 300 faculty members on that list are very highly paid.

      It’s not greedy to take what you’re given, perhaps, but when there are thousands of people earning peanuts doing the same job, well, yes, then it becomes a different discussion. You are earning your God given salary on the backs of those with similar academic qualifications whom the University employs so as to save money—to have it to give to continue to pay tenure-line and tenured faculty, as well as administrators, outsized salaries and benefits.

      If you finish your Ph.D., and go into industry (learn how to compose a resume versus a CV and how to interview for a job where they don’t care about which academic conferences you presented at) you will do well. If you go into Academe, you may end up here (http://www.AdjunctNation.com).

      • But you state in the headline “300 Michigan Science Faculty, Collectively Paid 45M / Year.” That is what I was addressing. I agree that lecturers aren’t paid what they deserve, and also that a union is fitting in their case, however that is an entirely different discussion from the GSRA issue.

        To be honest, it sounds like academia has dealt you a bad hand – maybe you were never offered that tenure track position – and you seem to have a bitter outlook on it. I don’t think that every grad student expects to obtain a tenure track position. Anyone who has spent any time in grad school has probably been aware of or witnessed the hiring process that potential faculty go through and understand that it is very competitive.

        On another note, the 17k number that you keep tossing around is the absolute minimum a GSRA will make. However, I don’t personally know anyone who makes less that 22 – 25k.

        • @anotherGSRA that $45M includes salary and benefits. Academe dealt me a great hand. I taught for a decade and have spent 20 years getting to speak and write about higher education policies. It’s pretty fun, my job, actually.

          LEO is absolutely the same discussion. The issues concerning your employment situations are very similar. Together, the 3700 hundred of you teach a significant percentage of the undergraduate courses. The U earns a significant percentage of its revenue through tuition (the budget is online; have a look.). The percentage paid to FT faculty is significantly higher (back to the pot of money available for instructional activities). In some ways, and maybe this is a foreign concept, the fight for compensation in Academe is just as brutal as the fight for tenure-line positions. Unions level that playing field. In Canada, grad students and sessionals (lecturers) are frequently represented in the same local. Why? Because their professional interests are very closely related.

          I know my issues with the AFT. What are yours, in particular?

  6. @UM_GSRA I was not bemoaning the “success” of the faculty, but rather the greed. The real issue is that you look at them and think “I’ll be there, some day.” Maybe you will. I hope you are. However, given the hiring trends in higher education a large percentage of you and your GSRA pals will be off the tenure-track, here: http://www.AdjunctNation.com.

    • You’re really suggesting that University faculty are greedy? Really?

      I’ve never heard anyone suggest getting a PhD and going into academia for the money.

  7. @UM GSRA You wouldn’t be able to refuse the union contract, but since you’re a Ph.D. candidate I’ll assume you’re being deliberately obtuse. You could certainly donate the additional money you’d be paid thanks to the union representation to charity. There are about 15K graduate and post-graduate students at U of M. That 400 signed an open letter means about 3 percent of students signed on to the protest. The union did not try to “absorb” anyone. A majority of students voted to hold an election, and THEN a majority of students who voted cast ballots in favor of the union.

    • You seem confused. There are only about 2200 GSRAs. 400/2200 is more like 20%. And if you want to use that scale, then GEO alleges that 1400 people signed cards, and in that case, 1400/13000 is less than 10%, so I’m not really sold either way. Also, no one has voted on anything yet, nor have the GSRAs HAD any rights to vote since 1981.

    • As a matter of principle I refuse to argue with liars and the ignorant. I am not sure which you are, but your comments are not even remotely close to reality.

      • UM_GSRA Come on! You’re a Ph.D. candidate. You can do better than to resort to inane insults. Be sure to repeat this comment to your dissertation committee when they don’t embrace your ideas like the Second Coming.

        • It’s not an insult. It’s a statement of fact, something you should try employing in your comments. There are not “15K graduate and post-graduate students at U of M” that are relevant to the issue of GSRA unionization and this didn’t happen: “majority of students who voted cast ballots in favor of the union” as no vote has occurred. Saying these things either makes you either a liar or ignorant of the facts.

  8. It is amazing how you ignore the opinions of more than 400 GSRA’s that signed the open letter.
    Is it so impossible to accept that they just don’t want a union?

    I signed this letter.
    I am pro union in general and my adviser didn’t even mention it to me.

    The union that tried to absorb us just sucks, and wants $400 a year from each of us. Cannot afford their politics.

  9. I would gladly “refuse” the union contract if that was an option. Because frankly, as a GSRA now I get excellent stipend and benefits (which increase every year) just as much as those for unionized GSIs. I don’t need or want a union. However, I would still be forced to pay over $400 per year to the union for them to graciously provide me with a contract that changes nothing for the better.

    Oh and by the way, every single one of those faculty was in my shoes at one point or another. And some day hopefully I will be in their shoes. Criticizing them for being successfull is beyond moronic.

  10. I’m underwhelmed by the faculty’s argument for continuing slavery in the Sovereign Nation of the U of M.

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