Graduate students who provide instructional services at the University will vote today to decide whether they want to be exclusively represented by Service Employees International Union Local 509. In the weeks leading up to the vote, University President Ronald Liebowitz issued a statement to graduate students and faculty, offering his perspective on why unionization would not be a prudent move for the graduate students. 

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in August 2016 that graduate students who teach at private universities are legally able to choose to be represented by a union for the purposes of collective bargaining. 

In his April 21 statement, Liebowitz wrote that he opposes graduate student unionization based on “fundamental concerns” that unionization will “inhibit individualized graduate student academic programs,” “create a formal employer/employee relationship between faculty and students” and “compromise the university’s ability to work collaboratively with graduate students in a shared governance model.” 

Unionization would take away flexibility in student-University negotiations, Liebowitz argued in the statement, adding that he believes that “graduate students and their faculty committee and mentors are best able to make critical decisions regarding the components of each student’s graduate program without potential constraints imposed by collective bargaining agreements.”

Though he encouraged those graduate student workers eligible to vote to do so and emphasized that “Brandeis supports the rights of workers to vote to organize,” Liebowitz wrote that he does not believe that unionization will “enhance the graduate student experience.”

But several graduate students do not share Liebowitz’s views: “There is no merit to President Liebowitz’s claims,” Diana Filar, a Ph.D. student, wrote in an email to the Justice. “Other schools ... offer proof and testimony against the false claim that somehow unionizing would change the individualized programs or collaboration. In fact, unionizing is based on collaboration and the joining together of voices from across department[s] — something that hasn’t happened very much until some of these unionizing conversations began to happen.”

Filar, who wrote that she is part of the organizing committee for the graduate student unionization movement, added that she specifically takes issue with the claim that unionization would promote a formal relationship between faculty and students. 

“In treating the university as a business, [the] administration and presidents [sic] are the ones treating our faculty, advisors, and department heads like ‘managers,’” she wrote. 

Benjamin Kreider, a Ph.D. candidate at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, added in an email to the Justice that “President Leibowitz’s [sic] email to graduate students was exceptionally disappointing. It’s not at all unusual for university administrations to try and deter their faculty or graduate student-workers from unionizing, but we expected better from the administration at Brandeis. … They always bring up the same scare tactics to try and convince graduate student-workers to vote against their own best interests.” 

He added that many of Liebowitz’s core claims have been refuted in a Cornell University study examining the effects of graduate student-worker unions. According to the study’s findings, “unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect.” 

Unionization could also have a positive effect on faculty members, Filar wrote. The “formalization of the role of our faculty isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she said, adding, “They shouldn’t have to advise us on issues of insurance, salary, and other day to day empl[o]yee tasks that something like an HR department would handle otherwise. We want our professors to do what they do best and we want to be recognized by the administration as the workers that they effectually employ to teach many of its courses.”

Kreider added that most graduate students “would like to have more input into policies that affect the many hours we spend doing the labor that makes the university run; most also agree that they would like their work to be valued.” 

“A union would give me a voice — a seat at the table,” wrote Kreider, who said that he began meeting with fellow graduate students shortly after the NLRB decision.  “Currently, graduate students have virtually no voice on this campus. Although we have a Graduate Student Association — and I applaud the work they do — graduate students do not have any formal power. Many decisions are made regarding pay, benefits, transparency, career development, and other issues, almost unilaterally.”

These decisions are often made by administrators alone, Kreider wrote, citing a lack of transparency. Moreover, “There is little logic to why some teaching assistant jobs pay much more than others. I have seen jobs where the TA does little work, but is paid relatively well, and jobs where, conversely, the TA does all of the grading and works constantly, yet is paid less. That is not fair, and graduate students deserve to have a voice in decisions that affect both their lives, and the lives of their students.” 

Kreider also expressed frustration with the University’s lack of formal training for graduate students who teach. According to Kreider, graduate student workers only receive Title IX training, which he believes is a “disservice” to students. “I work very hard to serve my students, and so do the other grad students I know, but we are given no formal training on pedagogy, handling sensitive issues, etc.,” he wrote. 

Similarly, Filar wrote that the University could make “a few relatively minor adjustments” that could improve graduate student workers’ lives and working conditions. These adjustments might include subsidized commuting costs, dental and vision insurance coverage and better spousal and partner insurance support, summer funding and material responses to the rising cost of living, she added. 

Ultimately, though, a union would lend weight to graduate students’ voices, Kreider wrote. “Currently, we can complain, or take part in committees, but our voices do not have to be taken seriously. The terms of our employment can be changed at any time, with virtually no recourse,” he said. “A union contract would give us a democratic voice.  Once we win our union, the contract will be legally enforceable, so our concerns will have to be taken seriously.”