May 30, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Graduate student unions are in the news again, with campuses across the US deciding to allow--and not to allow--graduate students to unionize. 

In October 2016, we reported that National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would require private universities to bargain with graduate student labor unions on compensation and working conditions. 

Columbia University was one of the first private institutions that allowed collective bargaining for its graduate students.

What's changed since then? Quite a bit.

Penn State graduate students elected not to unionize, following a sharp anti-union stance from the university, despite the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board giving students the right back in February. 

At Harvard, graduate students saw a different outcome, where teaching and research assistants voted to unionize. The Harvard Graduate Student Union--the first in Harvard's history, will work with United Auto Workers. 

Graduate students at the University of Washington face a different battle. Last week, graduate students who teach, tutor, and research went on strike. They're asking for a pay increase, more inclusive health insurance, and improvements to mental health coverage. The students, represented by UAW, argue that their current salaries aren't livable in Seattle.

Students at Columbia University recently went on strike because the University announced that it wouldn't bargain with the union. 

The move towards graduate student unions isn't isolated to the US. In January of this year, graduate students from six graduate schools in South Korea gathered in Seoul to form the nation's first National Graduate Student Labor Union, to protest unfair treatment of graduate assistants and researchers.

Want to learn more? Take a look at what graduate student unions fight for and the pros and cons of joining one.

What do graduate students argue for and against?

Short version: a couple of things.

1. The right to be recognized as a union

After the 2016 NLRB ruling, which ruled that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form unions, students fought initially just for the right. 

That doesn't mean that their universities will support them.

That doesn't mean that the right to unionize still must come under a vote. 

This issue is as much about social justice (see #2) as it is about power. 

In a 2017 article in The Washington Post, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said, "The growing wave of private college organizing has emerged for one core reason — the desire among grad workers to use their freedom to have a real say over the work they do," adding "The truth is that grads, alongside a growing army of their contingent academic peers, grade the papers, teach the classes and perform the research that creates new knowledge and keeps universities running."

Students fight for the right--and know that they have some leverage because of the value they bring to university life. 

2. Social justice and improving working conditions. 

What are the pros and cons of joining a graduate student union?

The benefits--fighting for better compensation and protecting workers' rights--have some costs, too. They cost money. And they can damage the core missions of PhD programs.

Graduate students who join unions give themselves power and let them dictate some of the conditions under which they're willing and not willing to work. Fighting for livable pay, health benefits, and childcare are just a few of the perks.

There's are financial costs, and ethical ones, too. How's this: if unions do their jobs and increase overall benefits and pay, they may have to admit fewer students because they cannot afford to take on the extra costs.

You'll have to pay dues, and it's not clear if or how you'll recuperate those costs in benefits to offset your financial losses. 

What's the answer? We don't have one, other than this: consider all the pros and make the right choice for you.

Learn more about graduate programs. 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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