Emory Graduates: Unite?

By Nathan Ahlgrim

Workers are organizing in an attempt to bargain with management for improved wages and working conditions.

Such a statement may conjure up images of famous, sprawling strikes driven by established labor unions: from UK coal miners fighting Margaret Thatcher, to Cesar Chavez and the Agricultural Workers, to perpetual transportation strikes throughout France. Graduate students, far away from blue-collar manual labor and comfortably nestled in a university, could hardly inhabit a more different world than those in the traditional labor movement.  At least on the surface. 

With support from a handful of Emory faculty and undergraduates, a growing number of graduate students see more similarity than difference between white lab coats and blue collars. Both groups work long, often uncompensated hours for an employer with whom they have little to no leverage or recourse for negotiation. If graduate students are required to work in laboratories, publish papers, and teach undergraduate courses, then they should be treated as employees and be granted negotiation rights. The Service Employees International Union, which represents the majority of unionized graduate schools, could then serve as legal representation to fight for these rights. At least, this is the argument from students pushing to unionize the Laney Graduate School (LGS) student body. Momentum for their cause is building, riding a wave of the 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board which allowed graduate students to be treated as employees, thereby giving private university graduate students the right to unionize.

One such supporter is Melanie Pincus, a 6th-year student in the Neuroscience program. She is one of the 171 graduate and 33 faculty co-signers (as of 3/13/17) of the “Dear Colleagues” letter distributed by the Emory Graduate Organizing Committee (EGOC). When asked what the goals of a student union would be, she does not hesitate to name her top priority: healthcare.

Under the current system, graduate students have seen annual premium rises. The premium is covered as part of the financial package, but healthcare has still become more expensive in recent years. Co-pays have similarly increased (from $25 to $35 for core-network care in the past year) along with max out-of-pocket expenses (from $6,350 to $6,850 in the past year). Many students find comprehensive healthcare unattainable with their current benefits and stipend, given the lack of vision, dental, and options for dependents (dependents are only covered for international students) and spouses. Pincus is one of many students who believe the financial strain and/or insufficient access to care can detract from a student’s studies and responsibilities, not to mention overall well-being.

The concerns raised by EGOC include more than individual benefits. EGOC includes political calls to action which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, heavily liberal. Possibly the most controversial issues raised by LGS student organizers is to establish Emory’s sanctuary campus status and make women’s healthcare – including family planning and abortion services – available through the healthcare plan. Raising these concerns could be a sure-fire way to motivate liberally-minded students to join the cause. EGOC may be able to wrangle the required 30% of the student body to hold a vote by claiming the union has the moral high ground in addition to the economic benefits. Of course, a socially progressive graduate union could greatly increase Emory’s appeal to some prospective students, but it could very easily dissuade others. Recent student-led protests to declare Emory a Sanctuary Campus are evidence of the fact that even when the student body is largely united, they can be at odds with the administration, board of trustees, and donors. (Editor’s note: The Board of Trustees was contacted but did not reply to our request for comment)

A union’s power is derived from its ability to leverage its united front to effect positive change, whether that be for improvements in workers’ contracts or for changes in administration policy.  However, the umbrella of the LGS encompasses more than 1700 students in 40 degree programs. Depending on the program, stipends range from just over $23,000 to $29,000 for the 2016-2017 year. Variations between programs extend into diverse teaching requirements, coursework, and graduation requirements. That being the case, how united a front could an LGS union present? Pincus acknowledges the diversity, but does not believe it would weaken the union. The union would bargain for universal experiences, such as healthcare and an advisor-advisee contract, while also allowing differences between programs to persist. To address the wide-ranging stipend levels, the union could bargain for annual proportional increases in accordance with existing levels of support, not a regression to the mean. This is good news to GDBBS students, who currently enjoy the largest stipend in LGS.

As French foreign minister George Bidault was quoted as saying, “a good diplomatic agreement was one with which all parties were equally dissatisfied.” Inherent to both diplomatic and labor negotiations is, as Bidault notes, unpalatable compromise. When concessions have to be made, what ground should be given?  GDBBS is already over-represented in the student government, and one could expect the pattern to persist in the union, largely determining votes on actions and requests. With a plurality, GDBBS students could have the power to push for increased healthcare benefits at the expense of stipend increases, since the latter is not as vital when their stipends are already at the top of the pile.

            Not susceptible to this skeptic view, Pincus believes there is more to unite LGS students than divide them, and the benefits would be felt by all. Universal benefits would need to be substantial for and obvious to LGS students for the union to be successful, because membership is voluntary in Georgia, a right-to-work state. Many students could elect to not join the union if they do not experience personal benefits from it, withholding the dues necessary to fund an effective union. Paying 1-2% of the stipend to ensure annual raises could be a major turn-off for GDBBS students who are better taken care of than those at the bottom of the pile (sorry, Anthropology). Even if the money doesn’t drive GDBBS students to unionize, the peace-of-mind granted by binding contracts and legal protection should be more than enough reason to get on board, says Pincus.

Take, for example, the all-too-common case of a graduate student who elected to serve as Teaching Assistant for an additional course after being told he would be compensated at the end of the semester.  The semester came and went, and no compensation was offered, and he was left without any legal protection for his interests.

On a more personal level, students currently have no legal representation in disputes with his or her advisor over work expectations or graduation requirements. Many students have nurturing, supportive relationships with their advisors, but the only guarantee is the honor system.  For all graduate students are asked to do, is it too much to ask to have an organized body to support demands and needs?

            Like other student movements to unionize, such as the widely-publicized Northwestern football players’ movement in 2014, judgments on the issue may be determined by labeling: are graduate students employees, or students?  LGS Dean Lisa Tedesco said in a statement that “Emory’s position is that graduate students teach and do research as part of their graduate education – it is part of their professional development … Graduate students are not employees”. In essence, all of the teaching, research and other responsibilities that make graduate life feel like a normal job is training, not employment.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, can the duck form a union? Many universities think so – 33 having recognized unions by the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. Dean Tedesco, however, “[does] not believe that a union would add value here at Emory”. It is important to note that, even with her dismissal of its benefit, “Emory respects our students’ right to seek union representation”. Sarah Peterson, LGS alumna and Associate Director of LGS Professional Development and Career Planning, agrees that the requirements of an LGS degree are professional development, and needed to build a successful career after graduation. However, she takes a less definitive stance on a union’s potential merits. The effect of a graduate student union on the quality of education and professional development, she says, “remains to be seen”.

Like any debate, there are pros and cons to be seen from the students’ and administration’s perspective. Is a fundamental shift in LGS structure, transitioning to an employee-employer model, worth the potential for increased bargaining power a union would bring? Predictions of the overall effect on Emory’s standing among American universities for students, faculty, and donors cannot be isolated from an administrator’s, donor’s or student’s. If nothing else, forming a union and being recognized by the university as employees may make it easier for students to convince their parents that they do, in fact, have a real job.

The issues discussed above are not a complete list of concerns raised by EGOC.  For more information, please visit their website.


As national conversations take place at Emory and elsewhere about graduate student unionization, the Laney Graduate School (LGS) has encouraged members of the community to educate themselves on the issue by seeking out, examining, and balancing information and perspectives, particularly as decisions to unionize affect both current and future generations of graduate students.

To help facilitate the discussion, LGS created this web page to post general information and answers to some commonly asked questions about bargaining units, the election process, collective bargaining, and more.  Dean Lisa Tedesco also has and will continue to meet with graduate students in informal and formal sessions to discuss LGS’s position on unionization.

Dean Tedesco was asked to provide her comments and perspective on graduate student unionizing efforts at Emory in preparation of the preceding newsletter article.  Below is her response: 

“Thank you …for your request for comment about graduate students and union organizing.  I appreciate the opportunity to comment.

I share with you, below, a message recently sent to directors of graduate studies, program directors and graduate program administrators, which in turn was shared with faculty.  Please feel free to refer to it, as prepare your article, and in general. [Click here to see message]

As stated earlier, Emory’s position is that graduate students teach and do research as part of their graduate education—it’s part of their professional development.  Teaching and research, as you know, are substantively intertwined with a PhD student’s progression toward the degree.  Graduate students are not employees.  

We do not believe that a union would add value here at Emory.  Inserting a non-academic third party into the relationship between students and faculty, and between students and administration, is not the most productive or effective way to enhance the environment where graduate teaching and research take place and to achieve the goals of graduate education, where students become independent researchers and scholars and teachers. 

Emory respects our students’ right to seek union representation. We also encourage students to become informed on the impact of involving a nonacademic third party in matters related to their development as scholars, researchers and educators. Their decision will affect current and future generations of LGS graduate students.”