Grad students deserve labor protections

Without graduate student workers, colleges and universities could not operate.  Nevertheless, they are paid very little and receive no paid sick leave. As bad as their situation is, it’s about to get even worse as a result of the pandemic (“Universities to Grad Students: Drop Dead,” The Nation, May 27).  At UC Santa Cruz, for example, 54 have been fired from their teaching assistantships.

Administrators claim that grad students function essentially as interns, meaning they are getting on-the-job experience toward their doctoral degrees while receiving compensation.  But the truth is that their institutions are the ones benefiting far more.  In this regard, universities and colleges are acting more like businesses than educational institutions.

When I was an undergraduate at UPenn in the 1950s, all of my discussion groups were taught by grad students, and all of my tests and papers were graded by them as well.  Perhaps things have changed a bit, but I doubt it.  Professors have long viewed grad students as cheap labor to be exploited.  I place the blame on administrators whose primary objective is to keep costs down.  The strikes and sick-outs by grad students will likely result in only slight changes.

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2 Replies to “Grad students deserve labor protections”

  1. The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of flip-flopping re whether grad students (as well as medical interns/residents) are or are not “employees” with rights under the Labor Act. When a Dem is president, the Board eventually becomes Dem and holds that they are employees. When a Republican is president, the Board eventually becomes Republican and holds that they are not employees. There’s a time lag due to the facts that the five-member NLRB has staggered terms so often it takes a year or two before the incoming president can flip the majority + that once the majority has flipped, it takes a year or two for a case to wind its way through the NLRB decisional process.

    In September 2019, the Trump Republican-controlled NLRB issued a proposed rule whereby undergrad and grad instructors would be considered not employees. This is a new approach — proceeding by rulemaking rather than by decision. The proposed rule is still pending — has not yet been finally adopted, although it almost certainly will be sometime this year. Rulemaking takes longer than decisions but is harder to reverse when the NLRB flips back to Dem.

    I’ve always thought that grad instructors as well as interns/residents should be treated under the labor laws as employees — at least with regard to their employment issues like wages, hours, workloads but probably not with regard to whether they have met the requirements for their masters or PhDs.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Universities could not operate without grad student workers. Yet they refuse to treat them fairly. In fact, when they protest they are often fired, as what happened at UC Santa Cruz. Exploitation continues unabated.


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