This week on Intersection, we're talking about graduate students at the University of Missouri here in Columbia. So what’s going on in this part of the university world? That’s what we’re exploring today with our guests, who are Kristofferson Culmer of the Forum on Graduate Rights, Rebecca Smith of KBIA’s Health and Wealth Desk, Matt McCune of the Graduate Professional Council, Professor Earnest Perry of the Missouri School of Journalism and Eric Scott of the Coalition of Graduate Workers.
Graduate students come from the United Sta tes and all over the world, and study everything from engineering to astronomy to literature. What some people don’t know is that thousands of graduate students are also a part of the university’s teaching and research workforce. That work currently brings with it a set of benefits in terms of stipends, tuition waivers and health insurance subsidies - but this year saw important changes to those benefits. Those changes, which included the cancelation and subsequent reinstatement of health insurance subsidies, brought graduate students together in ways that aren’t often seen on this campus.
Here's a sample of host Sara Shahriari's interview with Eric Scott, from the Coalition of Graduate Workers.
What is the best way forward for graduate students to organize?
So, obviously, my answer to this is that the best thing that we can do is we can have a graduate student labor union. I -- along with Connor Lewis, who is a PHD student in the history department -- we're the co-chairs of the coalition of graduate workers, which is a campaign to organize a graduate student labor union here at the University. I think that having that kind of negotiated labor contract is the best thing that we can have for us, because it represents an actual contractual guarantee that we will have certain protections and certain benefits, and it also means that if the University chooses to arbitrarily change something, then they have the union and the union's might to deal with instead of it being a situation like we have right now where 3,000 individual graduate students all found out that they had lost something that they were planning to depend on, and then there was nothing really that we could do about it on an individual basis. So I think that having that kind of union agreement would be best for everyone involved. For us and the University because then we can negotiate things on a level playing field and it's no longer one individual poorly compensated graduate student against the entire university, but rather a negotiation of relatively equal parties.
Is there a precedent for grad students unionizing at schools that are similar to Mizzou?
Lots of universities have graduate student labor unions across the country, particularly at public universities. Right now, there's this movement to try and get graduate student labor unions organized at private universities, too, but there's some legal precedents against those that I'm hoping get overturned. So the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a successful graduate student union, at the University of Iowa there's an extremely successful one. So lots of universities that are pretty similar to Mizzou in terms of demographics and geographical locations are doing quite well with graduate student unions.
What do the unions do at those schools, when you talk about them doing well?
Those schools tend to have a considerably better compensation for their students than we have. They have guaranteed contracts, which is very important. It's not necessarily that we hope that a union movement will lead to suddenly all of us getting enormous pay raises or anything like that, but rather that we will have protections for the things we have. And so there are grievance processes, for example, if a student at one of those schools experiences some sort of mistreatment at work, then they can report that to the union and the union can help them resolve it.
How is the process of trying to form a union here? What phase are you in and what does it entail?
The process for starting a union is first-off that we need to get a certain number of signatures of people within our bargaining unit so that would be the graduate student employees of the University who say that yes we want to have a union election, we want to be able to vote on whether or not we want to be represented by a union. Once we get enough signatures for that, then we will turn that in and an election will be held by a neutral third party. And then should we win that election and more people say yes I want a union than not, then we should be legally recognized by the university and we can proceed in contract negotiations.
Would a grad student union need to affiliate with a larger union outside the University?
It wouldn't necessarily have to, but we've already taken that step. We voted unanimously within the organizing committee of the coalition of graduate workers to affiliate with the Missouri National Education Association. So, we've been working really closely with them ever since then and we forsee that once we are a recognized union, that we will continue our affiliation with them.
How likely do you think it is, or what positive or negative tilt are you seeing, towards unionizing hapenning here?
The very first thing that the forum on graduate rights did, this was the Monday after it was announced that our health care subsidies were going to go away, I was speaking and I never said the word union, and yet we had lots of loud cheers from the crowd saying that we want a union, and I think that has continued to be the case that , I would say most students understand that unionization represents a better way forward than what we currently have - at least something that guarantees protections and can work to get some of the things that have been taken away from graduate student workers restored. So I think there's a lot of enthusiasm for it. We just had an event yesterday, we had a grade-in over in Jesse Hall where we set up tables and chairs in the middle of Jesse Hall and we worked, we graded, there were people from the History Department who had just given out their midterms, and had hundreds of bluebooks piled around them and were working on them. There was a lot of enthusiasm for that event, and I think that that shows going forward that people really do believe in this, and do believe in our cause. I have good feelings about our chances for success.
What do you think people at school who aren't graduate students understand and don't understand about what graduate students do?
Because it's such a solitary activity, because it's so isolated in a lot of ways, I think that people don't see the kind of work that graduate students do and I'm not just talking about the research aspect of it, but teaching a class. It seems like oh, you know you're in a classroom for 3 hours a week, for six hours a week, oh I wish that I only had to work six hours a week, but each hour in that classroom requires many hours of preparation and grading, and getting things set up so that one hour can work. Not to mention all of the unexpected hours that go into working with students and helping students understand what happened in that one hour of class.
How do you respond to people who say that grad students are really coddled?
I can sort of understand that because if you look at it from the outside. I'm a first generation college student, I know that my family didn't really understand much about undergraduate life much less about graduate student life. After my master's degree I was out in the real world, I had an actual big person job, and I came back to graduate school and it is a job, it is my adult vocation... But the people who are in graduate school, are people in their 20s and 30s and sometimes older than that as well. We're adults and we are trying to make lives for ourselves. It would seem really strange in almost any other occupation to say, well while you are starting out, we're going to pay you $12,000 a year and if you ask for more than that you're being really ungrateful. Especially since it's a job that requires you to have a master's degree in many cases and yet that seems to be the perception.
Is there anything you want to add?
The main thing, and the reason why I'm pushing so hard for this - I was not an activist prior to this semester really and I think that the big thing for me is that we were told on a Friday afternoon that we didn't have health insurance anymore and then we were told the next Friday afternoon that we do have health insurance again, and we were told on Wednesday that the University promises that we will have health insurance in the future. And certainly I'm happy with that situation - I'm happy we have health insurance going forward. But I don't think that it's right for anyone to have to depend on one person's promises in order to make decisions about what their lives are going to be like. So while this union that we're working on comes in response to the specific issues that we are talking about here, it matters beyond that too. It's just as much about the idea that people should have a say about their working conditions, as much as it is about specifically trying to make sure we have a health insurance plan. It's just as much about the idea that workers deserve to have a voice for themselves, as opposed to just depending on the generosity of their bosses.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity
To hear the rest of our interviews, listen to our entire show.
Intersection is produced by Caty Eisterhold and Daniela Vidal. Our community outreach team is Kara Tabor and Hellen Tian.