Grad student unionization fails to impact Dartmouth

by Rachel Osterman | 11/10/00 6:00am

When the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that graduate students at private universities have the right to form unions and bargain collectively, few at Dartmouth took note.

While the agency's decision has the potential to encourage unionization drives on campuses across the country, it seems unlikely to affect the relationship between graduate students at Dartmouth and the administration.

At a time when union membership is increasing at its most accelerated rate in several decades -- with graduate students leading the way as one of the fastest growing groups -- graduate students at Dartmouth have shown no expressed interest in organizing.

Indeed, graduate students at this campus have neither contacted nor been contacted by area unions, according to those active in graduate organizations.

"We've never even discussed it, it's never even come up," said Jessie Secher, co-president of the Graduate Council. "I'd rather see us work on things like housing and another graduate student center."

Several factors help explain why the unionization trend has skipped Dartmouth.

One explanation given by many is the small number of graduate students connected with Dartmouth. As a primarily undergraduate institution, the College takes on approximately 1,200 Ph.D. students a year -- not a tiny number, for sure, but not nearly as large as at major research universities.

In addition, the Hanover campus has rarely been home to labor controversies.

While the College service workers' successful drive to form a union in the 1960s, the takeover of Parkhurst Hall by students contesting the Vietnam War and the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s all stand in contrast to this trend, the College is not known for its student activism.

Perhaps because labor concerns are so inconspicuous among both the undergraduate and graduate bodies, Dartmouth did not take part in the case that was announced last week.

Among the more hard fought battles between students and institutions of higher education in recent years, the NLRB's decision elicited spirited enthusiasm and skepticism alike at campuses across the country.

Filed by graduate students who tried to unionize at New York University but were not recognized as a collective unit by that university's administration, the ruling reverses the NLRB's position from the 1970s.

NYU argued against the students, making the case that graduates fall short of employee status. NYU was joined by several other colleges and universities, including Columbia, Johns Hopkins, M.I.T., Stanford and Yale.

Dartmouth did not join the suit because "it was not something that was of particular concern to us," Acting College Legal Counsel Sean Gorman said. He said that Dartmouth received a letter asking it to participate in the case.

Gorman said that despite the implications of the NLRB's decision, the College would not necessarily recognize a union of graduate students if they were to organize.

"Whether and to what extent that ruling applies to a different institution is unclear," he said. "There's no way to answer that in the abstract."

But Dean of Graduate Studies Roger Sloboda said he would be willing to recognize a union, adding, however, that he believes any organization drive to be unlikely in the near future.

"Reasons to unionize are when you're being taken advantage of by the school you work for," he said. "We don't take advantage of them in TA situations."

Graduate students at the College are required to TA between six and eight courses in their four years of study. As a result, they receive a fixed stipend and some health benefits from the College.

While most graduate students seem to agree that their contracts with Dartmouth allow them to get by, some expressed more interest in unionizing than others.

"I haven't seen a real need for it," said Heather Andrews, a Ph.D. student in physics.

Andrews did add, however, that she considers herself a partial employee of Dartmouth, but that "the College certainly does not consider us employees."

Another graduate student in physics, Gavin King, said that he would be in favor of unionization.

"It's just such a foreign concept to people here, but it's definitely a good idea," he said. "I think that sometimes graduate students are a source of student labor, definitely overused."

Graduate students have formed unions at many other schools. At public universities, graduate students are considered state employees, and their right to organize is governed by state law. In Wisconsin, Michigan, California and New York students have successfully organized.

And a small but growing number of private universities -- NYU and Yale included -- have seen similar unionization efforts.