Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

Graduate students tossing up hats (iStock)

Noam Scheiber of the New York Times informs us about a new National Labor Relations Board ruling that will allow graduate students at private universities to unionize:

Echoing longstanding complaints from blue-collar workers that they have become replaceable cogs in a globalized economic machine, the effort reflects a growing view among more highly educated employees in recent decades that they, too, are at the mercy of faceless organizations and are not being treated like professionals and aspiring professionals whose opinions are worthy of respect.

“What we’re fundamentally concerned about isn’t really money,” said Paul R. Katz, one of the Columbia graduate students involved in the organizing efforts. “It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical. That’s what we’re most concerned about.”

See, when I was a grad student, I don’t remember being concerned about the corporatized, hierarchical environment. It’s not that this environment didn’t exist — it totally did. If Katz thinks this is a new phenomenon, he’s nuts.

No, as a graduate student I firmly remember my two paramount concerns being:

  1. Completing my dissertation.
  2. Securing a tenure-track job.

Reading the social media reaction about this story among my learned academic colleagues, there seems to be a lot of grumbling about “grad students these days” in much the same vein as I wrote the previous paragraph.

But let’s pause for a second and acknowledge that maybe things have changed since the first time I remember this issue ever coming up. Back then, I was but a wee grad student at Stanford when it was announced that our counterparts at Berkeley had decided to unionize. As I was having lunch with some of my fellow graduate students, one of them asked, “Do you think we should unionize?” At this point we looked around the idyllic campus setting where we were lunching and had a very hearty laugh and then got up and went about trying to finish our PhDs.

I bring up this anecdote not to mock the union movement in private colleges but to acknowledge that I went to graduate school in a very different era. I entered a PhD program at just about the last moment this was thought to be a wise career move. As it turned out, the academic job market I faced upon matriculating was not nearly as hospitable as when my advisers went on the market. But I’m also quite sure that my initial job market was much more benign than the current environment.

Furthermore, as grad student unions have spread across public universities, research suggests that they haven’t been so bad. One recent paper, which influenced the NLRB finding, concludes:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and non-unionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty — student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

So I think the grumbling among my colleagues is mostly misplaced.

Mostly, but not entirely. The real issue in higher education is not the treatment of graduate students in elite private universities. Indeed, grad students in such schools now receive fellowship offers on par with my first tenure-track job. No, as Scheiber notes, there’s something else going on:

As a sign of the changing nature of the control that universities exert over instructors, some of the Columbia students have pointed to the rise over the past several decades of adjunct faculty members, who typically teach for less pay, and have far less job security, than tenure-track faculty members.

Over the past five decades, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty at postsecondary institutions declined from about three-quarters to about one-third, according to some estimates.

If labor movements really want to make a difference on college campuses, it’s the adjuncts who really need to be organized. Their employment situation is far more contingent than grad students; they are also the biggest pedagogical victims of the recent wave of political correctness.

Never forget: If grad students do what they are supposed to do, unionized or not, they eventually become management (i.e., tenure-track faculty). If they fall short, they join the vast reserve army of adjunct labor. And that is the group of workers that would benefit the most from unionization.

Or, you know, don’t get a PhD.