In one week from now, graduate students at Cornell will vote to decide whether they want to be represented by Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU), in which case this group will gain the exclusive right to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment for every graduate student. To be clear, this means that if more than 50% of the graduate students vote for unionization, CGSU will negotiate the contract of every graduate student and every graduate student will have to pay dues to the group, even if they voted against unionization. To be more accurate, only graduate students who are part of the bargaining unit are concerned, but as we shall see that’s almost half of the graduate students at Cornell. If you want to know more about the process, you can read this FAQ, which the graduate school put together. You can also check CGSU’s website, which I linked to above, as well as the website of At What Cost, a group of students who oppose unionization and seek to provide more information to students before they vote. Obviously, each of these groups has its own agenda, so I encourage you to read everything critically. In what follows, I argue that 1) CGSU is making the case in favor of unionization dishonestly by cherry-picking the evidence to support their claims that students would benefit from it, 2) the groups to which CGSU is affiliated and to which most of our dues would go if we vote in favor of unionization are deeply immoral organizations that have a negative effect on education in the US and we should not fund them with dues taken from our wages and 3) even if people disagree with me about that, it’s wrong to use the law to force your colleagues to pay dues to organizations they don’t want to be associated with.
I have several friends who are involved with CGSU, so I bear them no ill will, but I believe they are wrong and that students should vote against unionization. (This post is primarily intended for graduate students at Cornell, but I will discuss various issues that are of interest to a lot of other people. So you may want to read it even if you’re not a graduate student at Cornell, especially if you care about education and topics such as the role of teachers unions.) First, I think what CGSU says on its website is extremely misleading, but I don’t have time to go through everything in details, so I just want to point out that, despite what CGSU would have you believe, we don’t really know what is going to happen if the graduate students vote in favor of unionization. In particular, we don’t really know whether the graduate students stand to gain from this decision, in terms of compensation and work conditions. The reason we don’t know is that, up until 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) didn’t allow graduate students at private universities to unionize, so we don’t really have enough data to know what is likely to happen. In fact, because the NLRB has yet to determine what the rules are for graduate students exactly, we don’t even know for sure what would be up for negotiation in the collective bargaining process if graduate students voted in favor of unionization.
A common misconception among people who support CGSU is that current work conditions and remuneration can only improve with collective bargaining, but that is simply false and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t know what he is talking about. What the outcome of the negotiation would be if the graduate students voted in favor of unionization would depend on a lot of factors that are simply impossible to predict. The only thing we know for sure is that graduate students will have to pay several hundred dollars in dues every year. I’ve heard several people say that, if the terms offered by the university during the negotiations didn’t improve the compensation of graduate students (taking into account the dues they will have to pay if they decide to unionize), they would not accept it. But the truth is that, depending on the circumstances, they may not have a choice. Even if the union doesn’t accept the terms offered by the university, if the NLRB — which is going to be filled with people appointed by Trump, so they probably won’t open their sessions with a recitation of passages from the Communist Manifesto — rules that Cornell negotiated in good faith, the university can just implement its last offer whether the graduate students agree with the terms or not. So what’s going to happen will depend on a lot of factors that are difficult to predict, such as how united the graduate students will be, how willing they will be to forgo a substantial amount of money by going on strike if they don’t like the terms offered by Cornell, how willing to engage in a showdown the university is, how the NLRB would rule if no agreement were found between the union and the university, etc.
The claim that collective bargaining can only result in a net gain for graduate students, because they would not accept a contract that doesn’t result in a net gain, is made by CGSU on its website. However, as I have just explained, that is purely and simply false. In fact, even CGSU acknowledges this in passing, for although it says that “there are only things to be gained from a contract” (emphasis in the original), it also says in the same paragraph that “benefits such as stipend increases, better access to healthcare such as dental and vision, and other benefits will likely outweigh the cost of dues” (emphasis mine). This shows that CGSU is aware that there is no guarantee, but they’d rather you didn’t know that. This is exactly the kind of things I had in mind when I said that you should read everything about the election, including this post, carefully before you decide how to vote.
So far, the only private university where graduate students have been able to unionize and where collective bargaining led to a contract is NYU, because the university agreed to recognize a union in 2013, even before the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities had the right to collectively bargain. On its website, CGSU claims that “since NYU’s first contract in 2002, [the graduate students] have won [a] 38% increase in minimum stipends”. First, that’s a very misleading claim because, after a contract was collectively bargained in 2002, NYU decided to stop recognizing the union in 2005 following a decision by the NLRB the previous year to no longer allow graduate students to collectively bargain, which itself reversed a decision it had made in 2000. (If you feel like the NLRB is constantly reversing itself on this, that’s because it is, which in turn is because the composition of the Board depends on which party controls the White House. Indeed, since Trump won the election, it would not be surprising if the NLRB changed its mind again on whether graduate students at private universities have the right to collectively bargain, because Trump is unlikely to fill it with pro-union leftists.) After NYU decided to recognize the union again in 2013, it wasn’t until 2015 that a contract was negotiated through collective bargaining. Thus, between 2002 and 2017, the terms of employment of graduate students at NYU were only determined through collective bargaining during approximately 5 years. Are you starting to feel like the people at CGSU are trying to play you? Good, because that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. But don’t go anywhere, because there is more.
Indeed, according to the Inside Higher Ed article I linked to above, the union at NYU only represent 1,200 graduate students. Since there were 20,749 graduate students at NYU, that’s not even 6% of them because the contract excludes a lot of graduate students, especially in the sciences. At Cornell, on the other hand, CGSU would represent every graduate student who is a teaching assistant, a graduate assistant, a research assistant or a graduate research assistant. According to the graduate school, that’s about 2,200 people, out of a total of 5,265 graduate students, i. e. more than 40% of them. So it’s really not clear that we can infer anything from the terms obtained by graduate students through collective bargaining at NYU, because the situation is completely different. (Part of this, I suspect, is because there are more part-time graduate students at NYU. But I wasn’t able to find how many graduate students at Cornell are part-time, so I don’t know that for sure. Even if that’s right, however, it would only go to show how different the situation at NYU is from that which prevails at Cornell.) In particular, since the collective bargaining agreement at NYU concerns a much smaller share of the graduate students than would be the case at Cornell, the university could presumably afford to be more generous.
Moreover, recall that NYU recognized the right of graduate students to collectively bargain on its own in 2013, before the NLRB forced private universities to grant the right to collectively bargain to graduate students in 2016. Cornell, on the other hand, has been fighting against this from the beginning and even filed a brief in court a year ago with several other prominent private universities to prevent graduate students from being able to collectively bargain. This suggests that, whereas NYU was at least open to negotiate with a graduate students union, Cornell is not, which in turn means that we can’t infer much from what graduate students were able to obtain through collective bargaining at NYU about the terms graduate students at Cornell would be able to obtain if they decided to vote in favor of unionization. But the administration can’t tell you that it doesn’t have any intention to make concessions to the graduate students, because under the law, this could be considered a sign that it doesn’t intend to bargain in good faith if CGSU wins the vote, which constitutes a legal risk. On the other hand, CGSU can promise anything it wants, including things it knows perfectly well are never going to happen, because for a union this doesn’t involve any legal risk. Finally, note that a 38% increase in minimum stipends since 2002, which is what graduate students at NYU gained since 2002 according to CGSU, is not very impressive anyway. Indeed, that’s barely more than what they would have gained if their stipends had just tracked inflation during that period, based on the CPI. In fact, since I suspect that inflation was higher in NYC than at the national level (which is what the CPI measures), it’s likely that it didn’t even compensate them for the loss of purchasing power caused by inflation.
CGSU also makes a lot of what graduate students at Oregon State University were able to gain since 2001 when they first negotiated a contract through collective bargaining. Again, this is completely dishonest, since they obviously cherry-picked this particular university to make unionization more attractive and we have no reason to think that unionization was responsible for those gains. I found this study which looks at several dozens public universities and uses a multilevel regression model to estimate the effect of graduate student unionization on stipends. It suggests that, while unionization increases stipends at public universities, this is compensated and perhaps more than compensated by reductions in tuition remission and increases in other fees, so that net compensation does not increase and may even be reduced. (I have only skimmed through the paper, so there may be something wrong with the data and/or the model, but nothing jumped out at me.) Moreover, according to that study, unionization has no effect on the probability of obtaining health benefits for students and their dependents. (Which is one of the main arguments used by CGSU to convince graduate students to vote in favor of unionization.) Finally, Oregon State University is a public university, which implies many significant differences with Cornell. In particular, the contract is subject to state labor law, whereas since Cornell is a private university federal labor law would prevail if graduate students decided to vote in favor of unionization. So again we really can’t infer much from the experience of unionization at public universities and, even if we could, things aren’t nearly as nice as CGSU pretends by cherry-picking one public university where graduate students are represented by a union.
I could say more about what CGSU says on its website to convince graduate students to vote in favor of unionization, but I think what I have already said should be enough, so I’m going to leave things at that on this front. At this point, you should be asking yourself why, if CGSU really has only your best interest at heart, it’s making the case in favor of unionization in such a dishonest manner. Personally, when I realize that someone is trying to bullshit me, my first reaction is not to entrust them with negotiating the terms of my employment on my behalf in exchange for dues taken from my wages, but perhaps that’s just because I have a suspicious nature… Now let’s talk about what I consider the most problematic consequences a vote in favor of unionization by the graduate students at Cornell would have. So far, I have only discussed some of the arguments that CGSU has been using to convince graduate students to vote in favor of unionization, but now I want to briefly explain why I think they should vote against it. I have one argument directed specifically at CGSU and another that is more general and is critical of the way collective bargaining works in the US.
The problem I have with CGSU specifically is that it chose to be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and New York United Teachers (NYSUT), which are some of the largest teachers unions in the US and, in my opinion, are morally bankrupt. In fact, if you ask me, teachers unions are the eleventh plague of Egypt. The only reason they are not mentioned in the Bible is that the authors of the book of Exodus thought it would give a bad name to God if they recorded that he unleashed teachers unions on the Egyptians. It was one thing to kill their firstborn sons, but forcing them to send their kids to schools controlled by teachers unions was considered too much, so they figured it was preferable not to mention it. (Obviously, I’m joking, but not as much as you might think. In fact, this is my best effort to be civil, so as not to shock people’s sensibilities when I talk about teachers unions.) The fact that CGSU is affiliated to the AFT and NYSUT means that, if graduate students vote in favor of unionization, everyone will pay dues to both the AFT and NYSUT, even if they voted against unionization. According to CGSU, everyone will pay at least $397.68/year in dues to the AFT and NYSUT ($606.36/year for graduate students who make $34,000/year or more), but this doesn’t even include dues paid to CGSU itself. We have no way of knowing exactly how much these will be, since it will depend on the outcome of the collective bargaining process. The graduate students union at NYU takes 2% in dues, so if the same thing happened at Cornell (but remember that we have no reason to assume it would, although presumably the amount would be in the same ballpark), someone who makes the minimum stipend of $25,152/year would have to pay $503.04/year in dues.
As you can see, the bulk of your dues would go to the AFT and NYSUT, which as I have already noted are horrible organizations. Since you probably have never heard of the AFT and NYSUT, let me tell you a few things about them, to support my claim that they are morally bankrupt. Let me start with some anecdotes, which I think are pretty revealing. For several decades, teachers at public schools in Buffalo benefited from a contract that included a cosmetic surgery rider, which covered procedures such as face lifts, tummy tucks, breast implants, etc. During the last year of the contract in question, $5 million had to be set aside to cover the cost of the rider, even though the school district was facing a $10.5 million deficit. The Buffalo Teachers Federation (BFT), which as CGSU is affiliated to both the AFT and NYSUT, must have thought that breast implants were essential for teaching, because when the School Board tried to end the rider and use the money to help cover the deficit, it sued and obtained a temporary injunction from a court to prevent it.
The BFT argued that it was opposed to the rider, which is probably why it had never proposed to end it on its own, but didn’t want the Board to unilaterally change their contract. In fact, they used that as a bargaining chip to obtain a significant raise and several other advantages a few months later, in exchange for giving up the rider and making a few other largely insignificant concessions. It’s not as if the teachers in Buffalo’s public schools were forced to live in abject poverty before that either, since their median income was already $50,886/year before the new contract, which is 68% more than the median personal income in the US according to the Fed. (Of course, this doesn’t include the various benefits, such as free breast implants.) It’s not the just students and taxpayers that were harmed, but even some of the teachers. According to this article in The Atlantic, a few years ago, the School Board offered to avoid 100 layoffs in exchange for suspending the cosmetic surgery rider for a year, but the union declined. The same union which, you will recall, claims that it was totally opposed to the rider in question… Nor were this an isolated example, for horror stories of this kind about teachers unions abound, as you can easily find out for yourself if you do a little research.
A few days ago, the Board of Regents in New York State dropped the requirement to pass a literacy test for people who want to become teachers, on the ground that it was discriminatory toward minorities. The proponents of that decision, including teachers unions such as NYSUT (one of the organizations to which CGSU is affiliated), claim that the test was redundant since candidates were already required to have a Bachelor. Indeed, it was so redundant that, in 2014, only 68% of candidates passed it. Of course, aspiring teachers will still have to pass other tests in order to be certified, but a much larger share of the applicants pass them, which means that presumably a significant number of people who previously couldn’t get certified because they were not able to pass a literacy test will be able to teach. So much for the alleged redundancy of the literacy test in question. But perhaps the proponents of that change don’t know what “redundant” means because they also couldn’t pass a literacy test… Of course, none of the illiterate teachers who obtain their certification thanks to this decision will end up in schools where rich kids go, but you can bet that plenty of them will end up in classrooms full of poor and minority students, who will have teachers unions to thank for this great opportunity.
Now, these are just anecdotes, but I could write a whole book full of them and, perhaps more importantly, there is more than anecdotal evidence to back up the claim that teachers unions such as the AFT and NYSUT have a negative effect on education in the US. Here is the abstract of a review of the literature on the effect of teachers unions published in 2015:
In this paper we consider more than three decades of research on teachers’ unions in the United States. We focus on unions’ role as potential rent-seekers in the K-12 educational landscape, and specifically how teachers’ unions impact district and student outcomes. We review important methodological improvements in the identification of union impacts and the measurement of contract restrictiveness that characterize a number of recent studies. We generally find that the preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that teacher unionization and union strength are associated with increases in district expenditures and teacher salaries, particularly salaries for experienced teachers. The evidence for union-related differences in student outcomes is mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects. Taken together, these patterns are consistent with a rent-seeking hypothesis. We conclude by discussing other important union activities, most notably in the political arena, and by noting that recent changes in state laws pertaining to teachers and teacher unions may provide context for new directions in scholarship.
In other words, teachers unions significantly increase expenditures (at the expense of the taxpayers), yet have insignificant or perhaps even somewhat negative effects on student performance. Thus, in terms of cost-effectiveness, teachers unions have a substantial negative effect on education. You should read the whole thing if you’re interested in that issue. Note that this is a review of the literature, so it doesn’t rely on a single study but takes into account the whole literature.
But it’s even worse than you think, because as this paper acknowledges in section 6, the studies reviewed weren’t concerned with the effect teachers unions have on state and federal policy about education, which in my opinion is by far how they do the most damage. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group which tracks money spent on lobbying by various organizations, teachers unions (mostly the AFT and the NEA) have spent more than $148 million on federal political lobbying since 1990. The AFT alone, to which CGSU is affiliated, spent more than $92 million during that period, which makes it one of the largest political contributors in the US. In fact, the AFT spent $27 million more on federal politics during that period than Chevron, Exxon Mobil and the NRA combined. Moreover, this doesn’t even include the money spent on state politics, which is where most of the action happens on education because in the US it’s mostly a state business. Although they like to present themselves as David against the corporate Goliaths of the world, the fact of the matter is that teachers unions are among the most powerful lobbies in the US. They use that influence to systematically oppose any meaningful reform of the education system. Of course, if you ask them, they will tell you that they are totally in favor of reforms. But if you look at what they call “reforms”, you will see that it always consists in pouring taxpayer money into failing systems, from which teachers unions derive their power. Poor kids and minorities are disproportionately harmed by the fact that teachers unions systematically oppose any effort to reform education in the US. This post is already getting long and I have work to do, so I won’t get into the details, but I encourage you to do your own research if you don’t believe me.
If the graduate students at Cornell vote in favor of unionization, this is how their dues will be used, since most of them will go to the AFT and NYSUT. Personally, I don’t want anything to do with those organizations, because I think they are deeply immoral and I’d rather cut my arm than give them even one dollar. But perhaps you have done your own research and disagree with me. (Although, if you’re going to disagree with me about this, you have to do your homework. It would be irresponsible for you to vote in favor of unionization without even knowing whether your dues are going to be used to support immoral policies.) This brings me to the other, more principled reason why I think you should vote against unionization. It’s fine if you disagree with me about the role of teachers unions in the US and think it’s actually positive. Reasonable people can disagree about that kind of things. (Although, to be honest, I think the case against teachers unions is pretty overwhelming.)
The problem is that, if the graduate students vote in favor of unionization, even people like me who strongly disapprove of the AFT and NYSUT will be forced to pay dues that will go to these organizations and will be used to support policies they consider deeply immoral. That’s because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says that, if more than 50% of the voters in a bargaining unit vote for unionization, then everyone is represented by the union and forced to pay dues to it even if they voted against it. As I have explained, the AFT and the NYSUT are eminently political organizations (almost every dollar they spend to support candidates running for office are Democrats, although they also spend a lot of money against policies supported by Democratic politicians, as long as they perceive them as a threat to their rent), so by voting in favor of unionization, you would essentially force even people who strongly disapprove of these organizations and their activity to fund them by using the law to automatically extract dues from their wages. This is why I consider the NLRA a deeply unjust law that should be repealed as soon as possible. If you’re in favor of unionization, just ask yourself if you would be okay if other graduate students were using the law to force you to fund the NRA and, indirectly through its political contributions, the Republican party. I don’t think there are many people who support the CGSU who could look me in the eyes and tell me that they would be okay with that if the situation were reversed. But if they would not accept that kind of treatment for themselves, then they should not try to impose it on others.
I imagine that some people will reply that, in a democracy, even people who didn’t vote for the person who won the election have to pay taxes that are used in a way they sometimes find morally repugnant. As someone who has to pay federal taxes in the US, which are then used to finance wars I find completely immoral, I’m not going to deny that. But I don’t think you can really compare that with collective bargaining under the NLRA. Almost everyone agrees that we need a government that collect taxes and, however imperfect that system is, most people also agree that majority vote is the best system to decide how much taxes are collected and how they are going to be used. On the other hand, we don’t have to force workers to pay dues to a union even if they don’t want to, it’s just something that some people try to do because the law is unjust and allows them to do so as long as they manage to convince more than 50% of the people eligible to vote in a bargaining unit.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against unions per se and the idea that workers should collectively organize to negotiate better terms of employment with their employers. (In the case of graduate students at Cornell specifically, I also disagree with the administration’s argument that graduate students aren’t really workers, so they are not entitled to collectively bargain. I think collective bargaining as it currently exists under US law is wrong, but I don’t think the fact that we are graduate students makes any difference.) On the contrary, I’m all for that, but I don’t think it should be possible for unions to force workers who don’t want to be represented by them to pay them dues and let them negotiate their terms of employment on their behalf. People will say that, if workers can opt out of the union in their workplace, they will be free riding, i. e. enjoy the advantages negotiated by the union without paying dues. But this is confused, because I’m not advocating right-to-work laws, of the sort that exist in many states and that Republicans defend. The only reason why workers would be able to free ride is because the NLRA gives the union the right to represent everyone, including those who don’t want to be represented by it. What I’m saying is that the NLRA should be repealed, so that this is no longer possible.
In my opinion, a union should only be able to bargain on behalf of the workers who agreed to be represented by it, but not anyone else. People will say that, if a union only represents the people who agreed to be represented by it, it will have less bargaining power to negotiate with the employer. This is absolutely true but that’s exactly as it should be. A union should only have as much bargaining power as workers allow it to have by freely choosing to be represented by it. If it does a good job and convince more workers that it’s in their best interest to let it represent them, then it will have a lot of bargaining power because it will represent a large share of the workforce, but otherwise it won’t and there is nothing wrong with that. Under such a system, unions would have a strong incentive to act in the best interest of workers, since otherwise people would just rescind their membership and stop paying dues. By contrast, under the NLRA, people have to pay dues even if they’re not satisfied with the union and, once they have voted in favor of unionization, it’s very difficult to reverse that decision and get rid of the union. Of course, graduate students at Cornell can’t decide to repeal the NLRA, but they can decide not to use that unjust law to force their fellow students who don’t like the AFT and NYSUT to pay them dues even though they don’t want to. All they have to do is vote against unionization in the upcoming election.
Anyway, this post is getting really long and I want people to read it, so I will stop writing. Before I do so, however, I want to make one last observation. As you can see if you browse my blog, I have various controversial views about a lot of issues, which you may or may not agree with. If a lot of people share this post, as I hope they will, I have no doubt that supporters of CGSU will try to discredit me by bring up my views on other, unrelated topics. But even if you don’t like some of the views I defend on other topics, it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong about unionization. I have written a long and carefully documented post to defend my view about the upcoming election, so you should only care about my arguments and the evidence I provide. By all means, regard anything I say with suspicion and verify if you’re skeptical (I’m not worried), as you should do with anyone else. I have provided at least one source for every single factual claim I make, so you just have to follow the links to check that I’m not misrepresenting anything. But don’t let yourself be distracted by people who, instead of replying to my arguments, commit the ad hominem fallacy against me. If people share this post and the supporters of CGSU don’t reply to my arguments but engage in that kind of tactics instead, then I suggest that you consider the possibility that perhaps it’s because they can’t…