SciPolBites: The Value of Academic Labor

SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, three members share their perspectives on academic labor, discussing the historical and present conversations and actions surrounding how it is valued.


Marie Fiori (@marie_fiori) and Michael Bellecourt (@mjbellecourt)

Academic Labor: A Graduate Worker Perspective

Graduate employees are workers. Enrollment in academic courses or research credits shouldn’t keep them from acknowledging that and working together to protect their rights. 

For over fifty years, the strength of graduate workers in numbers has been on display, starting with the organization of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The TAA is the oldest graduate worker labor union in the world, and it represents all graduate workers at the university, including research assistants and fellows.

The TAA has won several benefits for its workers, including salary increases, tuition remission, health insurance (even vision and dental), and sick and vacation leave. Today, these benefits don’t seem unusual — but it’s too easy to forget that graduate workers have them today because unionized workers fought for them yesterday! The TAA’s bargaining teams negotiated these wins in previous contracts, something that could not have happened without the simultaneous direct pressure that the union applied to university administrators.

The TAA’s strength as a union allowed it to survive the passage of hostile anti-labor legislation in 2011. The 2011 law, known as Act 10 in Wisconsin, limited the scope of public-sector union bargaining to cost of living wage increases — that’s it. Instead of spending its human capital in bad-faith negotiations for small raises, the TAA now focuses on creative efforts to improve the working conditions of graduate workers.

For example, organizers successfully fought to remove an abusive professor from student-facing roles. Further organizing led to his ultimate resignation from the university.

Pressure from TAA organizers also led to the withdrawal of the sole finalist in the University of Wisconsin System’s flawed search for a new president. The UW System’s regents tried to cut students, faculty, and staff out of the process completely, but the TAA’s advocacy efforts have ensured that these voices will be heard in the next search.

Finally, the TAA has performed mutual aid work in support of graduate workers that deserves highlight. Direct assistance has become more urgent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the TAA established a Mutual Aid Fund that has since distributed almost $40,000 to over 300 graduate workers!

Graduate workers at public universities have led organization efforts since the TAA’s founding in 1966, while those at private institutions have more recently joined the movement. In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agreed that graduate workers at Columbia University were workers, triggering a wave of private university unionization drives across the country. At least 18 unionization petitions have been submitted to the NLRB since their decision, and today at least 83,000 graduate workers are represented by a union.

President Biden’s appointment of two pro-labor members to the NLRB suggests a robust future for graduate worker unions and the improvement of conditions for workers at their institutions. One exciting example is the Loyola Graduate Workers’ Union at Loyola University Chicago, who this spring went on strike and won a $10,000 stipend increase for its graduate workers!

Universities work because their graduate workers do, and their labor unions work to ensure they receive that recognition.


Alyson Essex (@GingeRadio)

Academic Labor: A Solutions Forward Perspective

Scientists and researchers have been called a lot over the past year: heroes, miracle-workers, saints, but one term we don’t typically associate with the academic industry is labor. Labor is the act of providing time and skills to an institution/organization in exchange for compensation in the form of salary and benefits. Academic laborers are overworked. When compared to the free market, many academic laborers are considered to be underpaid for the amount and variety of highly skilled labor they provide to their organizations. Academic laborers also face high heterogeneity in benefits such as paid-time off, and policies enforcing such benefits remain largely inconsistent and unenforceable. The academic industry has a history of ignoring labor and benefits, and continues to deny the work of graduate students as labor at all. This has left many feeling trapped with no option but to leave academia. When referring to women and non-white academics this loss is referred to as a “leaky pipeline” by funding agencies, but is usually referred to as “the last straw” by laborers. If the academic industry wants to put their money where their mouth is and act on the innumerable diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, committees, task forces, and strategic plans enacted over the last year and a half, they should consider the following. 

Empower laborers through policy protections. The process is much slower and takes a large amount of advocacy work at the department and program level, but helps to build lasting infrastructure and a papertrail to give laborers leverage against power dynamics. For example, some student governments have passed a “Bill of Rights” aimed at establishing a list of policies . Institutions should also be proactive ensuring laborers have whistleblower and retaliation protections for laborers who report sexual harassment, bias, misconduct, or abuse in the workplace. This empowers laborers to speak up when the workplace becomes unsafe or hostile, and improving institutional culture will improve other metrics of diversity and inclusion. 

Reward extra-academic labor that adds value to the institution. Additionally, academics contribute to institutional culture and environment beyond their classroom pedagogy. However, academic institutional reward systems typically do not value that labor in meaningful ways, and should include this additional labor and value, as their experience and perspective adds value to the learning environment. Promotion and tenure or annual review requirements are the easiest way academic institutions can reward academics for work beyond the lab and classroom. Governance councils (ex. Faculty Council) should be proactive in adding language that allows faculty to build promotion and tenure dossiers on cases beyond research and teaching, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion

.  .  .

Unionization. You can read more about academic unionization efforts in this edition of SciPol Bites. This is a great way to ensure laborers have say over decisions made about terms of their employment.

The academic industry is not alone in the fight to redefine labor policies: COVID-19 pandemic has many workers reevaluating their relationship with work and how it impacts their personal lives. There is a labor revolution happening in the Millennial/younger generation; they do not view labor as a moral obligation, but a means to an end. The push to improve labor protections through policy for academic research industry workers cannot be separated from the popular discourse around work-life balance and push to prioritize an improved quality of life.


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