For more than 30 years, GTAs (teaching) and GRAs (research) across the country have made attempts to unionize, and more than 70,000 graduate students, represented by 32 labor unions, now teach undergraduate courses, or conduct research for their universities. It’s an important issue.
Universities have grown larger, and 30 percent of all undergraduate classes are now taught by GAs. Many faculty associations, including the American Association of University Professors, support the right of graduate students to form unions. Many GTAs feel exploited, and seek more health insurance and “equitable” pay.
The IRS considers the compensation of graduate student employees to be wages. When graduate students receive payment for teaching, it is not taxed on a 1042-S form (scholarships), but on a W-2 (employment income). Most GRAs are funded through external grants and contracts that support the university’s research agenda.
Still, many university administrators and university associations oppose the unionization of graduate student employees on campuses. They believe unionization threatens the academic freedom of institutions, harms the relationship between faculty and students, erodes student-teacher collegiality and the faculty’s control over academic affairs, and that teaching and research duties are important parts of the students’ own training and apprenticeship.
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Universities assert they can successfully navigate the intersection of the university’s dual role as educator and employer, without unions. That may be true. Could Mike McQueary have benefited from a GA union at the time he witnessed sexual assault on campus? Hard to say.
Former Graduate Teaching Assistant and Graduate Research Assistant