July 16, 2004

NLRB: Indentured servitude legal

There are two basic types of grad students: those who are aiming for a Ph.D, and everyone else, including `terminal master's' students (people who are only going for a master's degree), and `professional degree' students (future doctors, lawyers, and subscribers to the WSJ). I can't speak for the everyone else, but the life of a future Ph.D revolves almost exclusively around school -- just keeping up with your classes is a full-time job. Consequently, we have to support ourselves in one of two basic ways: being paid to teach, and being paid to do research.

Doing research is, of course, the preferred way to go, because you have to do it anyway, might as well get paid for it. Thus research money is more prestigious, and usually only given to students who've been around a few years. The rest of us could, in theory, get a regular job -- I'm only spending eight of my sixteen waking hours a day doing homework and writing, a full-time job fits in there no problem! But since I'm selfish and enjoy my (relative) sanity, I have to teach for my department.

Teaching (by which I mean either lecturing for a course or assisting the lecturer) is actually a decent gig. For a glamorous $16k a year (before taxes) and the option to buy lousy health insurance, I work six hours a week during the summer, ten hours a week during the school year, and get 2 1/2 months of vacation. The problem is that, if I am not represented by a union, my pay and benefits are basically whatever the university decides to give me. For a single twenty-four-year-old who doesn't own a car and is still on his dad's health insurance, this isn't really a problem. My pay+benefits package is designed for someone at my point in life. It's somewhat different for, say, a twenty-seven-year-old man supporting his wife and newborn child. Or, to pick another example from people I actually know, a woman in her mid-forties with a teenage daughter.

So what did the National Labor Relations Board decide today? Well, if you happen to a grad student at a private university, you just have to live with your poverty, because the school has no obligation to recognize your union whatsoever. Their reasoning is that your relationship with the school is 100% student/institute of higher learning, and not in the NLRB's purview. The fact that you are paid (a pittance) for performing a (critical) service for said institution that has nothing at all to do with your education doesn't make you an employee. You're just a student with the privilege of being financial dependent on your school.


MosBen said...

Can't you people take out student loans as well? Some of us "everyone else" people are living exclusively on loans and will be insanely in debt by the time we graduate.

MosBen said...

I guess I should say that I do feel for the older people in school with families, I know several in law school, I'm just pissed that you guys don't have to pay for tuition AND get a stipend while I get fun interest on my loans accumulating as we speak.

Noumena said...

<devil's advocate>
I do think it's not entirely fair, but how would you justify supporting future doctors and lawyers? TAs and RAs in `academic' programs can be seen as the department tapping a convenient pool of semi-experts to fill necessary jobs -- `We need some people to grade quizzes and answer homework questions. Oh, look, here are a bunch of people who're desperate for money and know a lot about math. Let's pay them to do it.' It's frustrating that law and med students can't fill a similar need, but it would be just as unfair if `academic' grad students had to work and `professional' grad students didn't for comparable support.
</devil's advocate>

The best compromise I can see would be to model support for law and med students on the sort of support we have for undergrads -- the school and philanthropies offer scholarships and grants to the most promising students, and the government picks up the rest with some grants and (since Reagan) interest-free loans. But this sounds an awful lot like the status quo.

MosBen said...

Actually, I'd be happy if we just got free tuition and had to fend for ourselves for the rest. Actually, I'd be happy if just I didn't have to pay tuition or maybe just far less tuition, like 1/4.