Why Do Graduate Students Want A Union, Anyway?

By Ryan McNamara


With the possibility of a graduate student worker’s strike upon us, a very simple question presents itself: Why do graduate students want a union in the first place?

President John Sexton has stressed his understanding that graduate student workers are “highly privileged people,” and Provost David McLaughlin sent an email to the NYU community which referred to the administration’s offer to the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) as “generous” four times. But those on the other side of the negotiating table see things in a different light.

Jonah Birch, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student at the sociology department has documented problems he has faced with NYU’s dental plan. Improved dental coverage is one of GSOC’s demands.

In a video, Birch described how he came to the decision to have a tooth pulled rather than get the treatment he needed. “I was TA’ing and I was on the Stu-Dent plan at NYU for dental services,” he said. But even with the plan covering a fifth of the cost, he would have to pay over $4,000 out of pocket to repair a damaged molar. Without access to that much money, he asked if there was some other option. According to Birch, “Well, we can pull the tooth,” was the reply.

“I’m sure there are other students who have stories similar to mine and I don’t think that anyone who is working for NYU should have to go through this,” said Birch.

The Stu-Dent plan offers patients diagnostic services, cleanings, and a 20 percent discount “off most services not covered in the plan.” GSOC hopes to get graduate students full coverage.

Increasing childcare services is a major demand of GSOC’s. NYU’s childcare subsidy for graduate students who are parents is “$200 per eligible student per semester (fall and spring only).” This subsidy does not consider the amount of children the students have. The FAQ section of NYU’s website states:

Question: “I have more than one child. Can I get a subsidy for each child?”

Answer: “No. The subsidy is one credit per student, not per child.“

Many graduate students have expressed their concerns with the relatively small subsidy compared to the cost of raising a child in New York City. One grad worker speaking at a bargaining session in the fall claimed the subsidy “covers just less than three full days of daycare.”

This helps explain why so few doctoral students start families. An article in the Chronicles of Higher Education finds that “Most of the women in graduate school are there during their peak childbearing years.” It continues, “More than two-thirds of the women in our doctoral survey agreed that the ages between 28 and 34 would be the optimal time to have a first child — the very years in which they are struggling to obtain a Ph.D. Yet 33 is now the average age at which women receive a Ph.D., and they cannot expect to achieve tenure before they are 39.”

Due to financial realities among other concerns, many doctoral students find themselves forced to decide between starting a family and perusing a career.

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