Talking Union


Now if you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do.

Rutgers is on strike.

The strike has been brewing around campus for the past few months. Our union and the administration have been unable to agree on new contract terms since our previous contract expired last year. So, there’s a strike.

Being good critical thinkers, we know to distrust the statements of both sides. When the union says that public sector strikes in New Jersey are not illegal, they are misleading (lying). When the administration says that there’s a budget deficit, they don’t explain why such deficits have disappeared in the past.

Unsavory behavior aside, the faculty union is the only group that represents graduate students at Rutgers. That’s why I’ve been a dues-paying member since I arrived here, and why I encourage all graduate students to be the same.

But while we’re here, all of this contract talk raises a good question: What should PhD students be paid? Take, for example, a teaching assistant. The ten-month TA contract stipulates that a TA should not work more than 15 hours a week on average. With our \$31,000 salary, that works out to about \$52 per hour. Is this fair?

Well, this calculation leaves out all the other things that graduate students are expected to do. They conduct research, organize seminars, serve on committees, prepare papers, mentor students, and so on. The actual hourly pay is closer to \$20 or \$30 if you include these things. Is this fair?

To add to the confusion, why are we treating degree requirements like paid labor? Medical students, law students, and Master’s students also work very hard on their degrees, and we don’t pay them a dime. In fact, we charge them! Is it fair that PhD students want to include things like “going to class” and “listening to talks” in their billable hours?

It’s difficult to answer this objectively, because the question is more about values than labor. PhD programs produce researchers and professors. To the extent that you value these things and want a more diverse cast of people trying to enter these fields, you should pay PhD students more. Our stipend is a bit arbitrary, probably determined by more by policy than the value of our labor. (Why do we get paid more than adjuncts to teach less than them? Someone decided we should!)

But “our stipends are arbitrary” does not mean that they should be low. Paying smart people relatively small amounts of money to learn hard things or solve difficult problems seems like a great return. Just look at stories about NYU’s now-free medical school. If every medical school were free, then poorer people would be less intimidated by the sticker price. Perhaps more students would enter areas that are important but pay worse, like family medicine. Paying PhD students seems like a good idea that could be replicated in other areas.

As for the exact numbers, I don’t know. I think that graduate students should be able to live modest lives. They should not worry about day-to-day expenses. They should be able to enjoy themselves, but not to an arbitrary degree. For me, our \$30,000 stipend did this when I arrived. But with inflation over the past few years, we are materially worse off than we were before, and a small raise would not change this. I don’t know why we should accept such a deal if we could avoid it.

For this reason, I throw my hat in with the union, warts and all. They are infinitely better equipped to make arguments than I am.