Valuing graduate student workers starts with leaving them free to choose


Katherine Kealey

Beardshear Hall, Iowa State Campus, on Dec. 15, 2021

Levi Soborowicz and Ezra Butcher

Authors’ Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the authors and not those of the Department of Economics at Iowa State University or affiliated organizations.

Graduate students at Iowa State provide valuable services and are well compensated. Reviewing the Current Population Survey, approximately 9.5% percent of the population has at least a master’s degree, and a smaller 1.4% of the population has a doctorate. As graduate students, we are not yet in this high-earning, privileged group, but we will be. 

My graduate student colleagues published an opinion piece listing grievances. If we are considering unionization, we must discuss these grievances to understand if unionization can address these concerns. 

Our labor is not valued. 

Stipends and workloads vary. There is market power that disrupts the competitive equilibrium, but it is unclear how much exists and whether the institution or the students have the advantage. 

For example, graduate students have a well-paying outside option. To succeed as future academics, we have greater abilities than the general populace. Consequently, we do well in the labor market, with or without a degree. 

One might think Iowa State has monopsony (buyer) power over the graduate student labor force, but other universities exist. There is a fixed cost of exit when moving to a new university, but that also forces graduate students to commit to finishing their degree, which incentivizes investment into graduate students. 

Secondly, our marginal product is directly related to the fact that not all academic pursuits are equally valuable. 

I can’t protest with indignation when engineers are well compensated; they ensure bridges don’t collapse. 

Graduate students are not equally compensated for work because of inequality in the value of research output. Undergraduate preferences matter; many of these students study engineering, business and agriculture. Hence, there is a greater demand for labor in these areas. 

Our health care is substandard. 

Health care is expensive; the plan offered to graduate students is exceptional. Ask any medical professional. Acknowledging that healthcare is expensive critiques the American healthcare system, not our current plan.

Many are not paid over the entire calendar year (summer funding is highly competitive). 

Summer funding is competitive because summer enrollment is lower. Summer 2022 enrollment was 28% of fall enrollment. More summer funding options are available as undergraduates register for summer classes: demand for our services increases. As it stands, fewer slots are available than job seekers. Jobs are available if funding is not available during the summer. 

We are not covered by workers’ [SIC] compensation. 

Every job is a bundle of characteristics, among which is the wage. All discussion on the value of graduate student labor applies here. This is a non-issue for nearly all graduate students.

The culture in which we work too often involves bullying, discrimination, exploitation and inappropriate expectations regarding work-life balance. 

It can be hard to discern bullying versus directed feedback. People can be unkind, but it is not obvious how a union can minimize the toxicity within a department. Labor laws apply, and nobody can discriminate based on your protected class status. 

Toxicity in your work environment is a problem you must find a solution for, both at Iowa State and beyond.

Some members of the community, such as international students whose student visas can be revoked, are especially vulnerable to abuses of power by their supervisors. 

International students are in a precarious position, but it is unclear how a union will protect them from the federal government. Furthermore, a union could be weaponized against them. 

We don’t need a union. Graduate students are important but not invaluable. Our existence is an outcome of optimal decision-making by the university and ourselves. We aren’t fighting a noble battle against the capitalists; we are the privileged, proposing to extract more rents from Iowa taxpayers and Iowa State students.