To Unionize or Not to Unionize

On Friday, September 29, 2023, the Caltech Graduate Students and Postdocs United (C/GPU) hosted a rally to celebrate reaching a majority of signed union authorization cards. For those unfamiliar or just confused about the process, this was not a vote. Those in charge of the union effort made it clear that according to their recorded numbers, enough graduate students and postdocs currently support moving forward to a vote to force the issue. These same leaders have also been very vocal about the fact that a vote would not have needed to be forced if the administration had simply consented early on to let us hold one.

For full disclosure, I signed an authorization card. While I am yet undecided on whether or not I will be voting for the union effort to succeed, I do believe in the power of democratic rule and the individual right to vote. With that said, I also believe that the information currently being offered to the graduate student population (I am unable to speak for the postdocs), is not sufficient to allow for a truly unbiased vote.

We have seen two different viewpoints emerge over the past year. First, the administration has stated its belief that unionizing would be a hindrance to the Institute’s goal of forward progress in scientific research and the student-advisor relationship, and second, the union effort has countered these points with statements about the benefit of standardizing the pursuit of inflation-consistent stipends and equity as employees. I am writing to express a third viewpoint: that there are both pros and cons to the prospect of unionizing. I have only recently begun to explore the prevalence of this opinion among my peers and have found an astonishing amount of agreement to some or all of my points—something I would not have expected given the current rhetoric being made publicly available.

Back to the rally. I attended, skeptically, hoping to be able to speak to some of those in charge about my concerns and questions. Instead, I was treated to a reiteration of points that had been previously made in the union’s favor. For those of us who read carefully and think critically, as I believe those of us who attend Caltech do, there would seem to be little reason to invoke these points again. However, this time, the arguments were not given as a dry list of bullet points, but couched in the form of stories. Stories designed to tug at our empathy, our innate connection to other human beings. Some of these were subtle: tales about students being let down by the administration; some were less so. One call to all the attendees quite clearly asked, “Don’t you care about someone else you don’t know?”

I do not want to discount the very real experiences and emotions that many students have gone through. I do believe an impartial system must be in place to evaluate student-faculty disputes, especially when they involve endangering physical, mental, or financial health. However, it is not clear that a union will be the method to achieve this. Especially since the very effort is tarnished by inherent biases.

You may have noticed the arrival of people on campus wearing the logo of the UAW (United Auto Workers). You may have even seen this logo on the T-shirts being passed out at the rally. These people do not attend Caltech, and they are being paid to help along the unionization effort. (“What’s in it for them?” you might wonder, and indeed one of my friends asked this question directly, without receiving a straight answer.) You may also have noticed that emails are now being sent out to the graduate student populace encouraging us to join picket lines for other unions and unionization efforts supported by the UAW. At the same time, we are not encouraged to research the situation and determine for ourselves whether these are causes to which we wish to lend our support.

The same voices propagating these emails are those that initially voiced the call for unionization, and also consistently cry out for things like free healthcare (unfortunately not a luxury anyone in the United States currently has) and more graduate housing (a laudable effort, but one for which the Institute only has two recourses: to spend more money, emissions, and real estate on new buildings; or to evict residents from other properties. Neither of these seem desirable to the writers of these emails). This rhetoric is clear: to support the union, to these individuals, means to blindly support a vast cadre of other causes. I for one have to wonder to what extent supporting other unions and untenable causes will detract from the main goals of Caltech graduate students. Will the bargaining process include demands that the Institute cannot grant, and will our quality of life suffer in the meantime when a deal is unable to be reached?

Something else you may wonder: why do all of these emails from a select few clubs representing a select few voices make it through the moderators of the general mailing list? Also, why am I not sending this opinion through that medium? To answer both of these points, I would point you to the question in my colleague’s piece last month, “Censorship and Squirrels”, that underlies the specific incident to which the title refers. Who are the Graduate Student Council to decide what emails should and should not be read?

The methods being used to convince graduate students that unionizing is the right call are not based in logic but are rather emotional appeals. Many of us have asked for concrete evidence resulting from comparable private universities about the benefits for our peers after unionizing. How much increase in pay have they received? How do they view their quality of life before and after? Do they feel more confident? Happier? How are their relationships with their advisors? We have not received this data. What we have received are platitudes and an overly righteous assurance that unionizing is the best option for all of us. I understand that the prospective union will eventually work through a collective bargaining process, but I draw a firm line between the terms “collective” and “unilateral”. Assuming that all of us should believe the same way because we are all “in the same situation” is a gross oversimplification.

Some of us benefit from great relationships with our advisors and the confidence that they can and will listen to our requests and suggestions. Some of us do not. Some of us have additional burdens like families, visas, and pre-existing health conditions. Some of us do not. We do not all need the same accommodations, and we certainly don’t need to be spoken for by one voice. My fear in voting in the union is that those same voices that currently control the flow of information will be the ones that control our side of the collective bargaining process, making requests that are either unnecessary, impossible, or harmful to the goal of improving every student’s life, in favor of benefiting a few.

I am not writing to convince you to vote “no” to the union. I am simply asking those of my peers who read this article to think through the options presented to you, and for your goal underneath every question not to be “How does this benefit someone I don’t know?” and instead to be “How does this benefit me and everyone else I do know?”