Paying to Work: On the Student/Worker Distinction
The universities have a vested interest in overdetermining the distinction between student and worker.
This article originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly’s special issue on graduate student organizing.
OBSERVERS of the growing graduate student union movement in the US will no doubt be familiar with the way in which university administrators—particularly those at private institutions—have responded to graduate unionization efforts. Many have claimed that graduate labor—like grading, research, and teaching—does not amount to “work” at all because these activities are for grads’ own educational benefit. If university administrators are right about this, it means that grads are not entitled to union representation for the Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and other activities they perform.
This reasoning is strained at best—ludicrous and insulting at worst. The legal standard for being an “employee” says that employees produce value for the institutions of which they are a part. So legally speaking, maintaining that graduate employees are not real workers—that they are merely “students” or “trainees”—requires universities to argue that the work grads perform produces no economic benefit (if this is how we are going to determine value) and might even make universities financially worse off.
Having to demonstrate that grad labor actually harms the financial bottom line of universities has led many anti-union university administrations into some absurd territory. For example, the University of Chicago maintained that even those grads serving as instructors of record for entire undergraduate courses didn’t add value to the university and that their work actually cost the university money. Anyone who does a quick side-by-side comparison of how much each undergrad pays in tuition per course with how much graduate employees get paid to teach any given course will realize how dubious this reasoning is.
Grad union campaigns have typically responded to claims that their labor isn’t real “work” by reiterating the arguments outlined in the 2016 Columbia decision, which granted graduate employees at private universities rights to unionize. In that decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined what is obvious to many of us: that grads can have more than one relationship with an institution at any given time. Grads can simultaneously be both students and employees. Insofar as they are employees and produce value for their institutions, they are entitled to the benefits of employee status, like the right to elect for union representation. Insofar as they are students, they are not entitled to those benefits.
The election agreement that I helped negotiate on behalf of Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) with Georgetown University institutionalizes the logic of the 2016 Columbia decision. It accepts that many grads at Georgetown have two relationships with the university at the same time: they are both students and employees. Grads are entitled to union representation in virtue of their roles as employees. They are not entitled to union representation in virtue of their roles as students.
I stand by GAGE’s decision to accept this agreement and am proud of the concessions we were able to extract from Georgetown in the process of negotiating it. But since we signed the agreement, I’ve started to question the viability of the distinction between “student” and “employee” that much grad organizing—as well as the 2016 Columbia decision—relies upon. In other words, I’ve started to think that being a student is itself much closer to “work” or “labor” than we typically recognize. I have also come to believe that highlighting the ways in which “student” activities bear a strong resemblance to work can help the grad union movement make closer contact with natural allies, such as the growing movement among undergraduates for free college.
LIKE THE AGREEMENT that grads reached with the administration at Brown University, our election agreement with Georgetown set out the terms of a union representation election to occur outside of the auspices of the NLRB. In the agreement, Georgetown committed itself to respecting our right to vote for or against union representation even if the 2016 Columbia decision is overturned.
This itself—winning the right to hold a representation election regardless of what happens with graduate employees’ status with the NLRB—was a major victory. Because Trump’s anti-labor appointees now sit on the NLRB, we couldn’t count on the NLRB to protect our rights to union representation should Georgetown have decided to challenge the election results. In addition, had we held the election through the NLRB process, it would have given Georgetown an opening to challenge the 2016 Columbia decision and thus overturn labor rights for grads all over the country.
But our agreement also does something more than protect our right to hold a representation election outside of the NLRB. It also commits Georgetown, upon GAGE’s victory, to bargaining a contract with us in good faith over subjects related to our employee status. These subjects include pay and benefit improvements, tuition waivers, grievance procedures, working conditions, and many other issues. So unlike the University of Chicago (an institution which has illegally refused to bargain with its graduate employees after grads voted overwhelmingly to unionize), Georgetown committed itself to bargaining a contract with GAGE. And, at least so far, Georgetown’s commitment seems to have been made in good faith: we recently won our election in a landslide (with 83.7% of participants voting “yes”), and Georgetown indicated that they intend to begin bargaining with us this year.
In the spirit of the 2016 Columbia decision, as I mentioned above, our agreement maintains that many grads have two relationships with Georgetown—a student relationship and an employee relationship. Each role comes with a different set of obligations and privileges. So while our agreement maintains that grads have a right to union representation in virtue of their employee status, our agreement brackets a number of issues that fall under the purview of our “student” status and categorically places them off the table for collective bargaining. These topics include graduate admission decisions, grades in coursework, thesis and dissertation topics, tuition levels, and other issues that are understood as academic and not related to employment.
Moving “academic” or “student-related” issues categorically off the table for purposes of collective bargaining and institutionalizing the student-worker distinction didn’t represent a concession from us. Members of GAGE were not seeking union representation so that they could collectively bargain over their grades in coursework. They sought union representation because they want better pay, benefits, and working conditions in virtue of their status as employees.
In the process of negotiating the election agreement, however, Georgetown made it clear that codifying some kind of division between our “student” roles and our “employee” roles—and the concomitant distinction between non-bargainable and bargainable subjects—was a condition of their even sitting down with us. Why were they so concerned with policing this distinction, with preventing anything that could be construed as “academic” or “student-related” from falling under the auspices of collective bargaining? Their repeated insistence on drawing a firm boundary between “students” and “employees” made me suspicious—it made me wonder, in other words, what was at stake in drawing these boundaries in one particular way rather than another. As I began to think about it, I realized that there was and is a great deal at stake.
TO BE CLEAR, I broadly accept the idea that grads have two relationships with universities: they are both students and workers. But in addition to the activities that we perform that obviously constitute employment, the activities we typically group under the role of “student” can also be difficult to distinguish from work. There are some salient differences between “student” status and “employee” status, but the distinction between these roles is overstated. It’s overstated for a specific reason: those with power in higher education have a vested interest in drawing and policing this distinction.
Today, university administrators in the US utilize the following rough-and-ready formula: if they can categorize you as a student, then you owe them money; if they can categorize you as a worker, they’re the ones who owe you. This means that it is strongly in a university’s interests to categorize the largest possible class as “students” or “trainees” rather than “employees,” even when the label “student” is strained at best for the activities in question. For evidence of this, one only has to look at the responses that most universities have made to attempts by graduate employees, student athletes, and even post-doctoral workers to unionize: they claim that all of these activities aren’t “really work” because they fall under the purview of “being educated” or being a student.
But even when universities end up recognizing academic labor where it is obviously being performed, as in Georgetown’s case, it’s in the interests of university power brokers to make the student/worker distinction seem as sharp as possible. It’s in their interests, in other words, to over-draw the line between the two roles. This is because, if educational and training activities start being viewed as bearing any relationship to employment, then students might start challenging the extractive practice of being charged ever-increasing amounts of money every year for tuition. So-called “students” might start thinking as follows: rather than paying universities increasing amounts of money for the privilege of getting educated, maybe they should pay less—maybe their education should even be free. They might even arrive at the conclusion that they should be paid to be educated.
Given that it is strongly in the interests of university power brokers to over-draw the distinction between “students” and “employees,” I think we should—at the very least—be skeptical of it. But having reason to be skeptical of a distinction isn’t the same thing as actually having a positive reason to believe it is dubious. So why should we think that student activities bear a closer relationship to work activities than we’ve previously thought?
Because students are already workers. Universities—and, more broadly, our advanced capitalist political economy—have made it so. To see this, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that university power brokers frequently come very close to describing education as work. They routinely speak of educational activities as “cultivating human capital.” Harvard University president Larry Bacow said just this when giving a speech about the importance of college: “If you want to get ahead, you’re going to have to increasingly invest in your own human capital and that’s what higher education does.”
Understanding education as the process of building human capital is also necessary for undergraduates as well as others in various stages of their education. It’s the only way for many to justify the high price tag of tuition: the promise that, by attending school and paying tuition, you’ll earn enough later in life to pay off the debt that you’ll incur during the education process. You get educated to cultivate your human capital in the hope that you can leverage that capacity to create actual value—and earn a wage—later.
If being a student means that you are cultivating your human capital—in other words, building your capacity to produce value later—and working involves the actual production of value, the distinction between the two starts to blur. The only difference between being a worker and a student is that the latter involves building your capacity to produce economic value—in other words, building your labor power—while the former involves the actual production of that value. Further, in an advanced capitalist economy like what we have in the US, where many unskilled jobs are either shipped abroad or automated, cultivating human capital—building your capacity to produce value—is a necessary precondition for actually producing value later. Given this, if students stopped going to school en masse, it wouldn’t take very long for advanced capitalist economies to grind to a halt: employers need students to cultivate their capacities to produce value so that they can extract more actual value from them later. In other words, learning is an activity that is inextricably bound up with economic value production—and this is the case both for students as well as their future employers.
That this distinction—between building your capacity to produce value and actually producing value—is a thin one can be further supported by the fact that, in many jobs, the very same activities both build this capacity and produce value simultaneously. This is the case in almost all skill-based professions: social work, nursing, teaching, and many others. In these professions, the same activities that produce value—counseling people, caring for patients, teaching students—also involve building your productive capacities. This is, in other words, the straightforward idea that having experience in certain jobs is itself something that builds your human capital.
But some might resist the characterization of learning as cultivating human capital. Shouldn’t we, instead, excavate and embrace an older idea of being a student—one that identifies it with cultivating good character or intellectual virtues, rather than accepting what might seem to be a crude capitalist understanding of the role that emphasizes its relationship to value production?
To do so would be like trying to return to feudalism after capitalism had already entrenched itself in European society: a misguided attempt to turn back the clock. Conditions on the ground—particularly, the fact that students have to pay so much money to be educated—make it the case that students must see their education in economic terms. Given this, I contend that conceptualizing student activities as similar to work—in the way that capitalists and university power brokers already do—provides a better road map for moving forward than attempting to preserve a distinction that grows more obsolete with each passing year. Rather than preserve a space for a sacred “student” role that is stripped of reference to economic value production, we should fight for students to be considered workers—with the benefits and privileges that would entail.
CURRENTLY, universities deploy the category of “student” as a way of justifying tuition extraction—as a way, in other words, of covertly making the case that students owe them money. If students start to see themselves as workers—people whose learning activities are one necessary part of value production—they may start to question the justice of these extractive practices.
If students are workers, that means that most students in higher education today are actually paying to work. Framed this way, it’s easy to see the injustice of this situation—no one should have to pay to work. This framing also allows us to easily see a field of possible remedies for this injustice: students should, at minimum, pay less rather than more than they currently do to receive an education. But, if students are workers, paying less isn’t good enough; their education should be free. Once education becomes free, students may even consider floating the demand that they should get paid to be educated.
But if students’ education activities don’t produce actual value for the institutions where they study—rather, their student activities produce value later for society as a whole—who is responsible for making education tuition free, or for paying students to be educated?
Even if students are not producing actual value for the specific institution where they study—and so cannot claim to be considered employees of those institutions—they do have a claim to being considered employees or workers in general, because their activities are essential for the ability for advanced capitalist economies to produce value later. This means that, in a sense, society at large is students’ “employer”—the entity against which students have a claim either to receive free education or even compensation for being educated. This reasoning is compatible with the way in which the growing movement for free college frames its demands. The demand is not for universities themselves to stop collecting tuition, but for society at large to foot the bill for tuition through redistributive taxation—in other words, by taxing the wealthy.
Conceptualizing students as workers also invites students themselves to consider utilizing the tactics of the labor movement in their efforts to change the status quo. This might involve boycotting their classes or engaging in tuition strikes—tactics which US students rarely utilize, but which are already much more common outside of the US. While some critics of the tactic of boycotting classes point out that this fails to undermine the ability of universities to produce value or generate revenue, this misses the point. If enough students boycott their classes, engaging in something like a nationwide general strike from the work of being educated, it is the production processes of society at large—if not the revenue-generating ability of the university itself—that will take the hit. Tuition strikes, however, can directly harm specific universities’ ability to generate revenue, as tuition is a major source of revenue for most US universities. This kind of tactic could be used to incentivize universities to support Free College for All: if students refuse to pay tuition, universities might be more willing to think about other ways of funding higher education, including the payment of tuition through taxation.
Thinking of students as workers also invites existing unions in the landscape of higher education to forge new forms of solidarity across traditional student-worker lines. In my own experience as a graduate employee, it can be difficult to resist the pervasive neoliberal framing of the student as a “customer” who pays for the “service” of being educated. But if we explicitly reject this—by considering students to be fellow workers—we can explore new tactics and new forms of association that lift all boats, rather than re-entrenching the idea of the student-as-customer. One tactic that labor unions in universities might consider using is bargaining for the common good: using their own power and leverage with their employer to extract concessions in contract negotiations that benefit more than just their own union members. One recent example of this strategy involved West Virginia teachers, who went on strike in 2018 and were able to use their leverage to negotiate not only a raise for themselves but for all public employees in the state. An upshot of seeing students as workers could be utilizing bargaining for the common good as a way of making demands for lower or free tuition.
GRADUATE STUDENT-EMPLOYEES are in a unique position to push back on the ways in which universities frame the student/employee distinction, as grads are both employees and students.
Because of this, many grads are familiar with the ways in which the very same activities that one would group under the heading of “being educated” are also value-producing labor. Working in a lab as a Research Assistant, for example, often involves activities that are done simultaneously for one’s own education and training as well as to generate revenue for universities. Running lab experiments might simultaneously help a graduate employee learn how to perform those experiments better in the future—i.e., cultivate their human capital—while also pulling in grant money.
Grads already view themselves as pushing back on the attempt to cannibalize all activities under the rubric of “student”—and for many grad union campaigns, just convincing universities that obvious value-producing work is, in fact, work is hard enough. But I think that, eventually, the grad union movement can go further than this to reject university reasoning. Rather than seeing our student and work activities as strongly severable from one another—as even somewhat labor-friendly universities, like Georgetown, want us to—grads only have to reflect on their own experiences as student-workers to see how being educated is a lot like work after all.
Hailey Huget is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University who specializes in moral and political philosophy. Hailey has been organizing with Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, a union that represents approximately one thousand graduate workers, for the past several years.