CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--When graduate students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, overwhelmingly rejected joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) last month, they scotched what would have been only the second student union at a private U.S. university. A week after the 24 October vote, UAW organizer Joan Moriarty, a Ph.D. candidate in labor economics, still shakes with anger as she recounts the bruising 18-month battle for the hearts and minds of her 2300 colleagues, two-thirds of them in science and engineering fields. Fierce opposition from Cornell's president, a vocal antiunion student group, and reports that some faculty members had warned their grad students that a "yes" vote could jeopardize their careers swung the vote against the union, she believes. However, others say that organizers erred by pushing for a vote before they were ready and hooking up with UAW. "It was a setback, not a defeat," she asserts, tearfully vowing to continue the fight.

Whatever happens at Cornell, Moriarty won't be alone. Similar organizing efforts are being waged on dozens of U.S. campuses. No longer exclusively blue-collar, unions also represent some 40,000 graduate students at 27 universities around the country. Unlike their counterparts in many countries, U.S. graduate students often carry heavy teaching loads--spending 20 hours or more a week on duties only tenuously related to their graduate training. Their unhappiness over pay, benefits, and job-related working conditions--as well as nonfinancial issues such as inadequate grievance procedures and career counseling --has been red meat for union organizers. Although teaching assistants still dominate most union bargaining units, research assistants (RAs) are becoming more prominent in the wake of a 2000 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that RAs perform "work" apart from pursuing their degree requirements.

Ironically, there is a dearth of rigorous, academic research on how graduate student unions affect academia, notes Elaine Bernard, a labor educator who heads the Labor and Worklife program at Harvard University. Earlier this month, her program joined with a network of labor economists to put on a 2-day meeting here to explore scientific workforce issues, including the rise of graduate student unions and the status of postdocs, a traditionally downtrodden class of researchers who have begun to improve their status through cooperative rather than confrontational tactics ( see sidebar). The network is funded by the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has a long-standing interest in the health of the U.S. scientific work force.

What's at stake

The first graduate student union was established at the University of Wisconsin in 1969. Most have been formed in the last decade, however--and none without a fight. The early conflicts took place at public universities, which are governed by state labor laws that are often more receptive to unionization. The battleground has now spread to private institutions. One of the longest running, and most bitter, fights is being waged at Yale University, where administrators have steadfastly refused to recognize the AFL-CIO-affiliated Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) formed in 1990. This year alone, the results of elections at three elite private universities in the northeastern United States remain in limbo as administrators from Tufts, Brown, and Columbia fight the legitimacy of union drives on their campuses.

Tufts president Lawrence Bacow, in a statement issued shortly before the contested vote on his campus last April, offered a widely held view among university administrators: "In my view there is nothing a union can add to what graduate students can do for themselves," Bacow said. "I fear that a union may introduce discord and do damage to both graduate and undergraduate education." Union organizers scoff at such attempts to brand them as an unwanted, foreign presence on campus. "We're students, and we're doing this because we have nothing left to lose," says Maris Zivarts, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in molecular biology at Yale and secretary-treasurer of GESO. "We're just trying to make things better for the profession and for academia as a whole."

Co-chair of the Sloan network Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, hopes his colleagues can fill in some of the research gaps that Bernard noted. For example, Freeman and graduate student Emily Jin are analyzing stipend data on graduate assistants from around the country for an upcoming paper on how a union presence affects pay levels. Whatever they find, however, both sides acknowledge that stipend levels are only part of a raft of issues addressed by collective bargaining.

One major bone of contention is whether unions alter the academic climate. A 2000 survey of faculty attitudes toward graduate student bargaining on five campuses with unions found that unionization had little impact on a professor's ability to advise, instruct, or mentor graduate students. But the author, Gordon Hewitt, now head of institutional research at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, says there's no evidence the survey results have had any impact on labor-management relations. "It's a political issue, and people will say whatever they have to," he says.

Despite the continued labor friction on many campuses, some academic leaders believe that universities need to find a way to accommodate unions. "Five years ago we issued a statement saying that graduate teaching assistants are students only, not employees," recalls John Vaughn, executive vice president of the 62-member Association of American Universities. "I'm not sure that we could say the same thing today." Although Vaughn says that he fears the effect on academic life of a continued growth in graduate unions, he also suggests that universities must accept some responsibility for the trend. "In many ways," he says, "the growth of graduate unions is our fault because of our lack of responsiveness to [graduate students'] problems."

That confession might be small consolation to Cornell's Moriarty, who believes so strongly in the union cause that she refused on principle to apply to a university-run emergency fund for a medical condition because she didn't want to accept a handout in lieu of what she regards as a rightful health benefit. But Vaughn's admonishment resonates with some academics. Graduate students "are the embodiment of what makes the U.S. university system so special--the collocation of education and research," says Harvard mathematician Daniel Goroff, co-chair of the Sloan network. "And they need our attention."

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.