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Doctoral Students and Unionisation


“Our work is always work, not just when it is convenient for our universities.”

FIR registered against 3 professors including a research guide of a PhD student found hanging from the ceiling in his room at the Central University of Rajasthan.

Suicide attempt by a 36 year old PhD student at AIIMS Delhi alleging mental harassment and abuse by his guide.[1]

“Though the university will not remunerate us for it, we will be tagged as co-authors of the paper” reports another PhD student who preferred to maintain anonymity. This means that the student’s research efforts were discounted and passed off as nodal faculty’s work.

Since PhD students do not categorize as employees, they are highly vulnerable to their work conditions. And factors like gender, socio-economic stature, caste add to their exploitation. Unions become necessary in such a work environment to protect the students from potential harassment.

Thus, the project aims to present a case for the unionization of PhD students in the backdrop of an unmindful educational setup.

Arguments Raised Against Unionisation

Student teacher divide:

It has been argued that if students at post-graduate level are permitted to unionize, it would lead to destabilization of collegiate or mentor-mentee bond between the students and professors which is regarded as the foundation of academic space.[2] The academic relation shared by students and teachers in a university owing to their studies is different to that of an employee and employer.

Students acting in the capacity of a research or teaching assistant join the university with the aim of attaining knowledge and skills and so the inclusion of a 3rd non-academic player in this educational exercise gives rise to serious anxieties and hamper universities’ central function of producing world-class academicians.[3]

Mentorship and training imparted to graduates by university faculty is indispensable to bringing up the next generation of prominent academicians and such a bond would lose its productivity and fruitfulness if a formal collective bargaining mechanism is introduced under which the faculty would stoop down to being “supervisors” of their graduate trainees/employees.

It has been argued in the Columbia case that receiving recognition as employees could meddle with the academic endeavours and training of the students but the decision fails to support the proposition. The verdict points out that the assertion is not appended by any legal backing or any empirical evidence.[4] Moreover the decision highlights a study suggesting that unionisation has not have an adverse effect on the students at the academic institutions. Instead the report stated, unionised students depicted increased professional support, better wages and other academic liberties.[5]

Not an employee:

Another argument negating the employee status of research students turned up in the case of Leland Stanford which stated that since such students’ work is inclusive of both their own academic interests and interest of the university, they cannot be termed as employees. But the decision in Columbia has overruled the Leland to the extent requiring a probe into whether an employer-employee relationship was secondary or co-existent with an academic relationship. Therefore, a researchers work that purports to advance both his own and university’s interest is not a bar in ascertaining the status of an employee.[6]

It is also contended that the foremost purpose of a student enrolling in a university is for a degree and to inculcate the intellect and the skills that are required to catapult oneself into the career and future that he desires and not earn wages as an employee of the institution.[7]

University of Chicago reported that almost $0.5million is invested on a doctoral student. If such students become adamant on asking for a pay raise for their teaching endeavour, the university might not compulsorily enhance their venture on them at all and would simply rearrange the existing funds. Universities can be thought of as an investor in the students and if it is faced with a situation where it has to choose between improving students’ academic value via superior training and providing them with increased stipends and teaching wage to alleviate their monetary crunches.[8] The incentive for a university then would obviously be to enhance the academic standards of its students while simultaneously paying them meagre amounts for sustenance, keeping in mind the larger picture of its long-term reputation.

Proponents (mainly professors) also argue that on the question of facing economic hardships, it should be noted that many such research scholars do belong to a well-off family and bear bright prospects post-graduation, provided quality is not bargained for increased wages. Though this contention lacks any empirical backing.[9]

Union not true representative of students:

Finally, one last blow at any unionisation efforts is that including a labour union that is not familiar on how to produce eminent scholars would barge in between the students and faculty to make decisions on behalf of students which might not necessarily be in the utmost interest of the student commune.[10]

Averments that Favour Unionisation

Graduate student unions in public universities in USA are common scene and the same is governed by the state’s law. Additionally, the NLRB[11] (national labour relation board) in 2016 decision of Columbia University favoured the bid of a student union in the university thereby reversing a previous ruling of its in Brown university case of 2004, that had since been the law of the land.[12] The decision has been dubbed as a major victory by unions at private campuses and students are excited more than ever to defend their right of academic freedom and participation in shared governance.


It has been stated that a graduate research assistant earns about $20000-25000 per annum from departmental aid and allowance though it may change with the location of the university and academic discipline. These are the earnings they receive for occupying a position that requires them to work multiple jobs. Months and years are gone into researching. Further they attend seminars and conferences, contact people to publicize their team’ work and try to collaborate with researchers at other universities. Additionally, they also tutor classes and labs at times for meagre or no additional pay for their institutions fall short of full-time course faculties. They also work in order to apply for and acquire well-paid grants so that they can support their research and labs that are employed in.[13] Unions thus are required to bring about proportionality in the work extracted and the remuneration provided.

It is also argued that their work not only improves their quality as an academician but is requisite for their respective departments and the university in general to function. Graduate students in USA account for a majority of the $72 billion academic research industry. This amount fails to accommodate the extra effort put in by these students in teaching classes, grading assignments and designing the curriculum.[14] This shows that universities clearly have a vested fiscal interest in grad students that exceeds the tuition checks by miles. Only a union can provide a balance to such economic interests by affording important protections.


Overworking is yet another issue that stands to be dealt with. Graduate institutions do set a definite amount of sick leaves and vacations for students but they often forego such precious time. Reasons could range from being too occupied in a research that one cannot afford to take off-days or working on leave days so as to maintain a good reputation among the seniors.[15] A union could possibly be of help by introducing standards for paid leave.

Preventing harassment

Among other pros of unionization include the contention that it would aid in securing better health coverage for students and vigilant mechanisms for preventing sexual harassment or discrimination by faculty members who enjoy crucial authority over their professional prospects in future.[16]

Mitigate power imbalance

Additionally, the surveys conducted in public universities in USA, where unions have been legal for some time now, report that effect of unions on student-teacher relation has been positive. For the people fearing the degradation of student-teacher bond, the truth is that unions have hardly anything to do with their relationship. The unions instead intimidate the very power dynamics that play out in the administration of universities that has calibrated the academic programs and services for its personal benefits by tending to offer more courses with progressively rarer resources.[17] So any anxiety relating to the said relation is unfounded unless the faculty gets to play a role in the activities of the administration.

It is pertinent to note that unions have never functioned with the aim of restricting or minimizing a person’s capability to prosper, instead they function to ensure a basic standard of living for all the respective members. Therefore, such basic standards are essential to protect the students from exploitation by universities that fantasize complete control over their labor, be it in terms of precarity, scholarly accessibility or monetary gains.

Theoretically Dismantling the Arguments made Against Unionisation

Pluralist industrial relations theory

Mahoney and Watson hold that in collective bargaining the negotiations take place only on an economic level and there is no social exchange.[18] Whereas Dahrendorf maintains that social exchange continues to be crucial in workplaces relationships for the members to successfully coordinate together.[19] Pluralist industrial relations theory view the daily bond between employers and employees as reflective of mixed character of employment relationship. Kochan asserts that while IR theory recognize conflict as inherent, pluralist IR theory labels conflict as partial in nature.[20]

Mixed loyalty is a characteristic of employees (including college faculty) in massive organizations. Pluralist industrial relations theory recognize the fact that even though employees may have interests that differ from other employees in the establishment, yet they are all employees at the same time and be permitted the opportunity to unionize with the exception of a cohort of managerial officials. The level of similarity or difference in the interests of the employees is the fundamental issue in ascertaining whether their interest is similar enough to be represented by same bargaining unit or whether different units should be composed. For this very reason 1st -level employees are found to be in different bargaining cohort than the lower-level employees if accorded separate representation rights.

Whether professors and graduate students have largely similar or divergent interests is a matter of empirical study and not theoretical one. Goss recalling is time at university of California as a graduate student attending an organizing drive and another campus strike during his postdoc days, sheds light on the issue in the context of university. In order to avoid the unionization the university administration banked on the potential faculty-student divide, administration attempted to create a sharp line between collective bargaining (by presenting the bond between employer & employee as antagonistic) and campus community (exemplified in a shared relation between mentor and trainee). But the employees viewed the entire campus as a community of employees encompassing the students too. Professors considered themselves as forming a community of instructors and not as a part of management.[21] Thus the dividing line between management and labor in universities is created in financial issues and not daily workplace matters.

Internal labour market theory

ILM theory is crucial to comprehending the effect of student unions on academic bond between professors and students. Part of theory that has come of significance relates to the financial efficiency of an internal labor market for an employer substantial human capital specific to the company. Precisely structured points of entry, job elevation, and use of formal and unofficial internal exercise in this setting diminish training and turnover charges. Tradition and employees approval of the justness of these guidelines help sustain the internal labor market. A second portion of the theory relates to craft labor markets wherein completely skilled employees work for myriad of employers within the same trade. Employee organizations and employers also contribute in shaping and sustaining these arrangements.[22] Professional associations like unions may also enact such a role. In certain aspects the academic field is analogous to skilled trades with graduate students being similar to apprentice. Like apprentices, PhD students are learning a skilled trade both through formal classes and by garnering work experience as research assistants that will finally lead to them being categorized as a skilled professional (craftsperson). Similar to apprentice they are working while simultaneously learning to do research work.[23]

When the internal labor market (ILM) theory is applied to higher education, similar to its application in other field’s ILMs, it is observed that highly skilled people (faculty) are keen to share their expert skills and intellect on how to become a renowned scholar since they are sure that internal labor market will prevent their substitution by their apprentices. Doeringer and Piore report that a readiness to demonstrate ones skill to others develops only when such transfer of skills does not jeopardize the economic well-being of the professor.[24] Professors are employed in the business of education and they are ethically obliged (“custom” in ILM) to build on the teaching process and attentively guiding PhD students in becoming eminent members of academic field. Also, a faculty’s reputation in the field often banks upon one’s record in providing well-rounded PhD graduates to the academic labor fair. The mentorship program is crucial to a student’s career as it not only aids in landing a well-paid job but also equips one with requisite skills of a distinguished researcher/teacher. Therefore it is hard to understand why a union would bring about policies that could result in alienation of students from their gurus. Rather the union may strengthen the bond by enacting the customary ethics of it by preventing the exploitation of trainee by employer and defending him from more work than is apt in financial manufacture at the expense of education.

Academic freedom and exit/voice theory

Academic liberty is the central virtue in higher education and holds immense importance for the professors and organization that engage it. Academic freedom is defined as entitling the faculty with absolute freedom in research and publication of the same, liberty in the classes to discuss on their subject and the right of professors to be exempt from any institutional censorship while expressing their views in capacity of a citizen.[25] Graduate student also deserve the same entitlement both in capacity of student and a research scholar whilst teaching and undergoing research activities.

This value of academic freedom is comparable to the notion of voice in employment relations concept. Freeman and Medoff[26] have asserted that a union is double faced, with one representing monopoly (increasing compensation) and the other as that of collective voice. Union serve as a medium of conveying the employees’ anxieties to the management and for demanding transformation wanted by the majority members—the political voice function of a union is a substitute to exit, which is a practice in a non-unionized state whereby the individual employees in an organization would show their concerns towards their working conditions by vacating their jobs. Unions thus encourage individual voice in the workplace by protecting members from disciplinary action. The collective voice of employees as represented by the union backs up justice to the individual via just cause clause of contracts and the grievance mechanism that append them. Unions generally consider voice as reaching beyond the horizon of T&C of employment to ensure the standard and morals of the particular job. Banking on this viewpoint, union representation at least would increase the paradigm of academic liberty for the graduate students committee.

Additionally, Hewitt found that the professors do not consider the unionization of graduate students as hindering the free interchange of ideas.

Scope for Unionisation in Indian Context

Indian labor laws require that for employees to form a union, 2 conditions be satisfied. First that the trade qualify as an industry[27] and secondly the employee classify as workman.

Let’s apply these conditions to our question of concern. The primary issue of whether educational institutions qualify as industry and their employees as workman (for the purpose of ID Act, 1947) was first raised in the Bangalore water supply case[28]. It was decided in the matter that educational establishments would fall within the purview of Section-2j of ID Act, though not all employees of such institutions would be termed as workmen, thereby enhancing the scope of “industry”. The Bangalore water supply case criticized the Delhi university case[29] which refused to classify education as an industry by stating that education is a service to the community and thus should fall under the definition of industry. Thereby the support staff was categorized as “workmen”. Also, the case propounded the triple test to identify “industries” which substituted its definition in the ID Act via amendment of 2015. Hence, it can be said that Bangalore supply case recognized education as an industry in a qualified manner by leaving out other types of employees.

Coming to the factors taken into consideration by the court in classifying people as “workman”. Section-2s of the Industrial Disputes act, 1947 defines workman as any person (including an apprentice) employed in any industry to do any manual, unskilled, skilled, technical, operational, clerical or supervisory work for hire or reward, but does not include who, being employed in a supervisory capacity, draws wages exceeding one thousand six hundred rupees per mensem or exercises, either by the nature of the duties attached to the office or by reason of the powers vested in him, functions mainly of a managerial nature.

As demonstrated above by ILM theory the task of a PhD student is similar to that of an apprentice and thus falls fairly within the definition of workman. The role of teaching assistant undertaken by a PhD student is captured in the ambit of supervisory work as it entails conducting classes and assisting the faculty in related academic activities which requires skills. This supervisory element is only a small portion in the process whose core function still remains research work therefore the exemption to supervisory work does not apply in this context as a PhD student is not employed solely in a supervisory capacity.

The court though has struck down such works from the definition that involve imaginative and creative elements. In the matter of Divyansh Pandit v. National Council for Cement Materials[30], Delhi HC decided that a person undertaking research work in capacity of scientist is not a workman as the nature of work is opposed to being manual, unskilled, skilled, technical or clerical job as provided in Sc-2s of ID Act. Research work being imaginative and creative cannot be categorized as skilled, manual or technical work.

But there have also been matters where the court have deviated and included ancillary creative works under the definition. A sales executive may employ creative techniques that have been acquired through a training to sell his products to customers, but the same would not be excluded from definition of workman.[31]

Delhi HC court case cannot said to be applicable in our scenario as the job merely involved research work while the profile of work structured for a PhD student is varied. So relying on the above cases, it can be argued that since pursuing a PhD involves not only researching endeavors but also requires assisting the faculty in designing curriculum, taking classes, conducting activities crucial to advancing in research; thus the pursuance of PhD involves not just a creative element but also deploying skills in order to teach, grade assignments and structure curriculum. Therefore PhD students should also be classified as workman under ID Act. Though completion of research forms the final point in acquiring the degree yet the other activities involved in the process are equally essential for one to emerge as an eminent scholar. Therefore one cannot possibly weigh one activity over the other.  It is also argued that the core or incidental function of “research” should not be a deciding factor as long as it is coupled with works as mentioned in definition of  “workman” Hence accommodation should be made by the legislature by amending the definition of workman to include that if the nature of work as mentioned in the definition is undertaken by a man but coupled with intellectual or creative effort, then the same be considered to categorize her/him as a workman even if creative activity forms the core function of the job.

Thus clearing the way for attempts to unionize.


One may see an entrenchment in underpay and overwork unless graduate students are permitted to organize and effectively negotiate with university’s administration. Denial of right to unionize and bargain leaves PhD students highly vulnerable to abuses. Political economy of higher education and casualization of academic labor needs serious restructuring. Rather than viewing union as anti-thesis to academic environment, it should be considered as assertion of dignity of the people whose efforts help sustain higher education. The government should also be mindful of the fact that low enrolment or high dropout of PhDs would hamper the R&D potential of the state.[32] Thus the efforts to unionize should not be discouraged at least in the name of national interest, if not for a community’s.

[1] Indian Express, When doctorate becomes a degree of harassment, 29th April 2018, https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/chennai/2018/apr/29/when-doctorate-becomes-a-degree-of-harassment-1807779.html

[2] Coleen Flaherty, Realities of Trump-Era NLRB, Inside HigherEd, 15 February 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/02/15/blow-graduate-student-union-movement-private-campuses-three-would-be-unions-withdraw

[3] Nick Roll, Will Grad Student Unionization Lose Steam Under Trump? Inside HigherEd, 9 Nov 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/09/graduate-student-union-organizers-seek-momentum-despite-political-shift

[4] Coleen Flaherty, NLRB: Graduate Students at Private Universities May Unionize, Inside HigherEd, 24 Aug 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/24/nlrb-says-graduate-students-private-universities-may-unionize

[5] Sean Roger, Adreinne Eaton, Paula Voos, Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay; Cornell University, April 2013, https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=articles

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Tyler Cowen, Keep Unions Out of Grad School, Bloomberg Opinion, 12 June 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-06-12/university-of-chicago-walkout-keep-unions-out-of-grad-schools

[9] Supra Note-9

[10] Omrin Shahar, The False hope of Grad student unions, Forbes, 28 Mat 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/omribenshahar/2017/05/28/the-false-hope-of-graduate-student-unions/#4626d32e4038

[11] NLRB is tasked with monitoring student unions in private universities

[12] Supra Note-4

[13] Marissa Knoll, Graduate Students Do Real Work. Let Us Unionize, UNDARK, 12 May 2019, https://undark.org/2019/12/05/graduate-student-union/

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Jacobin, The University is a battleground, 5 May 2019, https://jacobinmag.com/2019/05/graduate-worker-unions-nlrb-history?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__

[17] Marley Lindsey, How unions change universities, JacobinMag, 1 Sept 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/nlrb-graduate-workers-unions-universities-administration/

[18] Thomas Mahoney & Watson Mary, Evolving modes of workforce governance: An evaluation, 1999, Industrial Relations Research Association

[19] Ralph Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, 1959 Stanford University Press.

[20] Thomas Kochan, What is distinctive about industrial relations research? 1998, Cornell University press

[21] Andrew Gross, Campus union coalitions and the corporate university: Organizing at

the University of California, 2006

[22] Pete Doeringer& Michael Piore., Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis, 1971

[23] Supra Note-21

[24] Supra Note-22

[25] American Association of University Professors. 2007. Informal glossary of AAUP terms & abbreviations. Accessed at http://www.aaup.org/aaup/about/mission/glossary.htm

[26] Richard Freeman & James Medoff, The two faces of unionism, Public Interest, 1979

[27] “industry” means any business, trade, undertaking, manufacture or calling of employers and includes any calling, service, employment, handicraft, or industrial occupation or avocation of workmen;

[28] 1978 AIR 548

[29] The matter pertained subordinate staff of DU. Court held that they would not fall under “workman” as the principle character of institution is “teaching” and their activities though similar to that of a workman are incidental to the main activity of teaching.

[30] WP(C) 8451/2009

[31] Chandrasekhar Sharma v. Krishnaiah Chetty Jewellers Pvt. Ltd., 2012(4)KarLJ279

[32] Pushkar, Fraction of Phd students has been mostly constant or low in last decade, The wire, 20 Sept 2018, https://thewire.in/education/india-phd-students-aishe-2018-report-higher-education


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