By: Molly McGown

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by guest blogger Molly McGown of UIC’s Anthropology program. Molly’s post is the first in a “What It’s Like” series we will be running in which members describe their experiences. Molly identifies some of the ways that graduate programs fail to adequately accommodate parents in our roles as students. Her thoughts dovetail nicely with this recent post from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Singing the Grad School Baby Blues.” Look for our upcoming post in which we’ll explore some of the guarantees that our contract secures for parents who are grad employees, and we’ll think about ways that those guarantees could be improved.

You may call it oversensitivity or mother’s guilt. You may call it whatever you want, but grad school is set up in such a way that it is discriminatory. Despite the fact that your liberal department has expressed that they “accommodate” students-as-parents, what they really mean is that as long as your family doesn’t come before your schoolwork, they will smile at your child and tolerate him/her spending a few days a semester in your office.

As I began grad school, I looked at my schedule. I had two long days of core courses, but it looked like the rest of the week was free. That “free” time soon filled up with teaching responsibilities, so that I was at school from 9 to 5 about 5 days a week. My one-year old was breastfed. At least, that was true when I was home, but it became less and less possible as the responsibilities piled on. I couldn’t pump. I had spaces offered up for pumping, but on class days, my classmates and I were in the same classroom from 10 to 4. We were supposed to have 10 minutes between classes, but they always went over. I brought a pump every day, but it hardly went to use. When would it have been appropriate for me to leave and pump? If I left class at the specified time, I would have had 10 minutes to get set up, relax, and pump. Relax. “Hey, guys, I’ve got to slip out for a bit.” I’m not a particularly modest gal, but neither did I want to draw attention to the fact that I was going to attach a ridiculous plastic contraption to my milky parts. With that start, I would shut myself in an unfamiliar room and skip lunch in order to relax, all the while thinking about what I might be missing or how I would be judged for my “progress” in the course. Re-freaking-lax.

As you all know, schoolwork follows you home. Since becoming a grad student, I probably have spent 30-something hours at school, away from my son, and another 80-something at home with him. Many of those 80-something are spent supervising but mostly ignoring him while I read, write, and clean. I am barely able to keep up on my coursework. If I take a day off for the museum or a park day, I have to skimp on meals or sleep to make up that time. I have to pay for babysitters any time there is a conference or defense that I’m expected to be at, and this money comes from my measly stipend. Of course it was my choice to have a baby before grad school, but I wonder if the expectations of grad students are simply too high to begin with.

By: Gina Gemmel

This is part four of a series explaining what a union is. For the first post,click here. For the second post, click here. For the third post, click here

Lately, it seems that people are talking about “choice” a lot. Choice, some claim, is the basis of capitalism, and it’s what protects people in a capitalist system. Consumers can choose to buy a different product if they feel the one they’re currently buying it overpriced or lacks quality. Consumers can choose another service provider if they feel they are not receiving the best customer service. And employees can choose another job if they think their employer is not treating them fairly or paying them fairly. Choice is definitely a good thing, but the idea that people can simply choose another product, service provider, or job fails to recognize that it’s simply not that easy in most cases. What do we do when none of our options are good?

When it comes to employment, a lack of good options is a reality for many, many workers. Sometimes industries contract, leaving a group of workers with an unmarketable set of skills. Sometimes people are stuck in an area where there aren’t a lot of jobs, and they don’t have the money or resources to pick up and move to a new area. Sometimes the unemployment rate is high, making it difficult to find jobs in general. In these situations, workers who are able to find jobs often find themselves being exploited because they are in high supply, but there is little demand for workers. Employers may feel free to offer low wages and poor working conditions because they know that workers will accept them out of necessity, having nowhere else to go for a better working situation.

So how do workers protect themselves from such situations? You guessed it: unions. Unions are the only way that employees have to directly influence their employers in order to ensure their fair pay and fair treatment. Unions can achieve this direct influence because they sit down at the bargaining table with the employer and set the terms of employment in the form of a contract. That contract is legally binding, so employers have to follow it. Unions are effective because they present workers with a way to collectively demand better treatment from employers. The options for securing a better workplace are these: Either trust in your employer to provide a good workplace out of the kindness of his or her heart, or guarantee that your employer will provide good working conditions because they know that all of their employees will take action to demand them if they don’t.

Next week, look for my post on why these issues are particularly relevant for graduate employees.