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Specious arguments from people who should know better

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Henry at CT with an appropos post on the evolving disaster at NYU. The comments thread is illustrative of the quality of argument in defense of the administration (from people–namely David Velleman–from whom I’ve come to expect a much higher quality of argument from). I wanted to highlight a couple of them, in part because the poverty of the collective defense of the administration ought to be highlighted, and in part because they afford me an opportunity to reflect on why we ought to be pro-labor.

First, one of the laziest, most annoying anti-grad student union tropes is trotted out:

The Houston janitors: now, there are people who are treated as “cheap labor”. They need a union, and—thank goodness—it looks like they’re going to get one. In my view, it is an insult to the Houston janitors, and others like them, for graduate students such as Jacob to fashion themselves as exploited laborers.

I can’t imagine Velleman would actually put together a defense of the logic behind this. I’ll cheerfully concede that the Houston janitors (mentioned in a previous comment) are more exploited, and have a higher need for a union than NYU TAs. So what? It’s not like there is some zero-sum game at work here. If unions were to only unionize the worst off non-union workers around, the labor movement would be thoroughly stunted.

But this comment also reveals a way of thinking about unions, and their role in the workplace, that can’t be squared, I don’t think, with a pro-labor position. For Velleman, it seems, unions are a last resort self-defense mechanism against the worst kind of workplace exploitation. To my thinking, unions are, or at their best can be, a positive good regardless of the wage level or degree of exploitation of the workers.

I’d also suggest that even if Velleman is right that NYU TAs get a pretty good deal (by the standards of adjuncts or TAs at other universities), there’s another reason to support the union. It’s not day to day exploitation through low wages or bad working conditions, it’s the ability to have a defense mechanism against such things happening. TAs are on the short end of a highly asymetrical power relationship. That’s not going to change, but unions are a way of making the power that graduate students exist under less arbitrary. (As I write this, it occurs to me my point here dovetails nicely with the conception of freedom as non-domination and the absense of potential arbitrary power articulated in the recent work of Philip Pettit–that’s probably another post).

A smart professor at UW, in the service of expressing his frustration with the administration for not recognizing and dealing with the TA union, made his point this way: “I take undergraduate teaching very seriously, and I work very hard at it, and consequently I work my TAs pretty hard too. But it’s also my responsibility to not exploit them, and given the power dynamic involved, I can’t rely on them to tell me directly if they’re being overworked. With a union, and agreed upon rules that we shaped together rather than a contract we create and make them sign and a formal procedure for them to use, this relationship could really be improved.” What this professor recognized–from the strong side of the asymmetric power relationship–is that that such relationships can be enhanced by mutually constructed formal rules and boundaries.

But, of course, Velleman et al don’t grant that academia bears a resemblance to any other workplace (apparently, strangely enough, public universities). What relevant facts about academic life at NYU make it sui generis are not stated (either we get the ancient order or academia or we don’t, apparently). Why Velleman clings to this is made pretty clear a bit further down, when he actually gets around to discussing the administration’s response, which he had been avoiding specific queries about for some time:

I think that the University was right to take away strikers’ eligibility to teach next semester. Undergraduates have already enrolled for next semester’s courses. I assume that they have already been asked, or will soon be asked, to pay at least a first installment on tuition for those courses. The University owes them an assurance that it is not planning to staff those courses—and has made arrangements not to staff them—with instructors who are currently refusing to perform their duties. That’s why cancelling the strikers’ teaching eligiblity for next semester is an appropriate response.

This looks, unsurprisingly, like the way management would might typically defend this sort of union-busting, were the NLRB reactionary enough to actually let them do it (hey, three more years!). Of course, they’d talk about shareholders or consumers rather than students. Remember, the strike is taking place in the wake of a refusal to bargain and an attempt to decertify the union–an attempt to circumvent a mutually agreed upon mechanism to resolve desputes and replacing it with arbitrary power exercises. The logical consequence of this attempt to exercise arbitrary power is the lack of ability to run smoothly. The uncertainty for undergraduates is, of course, the logical consequence of the administration’s actions, but it’ll be the now-unemployed TAs who suffer for it. This, Professor Velleman, is why they need a union–they are subject to arbitrary power without recourse for contestation.

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