Home / General / Jacob Lew: Union-Buster

Jacob Lew: Union-Buster


Josh Eidelson on Jacob Lew, Obama’s new Chief of Staff. When Lew was Chief Operating Officer at NYU, he took the lead in crushing the university’s graduate student union, which had organized under the leadership of the United Auto Workers.

Makes you wonder if Mark Penn isn’t advising the president after all.

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  • Murc

    In before anyone else invokes “the Cossacks work for the Czar.”

    • Holden Pattern

      Only if you don’t like the Czar.

  • I dunno. Behavior when representing one organization doesn’t necessarily translate into behavior when representing another. Optics bad either way, though.

  • Anderson

    Those without sin, please send your resumes to the White House, Office of Immaculate Appointments, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington DC, 20500.

    • Yes, the least egregious sin is clearly unionbusting….

  • Marc

    Graduate student unions are controversial within academe. This is probably related to the differences in how disciplines treat their graduate students. When I was at Yale there were bitter, bitter disputes – and the union was deeply unpopular in the sciences and popular in the humanities. (In fact, they explicitly switched to a humanities-only model.) In fairness, the things that they were asking for were all things that were already the norm in the sciences.

    Shorter: there are reasons other than being a reactionary to oppose student unions.

    • (the other) Davis

      When I was at Yale there were bitter, bitter disputes – and the union was deeply unpopular in the sciences and popular in the humanities.

      I wonder if this was a messaging problem on the organizers’ part. When I helped organize the UAW local at UW, the sciences grad students (I was math myself) were pretty quick to get on board once it was explained to them how badly the English and History departments were treating their fodder. (The only notable pushback was from the reactionary chair of the Chemistry department, who spread some FUD claiming that their grad students would lose their increased stipends under unionization.) Ultimately the union formed with overwhelming support across departments.

      On the other hand, I suppose it’s not unlikely that the grad students who end up in Seattle represent an entirely different cultural and political perspective from the ones who end up in New Haven.

      • Linnaeus

        And even in the higher-paying departments, ASEs (academic student employees) were and are interested in issues like their health insurance, workload, grievances, etc.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I should post about this, but there are in fact no non-reactionary reasons to oppose grad student unionization. I’m amused by professors who think that their alleged need to retain complete control over “academic affairs” doesn’t find precise equivalents from other kinds of bosses.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks


        Management tends to be opposed to the interests of workers, and thus to unionization…even when that management consists largely of academics.

      • Marc

        Or it may be that working conditions are a lot better in the sciences, as are the employment prospects of graduates. A situation where TAs work 10-15 hours a week, get stipends, and pay no tuition is the norm in my profession. It isn’t in, say, history.

        But I can see this is going to be an opportunity for a lot of posturing, so I’ll bow out now.

        • It isn’t? AFAIK, that’s normal across the board.

          But even things like health insurance, hours (and hours being respected), progression, scholarly credit, harassment, etc….why would any group want these to depend on the grace of management? Or, more to the point, what’s wrong with them not wanting that?

          • Linnaeus

            It isn’t? AFAIK, that’s normal across the board.

            It probably depends on the institution, course enrollment, etc., but I can say that wasn’t normal in my experience as a history graduate student & TA. It was typical to be in lecture 4 times a week (about an hour each time), plus 2-3 hrs. a week in discussion section, plus 2 hrs. a week in office hours and 1 hr. a week meeting with the professor/instructor. So that’s 9-10 hrs right there, and that doesn’t include prep time for discussion section, grading student papers & exams, updating the course web site (if there is one), tracking down A/V equipment & content (sometimes), etc. Some weeks were definitely busier than others, but I’d say that I usually came pretty close to the standard 20 hrs. week and when I TA’d courses with larger enrollments, it was more.

            And of course, the workload was more if we taught our own courses. Despite doing more work, we were paid at TA pay rates…until we unionized.

            • Oh, that I agree with. I think at UNC-CH philosophy we had a nominal 20hr work week max, but that wasn’t true for anyone much less for full responsibility teachers (which was just about everyone after the second year).

              But then I don’t believe an actual 10-15 hours for science TAs (nominal perhaps). At UMCP computer science, that wasn’t the case afaict. Working on projects (which is how many 3+ years were funded) is esp. tricky as your student work and project work run all together.

        • BKP

          Unions are about negotiating position, not about what they have currently or asking for.

        • Rob

          Or they know hiring committees are full of reactionary assholes and so realize they can’t get a job if they unionize too openly.

    • Graduate student unions are controversial within academe.

      Er…for not bad reasons? In the UK, afaict, there’s no controversy about student or faculty unions, esp. that’s “academic” per se. I’m hard pressed to even imagine what it would be. Graduate students aren’t really workers so we should be able to exploit them as we see fit?

      Can you give some of the content of the academic reasons for resisting unionization of graduate students? Do they extend to RAs?

      As I recall, NYU’s philosophy dept (esp. Velleman) behaved disgracefully.

      • Marc

        Are unions the best solution in all circumstances? There are certain structural issues associated with *student* unions. There are compelling reasons for universities to treat their students well, but it’s not obvious that collective bargaining is the answer. Graduate students become professors, and there are educational as well as employment factors.

        • I don’t know if they are or not but generally I’d think so. Counterexamples? Can you explain the structural issues with *student unions*, esp. students who are also employees of the university? (Esp. when often their IP is treated as work for hire.)

          From the article:

          Instead, in a June memo to the NYU community, Lew and Provost David McLaughlin announced a “proposed decision,” pending a 30-day comment period, that “we should no longer use a union as an intermediary with our students.” On August 2, NYU indicated to GSOC that it was interested instead in a “new paradigm,” under which GSOC could negotiate over a narrowed range of issues, no one could be required to pay union representation costs, and the university (rather than an arbitrator) would have final say on the resolution of any grievances. GSOC responded on August 4 by reiterating its request for sit-down negotiations.

          Uh, that sounds very not educational and very managementy.

          Professors as an institution don’t seem to have a problem:

          “It is both disingenuous and risible,” American Association of University Professors President Jane Buck later retorted, “to assert that the mentoring relationship is harmed by good faith negotiations about salaries, benefits, and access to fair grievance procedures.” GSOC, while defending the merits of the grievances, had offered three months earlier to drop all of them, and to include language broadening management’s discretion in a new contract. (NYU did not respond to a request for comment.)

          There are compelling reasons for universities to treat their students well, but it’s not obvious that collective bargaining is the answer.

          Did you leave out a not? In spite of compelling reason, universities and particular departments and professors treat graduate students like shit.

          And exactly because students go on to be professors/adjuncts/lecturers/RAs is it useful for them to organize. Start as you mean to go on.

          • djw

            During the unionization drive at UW I heard that worry–that union rules, bureaucracy, and so on would dangerously impinge on the educational component of the faculty–grad student relationship. I’ll concede that some of those worriers were legitimately non-reactionary in their concern–they’re just the generic small-c conservative afraid of any change types that are quite common amongst faculty. But they were also incorrect to be worried about this, as became evident to them once a contract was in place and nothing they were afraid would happen actually did.

            So to modify, there’s no non-reactionary reason to oppose grad student unions that also has an empirical basis in the actually existing universities where graduate student workers are unionized. (And, of course, those empirically baseless fears become useful to reactionary forces.)

            • But what was the specific content of their worry, for my curiosity? I’m just having trouble imagining it. Generally, studentships are either research (RA) or teaching (TA). In both cases there is a huge mentoring and training role…like with most jobs, esp. professional ones. In both cases there is professional development activity. In both cases, having rational job conditions seems…fine. If I tell my student that their paid research hours can be spent on their thesis work because, well, we arranged it so part of their thesis work meets a grant need, they WILL do more than their paid hours…but I’m hard pressed to see who would object. On the other hand, it’s mal-advisoring to steal time from their thesis work to work on unrelated grant stuff, so not worth protecting.

              • (the other) Davis

                But what was the specific content of their worry, for my curiosity?

                As I recall (this was a lot of years ago now), there was a high level of hand-waving-ness to these concerns. They weren’t so much “A leads to B leads to C,” but rather more like “unspecified union rules are going to come in and interfere with unspecified aspects of the faculty-student relationship.” It was really just a post hoc rationalization for their “change is scary” feelings.

                • (the other) Davis

                  Oh, and I should add that faculty were by and large supportive of unionization efforts at UW (assuming djw and I are talking about the same UW) — only a small number of them seemed to buy into this line.

                • Linnaeus

                  I was (and am) at that same UW that you and djw are talking about, and I remember that although the faculty were broadly supportive, a few who weren’t voiced, among other things, vague concerns about the effect a union would have on “collegiality”.

        • jefft452

          “Are unions the best solution in all circumstances?”


    • djw

      There may be, but your post doesn’t actually give any sort of clue what they are.

      That a particular model of unionization may be unpopular with a segment of relatively privileged workers is par for the course outside of academia as well.

      • witless chum

        Even if we grant that there might be reasons pro and con why grad students should or shouldn’t have a union (I don’t, but we’ll grant it) what would be the problem with saying “You bust unions for any reason, a Democratic president won’t hire you to be his chief of staff”?

        Lew can’t be the only centrist political operative who knows how to run a White House. There’s got to be one or two who could do it while not also salting the wounds of a key Democratic consistency.

        • djw

          I’d be on board with that.

        • Holden Pattern

          Salting the wounds of the key Dem constituency is a feature not a bug for much of the Dem leadership. It’s valuable to have people you depend on in a permanent cringe, so that they don’t actually challenge you.

          Also, the best thing that ever happened to the pro-corporate Dem establishment was for the Republican party to go batshit insane. It’s really profitable to be able to constantly move rightward while pointing to the lunatics you’re just a couple steps behind.

    • Linnaeus

      Even if we take into account the (understandable) variety of opinions about the role of collective bargaining in the academic workplace, what’s troubling to me (full disclosure: I helped organize two ASE unions and worked as office staff for one of them) is that in this case, a union had already been established. The NYU administration took advantage of a rule change to escape dealing with the union that ASEs had chosen, even though it had successfully dealt with it beforehand, i.e. via a prior collective bargaining agreement, and NYU didn’t implode as a result of that.

      • Dave

        Whether or not NYU imploded is debatable, but grad students wound up much worse off than they had been.

        • Linnaeus

          Re-reading my comment, I realize that I may have ended up sounding like I meant the opposite of what I actually meant.

          What I was trying to say was that I think the administration’s move of taking advantage of a rule change was really shitty. They didn’t have to. They had an ASE union, a collective bargaining agreement, etc. in place and the university still functioned just fine (and it was better for ASEs).

  • Dave

    Yeah, not for nothing, but Lew was leading at least half the NYU faculty in busting the grad student union.

    • More the shame for them. It was really terrible.

  • Angry Obot

    The white privilege oozing from this post is sickening.

    • wengler

      Words strung together with no support.

      Though I do like the word ‘oozing’.

      • R Johnston

        The name associated with the comment you’re responding to tends to indicate that the comment is a joke of some sorts, albeit not a terribly successful one.

      • Angry Obot

        Why not just hand the election to Romney now?

  • Some Guy

    Where’s Joe? I need to be told how John Boehner forced Obama to hire this guy, or maybe that President Romney would hire a double-super-extra union buster. Also I’m white and have a privileged penis.

    • OFA

      He is on the evening shift.

    • Angry Obot

      He’s busy producing a new two minute hate video of Emmanuel Greenwald.

    • I do love how large I loom in your mind, that this is the only thought you have on the subject of the CoS hiring. It’s flattering.

      You know, I have never once felt the slightest urge to write “Where’s Some Guy?” on a thread. If you don’t write any more comments, I won’t remember that you ever existed by this weekend.

      But you write comments about me, out of nowhere. It’s more funny than sad, but it’s sad, too.

      • Some Guy

        I was talking about some other Joe.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I think it’s worth noting that Ron Paul is bitterly opposed to unions!

    • wengler

      No union necessary when the hammer you make has more rights than the person that makes it.

      I mean you die, but the hammer won’t.

    • bobbyp

      True. But he has vowed to bring them all home.

  • wengler

    This is troublesome, but his bankster experience is even more destructive.

    Rahm Emmanuel, Bill Daley, and now Jacob Lew. Three corporate-friendly Democrats. There’s not much else to say.

    • None of them seem to have played much of a policy role at all. Rahm, for instance, famously told Obama to drop health care reform.

      If this was an NLRB pick or the Secretary of Labor, that would be quite different, but those picks – selections for positions that will actually effect labor issues – have been excellent.

      • wengler

        Perhaps not. But these are the few people that Obama sees every day. They are also in prime position to control who has access to him.

        • Right. I’m not thrilled with this pick. I’d like to see some effort to find people who are more appealing to…well…Democrats.

          In terms of his performance, I think that the concern you raise goes more to Lew’s capacity to be an honest broker, a fair guy, more than his ideological and policy orientation – certainly moreso than if he’d been appointed to the federal bench, or a cabinet position, or to the personnel office.

          IOW, I’d rather have Jacob Lew as CoS and Hilda Solis at Labor than vice-versa.

  • BKP

    Obama CoS:


    Clinton CoS:


    Who’s worse?

    • Ed

      Hard to say. Obama must have been pretty impressed with Bowles, since he chose him for the Catfood Commission.

      I understand from quotes from Lew in the papers that he’s on board with “preserving” Social Security and Medicare via “modifications,” so it looks as if everyone’s on board.

    • Who’s worse?

      I think you have to take into account the different roles that CoSs played in the two White Houses.

      Obama’s really do seem to just run the White House staff, while Clinton’s were in his inner circle on policy and politics.

      • Mayor Emanuel

        I did more than run the fucking staff.

        At times, it seems as if Mr. Emanuel is White House chief of staff, political director, legislative director and communications director all rolled into one. He has fingers in almost every decision, like who gets invited to social events at the White House and how to shape economic and foreign policy.

        Mr. Emanuel is more involved in domestic and foreign policy than outsiders realize, colleagues said.

  • bobbyp

    You whiners keep forgetting this is the best of all possible worlds.

  • Quicksand

    Makes you wonder if Mark Penn isn’t advising the president after all.

    On a tangentially related note, I saw in a news article this morning that Carnival Cruises — which owns the Italian cruise line that had the recent accident — just hired Burson-Marsteller for PR.

    That should go well!

  • shah8

    Unions are bad when they are there to disenfranchise or make restitution inconvenient and away from senior management. A company union, in other words.

    I fail to see how creating a union, ipso facto, is a bad thing. The only people who’d *really care* are the people who’ve been cheating folks.

    • Have you ever worked in a union shop?

      I work in a mixed union/non-union workplace (my group is non-union) and for me the unions are nothing but an impediment to getting work done.

      Water leak off hours? I can’t just pull out a Shop-Vac. I have to call in a custodian from home so he can do the work and get OT, otherwise I’ll get a grievance. Print up a notice on my computer and post it on a lab door? I get a grievance from the sign shop. Get some put-it-together piece of furniture and put it together myself? That’s a grievance.

      As much as I might support the idea of unions as a way to act as a check on the power of management and improve the life of the working man, as someone in operations who just wants to get shit done, they are a pain in my ass.

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