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This Day in Labor History: February 17, 1992

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On February 17, 1992, graduate students at Yale University went on strike. This strike, one of the most prominent in the history of organizing graduate students, is a useful window into one of the most important sectors of labor organizing over the last three decades and indicative of the tremendous difficulty in organizing private workplaces in any sector in those same three decades.

Graduate student unionization has long been controversial on college campuses. Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices? The answer should be obvious that all graduate students getting paid for work are workers, but you would be surprised how many liberal faculty members simply cannot accept this idea. Graduate students are not only workers, but particularly vulnerable workers, in spite of their high levels of education. Especially in the sciences, where a lot of funding depends on the relationship with a single professor, students are quite vulnerable. That is especially true of women and the sexual harassment of female students has long influenced support for unionization among graduate student in the sciences.

The first move toward graduate student unionization took place in tumult of the 1960s, as a lot of politically active undergraduates went on to graduate school. Rutgers and CUNY were the first graduate school units to be covered by a collective bargaining contract, as they were covered by faculty contracts. The University of Wisconsin was the first graduate student union to negotiate their own independent contract in 1970. The University of Michigan and University of Oregon soon followed.

At Yale, the struggle would be and still is a much longer struggle. T.A. Solidarity was the original organizing group, founded in 1987. That turned into the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) in 1990. Students began organizing to demand union recognition. Yale administrators rejected this from the beginning, refusing to recognize the union as a bargaining unit for the graduate students. Among the union leaders was Gordon Lafer, today one of the nation’s most respected labor economists and activists.

By the time it went on strike in February 1992, the GESO represented 1300 of Yale’s 2200 graduate students. Its demands were union recognition, a pay raise, a grievance procedure, and the expansion of time granted to complete the Ph.D. The strike was announced for three days . It received significant support from other unions, frustrating Yale administrators who hoped to isolate the strikers. 49 percent of union members at Yale refused to work in solidarity with the striking graduate employees, with much greater support among the maintenance and cafeteria workers (75 percent did not show up for work) than the technical and clerical workers (about 30 percent did not show up). Many faculty were of course opposed.

“They really are among the blessed of the earth,” Prof. Peter Brooks, chairman of the department of comparative literature, said. “So I sometimes feel annoyed at them seeing themselves as exploited.”

Never has an employer seen their workers as exploited and thus worthy of being granted power.

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Despite these labor actions, Yale still refused to negotiate with the students. The 1992 strike ended without recognition although the administration did raise the pay of the TAs and provide teacher training, showing how strikes can create real victories for workers even when the union remain unrecognized as a bargaining unit. Strikes continued from time to time, including a 1996 strike that only ended when the administration threatened to fire all the strikers because they did not submit student grades as a bargaining tool, despite an overwhelming vote in favor of unionization among the students. In 2003, another strike took place but in that year, the GESO suffered a big setback as student/workers voted against unionization by a narrow margin, giving the administration much more ammunition in its continued determination to never recognize a graduate student union. But a 2005 strike again resulted in the administration providing a lot what the students wanted, including a pay raise for graduate student teachers and new initiatives on faculty diversity and child care.

Over the years, graduate student unionization has increased significantly at public universities in non-right-to-leech states, including at the University of Rhode Island. But graduate student unionization campaigns at private universities remains almost impossible to win. The only private school with a graduate school union recognized and with a contract is at NYU. 1951 and 1972 court cases ended with National Labor Relations Board rulings prohibiting the National Labor Relations Act from covering private school graduate students because they are primarily students and although that has been loosened with the 2000 NLRB case granting NYU graduate students the ability to organize, difficult barriers remain. In fact, NYU graduate students have struggled mightily with both their administration and the Bush-era NLRB to maintain recognition. In the end, university administrations are some of the best union-busters in the nation. Given the number of self-identified liberals with backgrounds in fields where they study race, class, and gender who are in administrations, it’s sickening to see them turn on treating graduate workers with respect and use the tools of oppression they decry in their own scholarship against exploitable workers, but they do it all the time.

At present, the Yale graduate students are continuing the fight to organize. Now affiliated with UNITE-HERE, major issues include mental health care, fairness in funding, and greater diversity at Yale.

When we think about the labor movement over the last few decades, we often tend to forget about the importance of the academy. Graduate students and, to a lesser extent, faculty, have proven some of the bright spots in American labor and with the collapse of the industrial unions due to capital mobility and the decline of the building trades, public sector workers of all types have risen in importance in the world of organized labor. In the case of schools like Yale, that are not public, major barriers remain to unionization but these campaigns have also developed many important labor scholars and activists, providing key intellectual support for organized labor at large. That in itself is a tremendous benefit of this organizing, even if Yale graduate students remain without recognition today.

This is the 171st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Marc

    A major issue with graduate student unions is that their practical day to day conditions are largely set by individual departments, and everything from pay to time to degree varies wildly.

    Students in the sciences, especially the physical sciences, pay no tuition and are guaranteed salaries (in my field, typically a couple thousand dollars a month). Teaching loads can be light, typically 10-15 hours a week, and in many cases they’re supported by grant funding, in which case they have no teaching duties at all. Students in the humanities have radically different experiences.

    Having been at Yale during the 1992 GESO era, this was the fatal flaw in their approach – the science students had better conditions than what the union was asking for, and they were understandably reluctant to strike for pure altruism.

    In addition, graduate student union rules can even harm students in some departments. In one case I remember, there was a union rule against undergraduates assisting with teaching duties (IAs) because it cost graduate students jobs. But for science students this could mean that they had to teach, instead of doing research, because there weren’t enough TAs otherwise.

    Obviously there is common ground in terms of things like health benefits, but the reality that modern universities are archipelagos of completely different programs does have some real tension with the traditional union model.

    • A major issue with graduate student unions is that their practical day to day conditions are largely set by individual departments, and everything from pay to time to degree varies wildly.

      Why is this an issue with such unions per se? Plenty of unions represent people with wildly different pay and conditions.

      In addition, graduate student union rules can even harm students in some departments.

      Again, that union rules might not benefit all equally is not something special to grad student unions.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Again, that union rules might not benefit all equally is not something special to grad student unions.

        “Harm…some” is an extreme special case of “not benefit all equally”, and should be strongly avoided.

        • Yes? And?

          How is this a special issue with graduate student unions that some unions somewhere negotiated a rule that “harmed” some students (I put “harmed” in scare quotes because this a pretty questionable sense of harm, esp. as science is often subsidised by humanities).

          • wjts

            “Science is often subsidized by humanities”? Huh? At the R1 institutions I’m most familiar with, big chunks of science department budgets come from various external funding agencies (NHS, NSF, etc.) via professors with portions of the grant going to the university (external funding, so far as I’m aware, is less of a thing in the humanities and slightly less of a thing in the social sciences). Or do you mean subsidization in the sense that more tuition-paying undergraduates are humanities majors than science majors?

            • Humanities courses tend to be large at the survey level and the overhead cost for teaching them is basically zero so throughout the university. Thus they bring in a lot of easy money for schools. This is how the humanities subsidize the sciences, which of course require enormous start-up costs, library costs for journals, etc.

              • wjts

                Humanities courses tend to be large at the survey level and the overhead cost for teaching them is basically zero…

                This is also true for low-level bio classes, in my experience, though I’m not sure how much lab materials (cat cadavers, various chemicals) add to the overhead.

                ETA: And from what I remember of the few undergrad physics classes I took, the lab overhead seemed pretty low.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  It is also true for calculus (and a few other courses) taught by mathematics departments for non-mathematics majors.

                • I claim no special knowledge here because I don’t know much about this side of the university. The start-up costs for all humanities at all levels is still essentially zero. But we constantly hear about how much money the humanities make for the university, even as we are being isolated and having resources taken from us by administrators.

                • wjts

                  The start-up costs for all humanities at all levels is still essentially zero.

                  The only exceptions I can think of would be studio and performing arts.

                • Here’s one source:

                  http://www.deltacostproject.org/sites/default/files/products/Cost%20to%20Institutions%20of%20STEM%20Degrees.pdf

                  It’s different than the one I was recalling, and the disciplinary effects are mixed. Engineering is very expensive.

                  And…uni accounting is always tricky.

            • My understanding is that the overall income generated by STEM subjects often is less than from humanities.

              http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/bottom-line-shows-humanities-really-155771

              Hmm. There was an article I read that laid it out really nicely but I don’t see it at the moment.

              Research grants often don’t generate net income because the income is consumed by the research. For example, our department is definitely primarily funded by tuition in spite of our relatively large research income.

              STEM students generally cost more to educate, because it’s mostly labor and that labor is a bit cheaper. I.e., teaching infrastructure is more expensive for STEM.

              ETA: When I get a chance I’ll look for the more detailed paper. But I’m swamped right now so…

          • Lee Rudolph

            It’s a special issue (as noted by someone elsewhere in the thread) because this was a union organizing campaign (and the “harm” would discourage signing up the “harmed”, thereby weakening the campaign).

          • Marc

            If a union rule reduces your income, extends the time to degree by requiring that people teach instead of doing pure research, or requires that the program admit more students to do teaching (thereby diluting advising resources) – then it is actively harming students, and it doesn’t matter whether department A contributes more money than department B.

            In the particular organizing campaign that Eric is referring to, I remember that the students in my department were given a set of demands for things that they either already had or that were worse than what they had, and they decided that they weren’t interested. Which isn’t surprising. (I was a postdoc at the time, thus not directly involved one way or another.)

            • If a union rule reduces your income, extends the time to degree by requiring that people teach instead of doing pure research, or requires that the program admit more students to do teaching (thereby diluting advising resources)

              I’ll just note that the last is not like the others.

              – then it is actively harming students, and it doesn’t matter whether department A contributes more money than department B.

              It’s a worse deal for them, for sure. And that’s a reason not to join the union. That will be hard for them to organise those students on.

              This is either a flaw in the organisation strategy (cf JL’s comment) or, if the union can be formed and get the rule in, a flaw in the science students strategy.

              If the perks for those science students are due to subsidisation from more exploited students, then it’s both unfair and a risk (should the more exploited students get changes through). I totally think the risk has been small thus far, which is why I wouldn’t try to organise on such a rule (but grandfather existing perks).

              • Marc

                There really isn’t much budget cross-talk between different graduate student programs. In fact, there really isn’t much interaction between them either; if you’re getting to the global budget of the university that’s opening up a huge can of worms. From the point of view of the university, large survey courses make money and small classes of any kind lose money; in an ideal budget model you’d have no upper-division students, no seminars, and no graduate students (paying adjuncts instead.) That’s not what a university is about, however, or at least not what it should be about.

                • There really isn’t much budget cross-talk between different graduate student programs. In fact, there really isn’t much interaction between them either;

                  I don’t understand what you mean here. As I understand it, grad students are generally funded out of 1) general dept funds and 2) individual grants (either student level or researcher level etc.). In the UK, everything has been done using FEC so infrastructure counts, not just stipend and benefits.

                  (In the UK, undergrads apply to a dept and take most of their classes there, so our budgets are more easily traceable to our granular earnings.)

                  if you’re getting to the global budget of the university that’s opening up a huge can of worms.

                  But, in the US, a good chunk of the budget for a dept comes from the university which allocates from tuition etc. right? So…how else would we analyse it?

                  From the point of view of the university, large survey courses make money and small classes of any kind lose money; in an ideal budget model you’d have no upper-division students, no seminars, and no graduate students (paying adjuncts instead.) That’s not what a university is about, however, or at least not what it should be about.

                  This seems like a strange red herring. Of course that’s not what a uni is about or how we should argue. I don’t see we’re forced there when we consider dept effects on the budget.

                  Indeed, this is done constantly (if not always well). Your majors, service classes, research income, costs, alumni donations, etc. all figure into how your dean will treat you including hiring. Part of the reason for these analysis of the dept level incomes is to combat the perception that STEM earns while humanities are a frill.

            • Linnaeus

              If a union rule reduces your income, extends the time to degree by requiring that people teach instead of doing pure research

              Our union’s CBAs don’t have this rule; it’s entirely possible to earn an advanced degree, including a Ph.D., and never teach a single class.

              As an aside, I find it unfortunate that teaching is considered as something to be avoided or as work that is lesser than research and it’s even more unfortunate if departments cultivate this attitude.

              • JL

                Well, the problem is that it does seem to extend time to degree. I’d rather all the PhD students had the chance to have one or two high-quality teaching experiences, that include teacher training, rather than an often-low-quality TA assignment (with little to no teacher training) every semester or every year. Seems like it would take less time while bolstering teaching skills.

                Not quite relatedly, I also wish that grad programs everywhere would recognize that grad students working on their dissertation work are doing important labor for the university, rather than structuring funding as “Assisting a prof with their own work in the classroom or a research setting is what you’re getting paid for, your work on your own projects isn’t.” At least in the sciences that I know well, much of the actual research work that earns the departments their reputations is being done by grad students and postdocs.

                • Linnaeus

                  Concerns about time to degree are certainly legitimate, and I don’t intend to dismiss them. My field has one of the longest average times to degree of any field in higher education, due in part to the fact that the main way most of us support ourselves is through teaching.

                  What you’re suggesting is good because, among other things, it gives credit to the importance of teaching as part of graduate student education. The impression that I’ve gotten from some other discussions on this is that teaching is more of a impediment to progress, and that disappoints me because graduate students are generally trained with the idea that they will eventually become faculty and presumably will be teaching undergraduates at some point.

                  Part of the problem is that many universities (like mine) are pursuing a growth strategy (which in of itself isn’t bad if more people are getting access to higher ed) and that requires more labor. How to deal with that is probably another discussion entirely.

                  With regard to your second point, I completely agree, and that in fact was one of the main arguments our union made in (successfully) advocating for RAs to be included in our bargaining unit.

      • Peterr

        It’s an issue because in this case, it’s all about trying to organize a union, not about a union negotiating with employers. The more disparate the conditions between sectors of the target unionized community, the harder it is to get those sectors to come together and agree to unionize.

        • Schadenboner

          This. People unionize for selfish reasons, any solidarity created is purely accidental.

          (That’s not an argument against or criticism of unionization, obviously, but it’s something that organizers should remember.)

          • twbb

            Exactly; my PhD fellowship is so generous and my work requirements that I am not looking forward to leaving. If you asked me to risk that in solidarity with other PhD students in my school to improve their conditions, I don’t know what I’d do. But I might just take the selfish route.

          • This just isn’t true as a universal rule. It is *often* true, thus one needs to take it into account (cf free riding by non union members). But people strike. it’s always better to free ride in a strike (you don’t lose pay, etc.)

            Here we had unions stand up in solidarity with IT staff even though most of us aren’t IT staff. Now, we cast a lot of it as in our general self interest (e.g., we don’t want erosion of our redundancy management agreement), but that’s somewhat diffuse.

            • Schadenboner

              I was mostly talking more specifically about the choice to join a union that’s just starting up.

              • Ah yes. There’s also some risk involved to be sure.

                Even at formation, you might be surprised. People see other people like them being treated badly can feel both solidarity and selfishness. They aren’t exclusive. Solidarity isn’t altruism.

        • I agree that it has to be taken into account when organising. But splits in conditions are endemic in organising…take the standard move of deals which grandfather benefits that are denied to new hires. Unions *know* these are bad moves because they break solidarity, but they are tricky to deal with.

          Again, I see nothing all that special about this. It’s hardly insurmountable, but I agree it is challenging, but organising *is* challenging.

      • Sorry, I read this sort of as “and that’s why grad student unions are infeasible” rather than “and so care must be taken in organising”. I read the former not because I think Marc is anti union but many of the arguments I hear against grad student unions go that way, “There’s a special relationship between supervisor and student so no union” “They are students as well as employees so no union” etc.

        These are things that need managing, but they are manageable.

        • Linnaeus

          I’m with you. This has tended to be my experience with regard to the issue of ASE unionization.

    • JL

      I can certainly think of common problems for STEM grad students (being one myself) that a union might be able to help with. Student research assistants being forced to spend excessive amounts of time working on their profs’ projects in order to get their stipend (which seems like more of a problem in the lab-heavy sciences), or otherwise being treated abusively by their advisor. Sexual harassment and exploitation of students, especially in the fieldwork sciences (it can happen to non-fieldworkers, of course, but fieldwork settings seem to strongly increase vulnerability, which has gotten some news coverage lately). Overt discrimination by profs against pregnant grad students and postdocs, or against female grad students and postdocs under the assumption that they might get pregnant. Bad or nonexistent parental leave. Bad or nonexistent subsidies for premiums if you want to put a spouse or children on your health insurance (at my university it costs something like $8k/year to add a spouse and 11k/year to add a spouse and children). Obviously, a lot of these overlap with humanities/arts/social sciences grad students, I don’t mean to imply that they’re unique to STEM.

      Edited to add: Also, these days, isn’t “pay no tuition, guaranteed a stipend for x number of years” the norm for PhD programs in humanities/arts/social sciences programs too? I think it’s true at my university, and my sister (who is not at my university), a medieval studies PhD student, gets paid more than I do as a computer science grad student, and in a less expensive part of the country too.

      • You usually teach in exchange for your stipend.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Is there no longer a distinction between “research assistant” and “teaching assistant” (among graduate students who are receiving any stipend at all)? Or is “usual” doing the work of indicating that there are (now) many fewer of the former compared to the latter?

          • There is, to my knowledge.

          • Fake Irishman

            There is. In Michigan, the state labor board has ruled that RAs are not employees, but that TAs are. The distinction stems from the University of Michigan’s grad employees looking to form a union in the early 1970s. Orginally, only Teaching Assistants were organizing, so the university administration successfully sought to include RAs in the bargaining unit in an attempt make it more difficult for the organizers to win an election. They won anyway.

            When the first contract expired in 1976, the university refused to negotiate and sued to try get a court to rule that all grad employees were merely students and hadno bargaining rights. After five years, the court system split the baby, keeping TAs in the unit while declaring that RAs had no rights.

            The result is that about 1700-1800 Graduate Student Instructors on campus have a union, while the roughly 2100 research assistants do not.

            • Madness.

              • Linnaeus

                Obligatory link.

            • Linnaeus

              The TA union at Michigan petitioned Michigan’s labor board in 2011 to reverse that decision and there was a real chance that the board would have done so. But the legislature intervened and passed a law banning collective bargaining for GSRAs, which Snyder of course signed. And so it goes.

        • JL

          I usually* teach (or TA, rather) in exchange for my stipend, as do most computer science students here. It’s far from an unknown setup in the sciences** (though I expect it’s less common in wetlab sciences, where the labs, grants, and projects all seem to be huge). It’s still a guaranteed stipend for some number of years.

          *For two years I was on an outside fellowship, and last summer I was on a departmental summer fellowship.

          **Edited to add: I’m sorry, that might have come off a bit condescending, given that you are science faculty yourself. That’s not how I’m intending it – I just know it varies a lot from program to program and anyone’s sample is probably skewed.

          • No worries!

            In the humanities (at least, in philosophy when I was in grad school at my grad school) teaching is nigh ubiquitous as the means for funding. There were a few people with various fellowships, and the odd research job for a summer (e.g., to copyedit a book).

            At UMD-CP, in the CS dept, you TAed for a few years until you picked an advisor, and the advisor would fund you out of grants (mostly).

            At Manchester, if you have school funding, then you owe a certain amount of TAing, but it’s comparatively lightweight to what I’ve seen in the US.

      • Linnaeus

        This. There are any number of issues that affect ASEs across disciplines, and a good union campaign can find a way to make those connections and address the differences between the conditions that ASEs in different departments have.

        The union at my institution did it, and now science/engineering ASEs are a very significant chunk of our membership. It’s not insurmountable.

        • JL

          It does require people on both sides of the STEM/HASS divide learning something about each other, though – about each other’s cultures and key issues. Which is presumably where the good in “good union campaign” comes in.

          The blog Good Enough Professor has written a bunch of posts (like this one and this one) about the cultural divide, using Salaita (she’s humanities faculty at UIUC) as a lens. They aren’t perfect by any means, but they’re interesting, and I like seeing how a HASS person who is actually trying to figure this stuff out and not to make a case of who’s the best, perceives STEM people. I think she’s right that some STEM people lack political imagination, in the sense that they’re more likely to say “This is wrong and unfair but it’s how the world works, deal with it” instead of considering that they could succeed at changing how the world (or at least the university, which is a more manageable scale) works.

          • Linnaeus

            It does require people on both sides of the STEM/HASS divide learning something about each other, though – about each other’s cultures and key issues. Which is presumably where the good in “good union campaign” comes in.

            Yes, and that’s definitely included in the “good” part of my earlier comment. We did at least a couple of things to facilitate this: our organizing committee was made up of people from a broad cross-section of disciplines on campus, and the organizers made it a priority to seek supporters in as many departments as possible and help them become contacts for others in their departments.

    • Murc

      But for science students this could mean that they had to teach, instead of doing research, because there weren’t enough TAs otherwise.

      How on earth is this an example of the union harming science students? This seems like a textbook case of the university harming them, because they haven’t staffed properly and refuse to staff properly.

      • Schadenboner

        So, keeping in mind I’m not an academic (and wasn’t STEM in college) I would guess that the limiting factors for the number of STEM grad students is probably the number of lab slots in which they can do research and the number of faculty advisor slots. The number of TAs needed to properly staff (UG) classes is independent of these factors.

        The alternative to having graduate students TA is probably adjuncts/lecturers which is a whole different labor/exploitation of labor issue.

      • Marc

        Graduate students ideally want to get jobs in their field, not fill teaching slots for undergraduates. If you bring in a bunch of graduate students to fill TA slots, rather than bringing in a number that you can get jobs for, you’re not doing your students a favor.

        • Murc

          Maybe… don’t… treat grad students as a cheap alternative to hiring actual teachers? You don’t, in fact, need to be a grad student to assist a teacher with their work.

          That’s a thing that’s possible.

    • Linnaeus

      In one case I remember, there was a union rule against undergraduates assisting with teaching duties (IAs) because it cost graduate students jobs. But for science students this could mean that they had to teach, instead of doing research, because there weren’t enough TAs otherwise.

      One way a union can deal with this is by including undergraduate ASEs in the bargaining unit. My union does this.

  • Peterr

    The 1992 strike ended without recognition although the administration did raise the pay of the TAs and provide teacher training, showing how strikes can create real victories for workers even when the union remain unrecognized as a bargaining unit.

    Sounds kind of like the precursor to the actions taken to unionize college football players by the Northwestern University team. Though they didn’t ultimately form a union, the mere threat (and favorable ruling by the local NLRB official) pushed the NCAA to enact things that they had previously not merely denied but declared unthinkable to even consider.

  • Peterr

    Another aspect of the difficulties in unionizing graduate students is the fact that assuming the graduate student completes her/his dissertation, she or he will need faculty references for the upcoming job search. More problematic is that potential employers might look at anyone coming out of a program involved in a labor dispute and say “Thanks, but no thanks — we don’t want any troublemakers here.” Helping form a union like this is a potential risk to one’s future employment, yet these folks went out and did just that.

    Has anyone looked at these folks since 1992, to see where they are these days, and compare them with their counterparts at other schools? I’d be curious to see how much of a price, if any, these folks paid in terms of their future careers.

    • Schadenboner

      Yes, because they were graduate students AT YALE, not Podunk State University.

  • Paul Campos

    On a related note:

    Yale Law School students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton were both members, alongside future Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal and Bill Clinton’s eventual Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor Robert Reich, of the Yale Law School Students Committee for Local 35, the university’s blue-collar worker union, and signatories, during the week before the union went on strike, to a statement asserting “WE BELIEVE THE UNION DESERVES THE SUPPORT OF YALE STUDENTS AND FACULTY.” Bill Clinton was even, former UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm would note decades later in his eulogy for Vincent Sirabella, the Voter Registration Chairman of the Sirabella for Mayor Campaign.

    And yet, on her first date with classmate Clinton in 1971, Rodham would later recall:

    We both had wanted to see a Mark Rothko exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery but, because of a labor dispute, some of the university’s buildings, including the museum, were closed. As Bill and I walked by, he decided he could get us in if we offered to pick up the litter that had accumulated in the gallery’s courtyard. Watching him talk our way in was the first time I saw his persuasiveness in action. We had the entire museum to ourselves. We wandered through the galleries talking about Rothko and twentieth-century art. I admit to being surprised at his interest in and knowledge of subjects that seemed, at first, unusual for a Viking from Arkansas. We ended up in the museum’s courtyard, where I sat in the large lap of Henry Moore’s sculpture Drape Seated Woman while we talked until dark.

    The relationship between Rodham and Clinton, two instrumental figures in the decoupling of the Democratic Party from the priorities of the mainstream labor movement, thus began with the crossing of a picket line.

    When Rodham and Clinton picked up the garbage strewn about the art gallery courtyard (if, indeed, they ever did so), they were doing exactly what everyone from Vincent Sirabella to the Black Student Alliance at Yale had asked students not to do: they were performing—or at the very least offering to perform—the work that members of Local 35’s Grounds Maintenance division, had refused.

    Rodham and Clinton were offering themselves as replacement labor, blunting, if only temporarily, the effects of the strike on the university. The two law students then bartered their litter pickup, which was, in essence, scab labor (or maybe just the promise thereof) into access to a struck building.

    The art gallery and other nonessential buildings were closed because the university did not have enough managers to keep them open during the strike. They were closed because the people who usually cleaned and repaired them, whose labor helped make the university’s display of art possible, had been forced to absent themselves by the necessity which fueled the ongoing strike.

    • Schadenboner

      DEEPLY PROBLEMATIC.

  • twbb

    “Rutgers and CUNY were the first graduate school units to be covered by a collective bargaining contract, as they were covered by faculty contracts.”

    Ha, 2 of the 3 PhD programs I applied to. Got into CUNY but the horror stories I heard of PhD students having to teach (not T.A.) 4 classes a semester made it sound unbearable; if that’s what collective bargaining gets you, I shudder to think what it would be like without it.

    • Grad students teaching 4 class a semester? Holy hell!

      • twbb

        Apparently if you didn’t get the meager school funding that was your only option. I don’t think I got funding, but no idea because after my acceptance letter I couldn’t reach anybody at the program for a month (there are apparently no on-site people) to find out if I, like, had money or anything. Which was another reason not to go.

        • Fake Irishman

          This incidentally is one problem that TA unions can sort out. If you’re a graduate student, you can be protected by contract language that says you get TA benefits and don’t get dumped into the lecturer pool (which often has worse pay and almost certainly has worse benefits).

  • alex284

    When I was a TA, the department was effectively going to steal 2 months’ wages from me because the assistant treasurer messed up the paperwork. I talked to her and she was like “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” So I talked to the grad student union and I got my money. I wouldn’t have gotten it without the union – I wasn’t going to take the university to court over it.

    I had a pretty sweet deal, and I’m sure a lot of grad students are doing pretty well too. But there’s nothing that really forces a school to live up to its end of the deal, either, because of various structural reasons that make transferring schools difficult and litigation unimaginable.

    • Linnaeus

      Yes. The experience you had matches almost exactly the experience that a grad student colleague of mine had several years ago. Her department, in effect, expected six weeks of unpaid labor because they didn’t properly inform the university’s payroll department. Wage theft here and there happens more than people think it does.

      Your second point is also an important one. An argument against unionization that was going around in my department was something along the lines of, “well, we’ve got this arrangement with the dean of our college and a union might mess that all up for you.” But of course, there’s absolutely nothing that prevents said college from unilaterally ending said arrangement.

      • Fake Irishman

        This. 1,000 times this.

    • Fake Irishman

      Bingo. This is what good grievance procedures (and a organized union) get you — the ability to get the university to enforce its own policies. I know of a recent case at Michigan (my PhD. school) in which a Graduate Student Instructor had an offer pulled after both she and the hiring department had signed off on it. The department chair’s rationale was laughably bad, but the instructor probably wouldn’t have gotten a fair settlement without the union rallying behind her.

  • mch

    “Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices?”

    I’d like clarification of the distinction between a student and an apprentice. Is the implication that students have no grounds for unionizing but apprentices do? But aren’t apprentices students?

    It seems to me that grad students certainly are apprentices (and that apprentices — all apprentices — are by definition students), and that apprentices have a long history of being subject to exploitation. How do unions for highly skilled trades — riggers, for instance — handle apprenticeship and the rights/interests of apprentices?

    • Even if we only look at students…there are student unions. Why wouldn’t students organise?

    • mch

      Here’s an interesting start on how a union for a highly skilled trade sets up their apprentices:
      http://www.riggerslocal136.com/apprenticeship-program/

      I like the idea of treating grad students as apprentices. It should remind their professors and administration that grad students are not there to do the work their professors don’t want to do (e.g., reading undergrad papers, overseeing Bio 101 labs) but to receive the education needed to enter fully the profession’s ranks (and one day to replace their professors).

  • Captain Oblivious

    OT: This new technology should be of great interest to historians worried about preservation of digital data.

  • Bruce Vail

    This is a fascinating subject.

    It’s my gut feeling that grad students agitating for a union get no love from professors, administrators and the general public because the students are seen as an already-privileged slice of the workforce.

    Has any union developed specific strategies to counteract this?

    (Disclosure: My son is a grad student. He reports virtually no interest in a grad student union on his campus.)

    • I don’t think that’s true of profs at least. It’s pretty common to recognise grad students as vulnerable populations. I’ve never heard people go at them in the way that people even do for undergrads (“They think they’ve bought us! They cry to mom and dad!)

      • Lee Rudolph

        I’ve never heard people go at them in the way that people even do for undergrads (“They think they’ve bought us! They cry to mom and dad!)

        Well, I did have to deal with one instance of each (the first featuring two complainants [the non-mute one specifying $10,000 in tuition and fees as what they had paid to get the grade of A in calculus], the second featuring only a mother) in 6 years of chairing. Not quite enough to feel justified in going at undergraduates in general.

        • Oh yeah. I think there are some legit concerns about student consumerist attitudes or parental harassing teachers. My point is that those don’t seem to transfer to grad students.

    • Fake Irishman

      Yes. My old local at Michigan (AFT #3550) has an entire committee dedicated to solidarity with other groups on and off campus and we took it seriously. That, and our organizing power helped get us credibility with the broader community. So, we always backed up the lecturers union, worked with undergrads on initiatives (sometimes better than others), kept in contact with the skilled trades on and off-campus. We once had construction workers walk off a $225 million stadium project in solidarity with one of our strikes — the university wouldn’t give them a project labor agreement and hire only union workers, and the university wouldn’t give us mental health care coverage. When we went and pitched them on our issues, and realized we could help each other. We worked together and achieved both goals.

      • Fake Irishman

        And to further expand on the point. That construction workers cooperation took work to get everyone on the same page — like Erik mentions all the time in his posts on successful historical labor action (That post was from the Teamsters Strike in 1934 in Minneapolis.) First, our leaders met with their leaders, then presented some of our issues. It was educational for all involved — I remember our Vice President at the time was surprised and really gratified when she talked about our problems getting summer bridge pay and found herself getting vigorous head nods and looks of understanding from iron workers (who also knew what it was like to deal with long layoffs without pay).

        Then we had about 25 volunteers get up at 5 a.m. and go leaflet construction sites and talk with workers about what was going on several occasions over a 2-week period. The volunteers brought coffee.

        Finally, we agreed with the trades leadership to only shut down two sites instead of four on each day of the strike to limit the pay loss of their own members and support a project labor agreement for the jobs sites.

        The day of the strike, we brought coffee and doughnuts to the job sites, as well as the day after the strike (Later one of the trades leaders thanked us, but asked if in the future we could bring some healthier options too since many of his workers were trying to be health-conscious. I know – vegan construction workers — I love Ann Arbor). Finally, we made some donations to a scholarship fund for workers and their kids as a thank you.

        Solidarity is a slow and constant process, but you can break down barriers and find common cause in many cases.

        • This is a really wonderful and inspiring comment.

        • Bruce Vail

          As Bijan says, this is fantastic, and just inspirational.

          It’s my recollection that TUGSA used some similar solidarity-building techniques at Temple. TUGSA also also AFT.

        • JL

          Adding my voice to those saying this is great. Not only is it inspirational, it’s full of details and I love hearing them.

    • JL

      I can see why the general public would think that, but it seems weird that professors would. Tenure-track or tenured professors are more privileged than the grad students, and I doubt that would prompt most of them would speak against their own rights to organize.

    • Linnaeus

      Some professors can certainly be hostile to ASE unionization, but that’s usually on the level of individual faculty or department leadership. Attitudes among faculty as a whole tend to be more complicated.

      With regard to those outside the university, it depends on the specific situation, but community outreach can go a long way. Our union, both prior to and after recognition did (and still does) a lot of this, especially when planning a major mobilization for a labor action. Often, we found that people simply didn’t know much about what ASEs do, their working conditions, etc. and that did a lot to counter any hostility they may have had.

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