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Anti-Union Universities



There’s a forum at N+1 about yesterday’s NLRB decision overturning the Brown decision and granting graduate students at private universities collective bargaining rights. Want to point you to the contribution by Gabriel Winant and Alyssa Battistoni. Universities use the same arguments against unions as any other employer, plus simply claiming that graduate students aren’t workers.

The crux of the 2004 Brown decision had been that the relationship of graduate students to the university was primarily educational, and as a result did not fall under the purview of legislation designed to govern economic relationships. What a line to draw—how could anyone who works at a university fail to cross it? In overturning Brown, the Columbia decision states plainly what we’ve argued all along: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.” The decision similarly demolishes, with reference to empirical evidence, familiar arguments that a union of graduate employees would worsen the quality of education, suck up inordinate amounts of valuable time and resources, or pose a threat to the continued functioning of the university. In other words, Columbia rejects the idea that academia is a uniquely un-unionizable industry (an idea that many employers have of their own industries: Target, for example, warns workers that “ if the unions did try to organize our team members, chances are they would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture”).

Pretense prevails among those who run the institutions. Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester. With impressive sophistry, administrators manage to argue that unions would at once destroy academic life and fail to accomplish anything. Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”). The message they’re sending is that change is impossible—that there’s no way to make your voice heard.

To us, then, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the NLRB decision is its explicit recognition of our years of organizing outside the protection of the law, and its argument that this work in itself is admissible testimony for change. Unlike our deans, the federal government has heard our speeches and petitions, and listened to us as adult citizens capable of advocating for ourselves:

It is worth noting that student assistants, in the absence of access to the [National Labor Relations] Act’s representation procedures and in the face of rising financial pressures, have been said to be “fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.” The eagerness of at least some student assistants to engage in bargaining suggests that the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.

When your employer insists that none of your actions matter, it is gratifying to learn that, through years of struggle—sometimes bitter, often seeming fruitless—you have moved the gears of the federal bureaucracy.

Really, this is a hugely important decision for academic labor.

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  • Dilan Esper

    Now, if we can only extend it to football and basketball players….

    • Brett

      There’s the rub. As long as they don’t actually pay the athletes, they can probably claim that they don’t qualify as workers.

  • Fake Irishman

    I also love all the contentions about how unions will destroy the quality of universities. As a Michigan grad, I really resent this remark. I’m sure a heck of a lot of people in the UC system do too.

    Incidentally, at UM, Medical Residents are union too. It took a long fight and three court decisions back in the 1960s, but they got a union, which has helped provide payment provisions to help house officers pay down their loans and save for retirement. In a touch of irony, the last time I checked, UM’s Web site actually listed the House Officer’s Association as a reason why residents should choose UM.

    • Linnaeus

      Somewhat related to this, there’s a campaign to unionize faculty at my grad program university and the “quality” argument is being explicitly employed by both the university administration and the faculty group opposing unionization. I’ve been privy to some of the discussions about unionization on the university’s AAUP email list (the AAUP chapter pretty much spearheaded the unionization effort) and when a participant brings up that the University of X has unionized faculty, you see responses like “Yeah, but we’re the University of Y. Do we really want to be like the University of X?” Maddening.

      • delazeur

        “Yeah, but we’re the University of Y. Do we really want to be like the University of X?”

        That kind of thing makes for a funny joke, but it’s a bit jaw-dropping when people take it seriously.

  • DrDick

    There are a surprisingly high number of academics who are anti-union in general (the law school and Business school faculties here almost all are), and it becomes even more common when applied to grad students.

    • Actually, we have really good density in the business school in our union and our president in a business professor.

      • solidcitizen

        YMMV. Our union does not do well with the Buisness folks.

      • MAJeff

        One of the best folks on our leadership team is also a business prof. We actually have more pushback from nursing faculty.

        We recently got a CBA for adjunct faculty, so a lot of the past couple weeks have involved our local’s President and me going to adjunct orientation sessions to introduce them to the CBA, and their new rights and responsibilities.

        After one, I had the following conversation with a nursing adjunct:

        Nurse: “I worked at [hospital] and we were part of a union. [drops voice] I didn’t like it. So, I’m going to have 1% of my pay deducted for union dues?”

        Me: “That, or the .8137% that fair share folks pay.”

        Nurse: “Well, I just hate to waste that money.”

        Me: “I don’t think you’re wasting it. For the first time teaching here, you have workplace protections.”

        Nurse: “I don’t need those protections. I’m good at my job. I’d hate to have to quit over this, but it looks like I might have to.”

        • Linnaeus

          “I don’t need those protections.”

          Until you do.

          • MAJeff

            If she quits, she’ll never need them.

        • DrDick

          Our CBA covers everyone teaching .5 FTE or more, which is really nice. Having spent the first 35 years in Oklahoma, I have heard way to many idiots like your nurse.

  • MAJeff

    Academic managers are managers first and academics…somewhere around 500th. They have abandoned any pretense of academia in adopting the misanthropic ideology of corporate management. They’re basically exploitative sociopaths.

    • DrDick


  • twbb

    “plus simply claiming that graduate students aren’t workers”

    As a graduate student at a private university, I object to that characterization on the grounds that it too accurate for my comfort level. Granted, most graduate students work much, much harder than me.

  • gmoot

    Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”).

    Columbia’s scare tactics aside, it doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that fixed costs could rise without grad wages going up: just create 8 more Deans and Deanlets of collective bargaining, graduate student relations, strike management, etc etc.

    Judging from recent history, this will undoubtedly be the response at many universities. (That is, after a suitable number of faculty and student committees are charged with writing reports and making recommendations, all of which will be ignored.)

  • I’ll note that in my experience universities are more than willing to treat students as employees when it benefits them. Eg to own the IP of student research. (Manchester explicitly splits out PhD students from everyone else, but I’m never clear what the status is of students with external funding.)

  • justawriter

    I had a chuckle when University of Chicago proclaimed it doesn’t believe in safe spaces yet it is one of the august institutions which, at the mere mention of the dreaded U-word, feels the need to surround itself with union busting law firms who will wrap it up in a blankey, give it a glass of warm milk, and tell it the scary union boogie man won’t get it.

    • JL

      Aside from everything else wrong with the U of Chicago’s statement – which I could rant about for a while, and has been well-covered by people like Angust Johnston, Noah Berlatsky, David Perry, and Jeet Heer, among others – there is a pro-LGBTQ program at the University of Chicago called Safe Space, that trains community members on the basics of LGBTQ issues, and creates safer spaces for LGBTQ students. Many universities, including my own, have variations on this same program (I’ve been a trainer for mine a couple of times). I wonder how the people who staff that program – and the LGBTQ students and alums who have benefited from it – feel about that dean’s boneheaded commentary.

  • JL

    It really is amazing what universities will argue. Research universities would fall apart without the labor of grad students (and postdocs, who are also “trainees”). Grad students in STEM fields (don’t know enough about others) do a large share of the benchwork, whether they’re funded by RAships or not. Grad students in all fields where TAships are common provide labor in that capacity, and the profs scream if they think they’re being shafted on how many TAs get allocated to their classes.

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