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.