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Columbia Copying North Carolina Republican Tactics

[ 48 ] December 20, 2016 |

In yet another case of “unsurprising but disgusting,” Columbia University responded to the 1602 to 623 vote of its graduate students to unionize by trying to throw out the vote:

The battle over whether graduate students at universities can unionize entered a new phase on Friday, when Columbia University filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board over the recent vote by its graduate assistants to unionize.

Columbia said that tactics like voter coercion may have tipped the balance in favor of the union and that the N.L.R.B. should invalidate the vote.

At a rally at the Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan on Monday, students said the university was trying to drag out the fight, possibly until President-elect Donald J. Trump could appoint new members to the labor board, tipping the balance in a direction more likely to favor Columbia.

The “tactics” Columbia’s management are pointing to? According to management:

  • Union leafleters were too close to the polling place!…which as an experienced union organizer I highly doubt was actually the case given that those distances are very clearly demarcated and you can talk to anyone coming and going without any need to step over a chalk line. Even if it was the case, a difference of a few feet didn’t change anyone’s votes.
  • Union leafleters had cameras outside the building!…which somehow terrified people into voting for the union, despite the fact that the secret ballots were cast inside the building and the cameras in question couldn’t see through walls.
  • The NLRB didn’t mandate employer or government IDs in order to vote! Wow, that sounds familiar.
  • The NRLB wanted a different observer from the employer to be present at one poling place!
  • One ballot location wasn’t open long enough and didn’t have enough challenge ballot envelopes!

Needless to say, this is all extremely small ball, and given the 72% to 28% outcome did not affect the outcome in the slightest. But that doesn’t matter, because as with what happened in North Carolina, the point here is to throw up any pretext for doubt long enough to delay matters so that the election isn’t certified before Trump can appoint his minions to the NRLB and reverse the ruling that gave Columbia students the right to vote. Which is exactly what Columbia did last time: Columbia graduate students got the right to organize back in 2000, but Columbia appealed and delayed so that the election wouldn’t happen until 2004, when George W. Bush’s NRLB reversed the ruling of the Clinton NLRB, at which point Columbia chained up the ballot boxes so that those votes could never be counted.

Two things can be learned from this: first, that supposedly liberal elite institutions have a lot to gain from a Trump presidency and won’t be shy in taking advantage of any opportunity; second, we can no longer allow Democratic presidents to delay granting the right to organize until they’re practically out the door and their regulatory decisions can be overruled by the next administration.

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  • BGinCHI

    I guess after you perpetuate Jim Crow by supporting the Dunning School of history, a little labor fracas is small potatoes.

  • Murc

    The way the entire administrative apparatus of universities always goes along with this keeps baffling me.

    Not so much the board of trustees, who are usually rich douchebags. But the lower layers. Deans… used to be teachers at some point, right? They were educators? Grad students and undergrads? What the hell happens to them once they leave the classroom, does someone put a chip in their heads?

    • Crusty

      To some extent I think the thought process is the classic I didn’t have a union when I was a grad student, why should they.

      • Linnaeus

        There’s that and a mix of other attitudes, often shared by faculty as well:

        1. The idea that being a graduate student is a kind of rite of passage and that you just need to deal with it.

        2. The idea that the intellectual activities of a college or university separate it from the usual goings-on of the world outside, which then supports the notion that graduate students have a super-special relationship with their faculty advisors and the institution generally, and this relationship would somehow be endangered or sullied by a union.

        3. Corollary to #2, the idea that academic student workers are not actually workers, and therefore should not have or do not need a union.

        4. Sometimes, there’s just ideological opposition to unions themselves.

        I’m sure there’s a few more I’m missing.

        • DrDick

          I would agree with this.

      • delazeur

        I know a fair number of professors in non-administrative roles who feel that grad student unions would cheapen the academy because it shouldn’t be something you do for the money. Of course, it’s just a dressed-up version of “I’ve got mine and fuck you,” but I think it’s interesting how oblivious those people are to the fact that it basically cuts people with kids out of academic careers, as well as the fact that the cost of living near good universities is much higher than it used to be.

        • DrDick

          Actually, I think it is more often a case of them resenting anyone limiting their right to fuck over the grad students at will.

    • That is the unspoken question. A lot of these deans and provosts were not only educators, but also scholars whose work was a lot more laudatory of progressive reform and social movements than their actions as administrators would suggest.

      Shades of Phil Ochs’ description of liberals…

      • Murc

        Question: do deans and provosts have unions, or are they barred because Taft-Hartley means we can’t have nice things?

        (I am increasingly of the opinion that the banning of managerial unions was the most dangerous thing about Taft-Hartley, it just wasn’t obvious at the time.)

        • Barred, definitely.

          • Murc

            That’s a problem, then, because it explicitly prevents unions from appealing to them on grounds of self-interest as they can’t join said union.

            Question tho: at what point do things get so bad that unions basically go “fuck it, the protections we are afforded for following the law aren’t actually worth it anymore, so we’re just gonna ignore it?”

            Because my understanding is that a lot of the “laws” regarding union organizing and bargaining are basically more like guidelines. It isn’t actually illegal to organize managers into a union; that’s clearly allowed under the right of free association. You can’t actually be arrested or punished for trying to organize people in that way.

            It’s just that said union wouldn’t be granted official status and thus could not rely on the NLRB, much of existing labor law, or the federal and state governments to backstop it in any way, shape or form. It would be 100% on its own, 19th century style. For most unions, any potential benefit they might accrue by trying to expand into unprotected territory just isn’t worth that.

            (Someone correct me if I’m wrong here.)

            Thing is, tho, is that eventually if you strip away enough existing protections and labor law, people will stop caring about shit like that, won’t they?

      • DrDick

        I suspect it is a combination of “power corrupts” and institutional culture and the rewards structure in administration. The emphasis there is always to reduce or hold down costs (except administrative salaries and positions).

    • mds

      Deans… used to be teachers at some point, right?

      Hence the rise of more and more VPs of whatever-the-fuck. The ongoing corporatization of the academy means that more of its administrative staff are business professionals rather than senior academics. Those academics who are in the senior ranks at my own institution are easily coopted by the special perquisites; e.g., one of our department’s professors was promoted to a newly-created VP position, and got some really cushy lab space in a newly-renovated building. He doesn’t have to see any of us peons ever again.

      Reviewing the org chart again, out of the president and the 11 people immediately below him on the administrative side, 4 have Ph.D.’s, 4 have J.D.’s, 2 have M.B.A.’s, and 2 have B.A.’s. Only one of the J.D.’s held any academic appointment. I lack the energy to apply the same scrutiny to the 75 associate/assistant/deputy VPs, directors, and lead administrators who make up the next layer down.

      The 16 deans are under the provost, who is also in the administrative layer right below the president. But I’m not clear how much of a formal role they’d play in any graduate student union considerations.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Relation to the means of production.

      • DrDick

        Indeed.

    • LastUniversalCommonAncestor

      Well, in order to become Deans at some point they must have benefited from the cheap, non-unionized labor provided by graduate assistants, post-docs etc. Furthermore, as Deans they have a few key priorities: 1) keep the funding coming, 2) keep costs down, and 3) maximize faculty scholarly productivity (which can be monetized back into 1).

      The faculty themselves are of course being squeezed by their administration due to 2) and 3), and by the highly competitive funding environment due to shrinking public investment in education and research (1). So their short-term benefit calculation also broadly favors keeping GAs un-unionized.

      Really, the economic factors are very one-sided, and until the support system for higher education changes to something more rational and less money-driven, it’s only the ethical considerations which favor the graduate students.

      • DrDick

        The faculty themselves are of course being squeezed by their administration

        And at my institution at least, increasingly having tasks previously performed by staff passed on to faculty.

    • Brett

      It’s screening at work. Most positions like that are controlled by those above them (like the trustees), so any educators who don’t play ball with institutional priorities just never get the job. And once you have the job, they make it increasingly lucrative to keep you on board even more.

      • Linnaeus

        My doctoral university hired a new president about a year or so ago, and she’s very highly respected by the faculty in part because she rose up through the ranks starting from faculty. Hence, a lot of the faculty see her as “one of us” and figure that she will serve as university president accordingly. While I do think that she will be better than her predecessors (at least the last three that we had over the past 15 years), I’m less convinced that her status as faculty will do much to change the role that she now plays.

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      Couple of points to add to above comments

      1. Academics is a very hierarchical field: formal faculty ranks, school status, journal rankings etc. More hierarchy –> status and power differences are more accepted.

      2. More and more university administrators did not rise up from faculty at the school where they currently are, rather they came in as hires from somewhere else. There’s a whole strata of professional univ admins who climb the greasy pole by moving every 3 or 4 years from one school to another. So there’s limited connection down to the plebs and proles at their current schools.

      3. Compared to business corporations, univ administrations can afford to be more non-responsive, especially at more successful prestigious schools. Same old products, with a few wrinkles, keep selling. Don’t have to make profits to placate the board and big shareholders, in some instances a winning football team is good enough. “Customers” (students–I hate the “student as customer” model but it’s relevant here) have little power and high switching costs in terms of transferring to another school. Faculty employees have considerable autonomy in some spheres and many are content with just that and don’t want to be bothered with anything else, particularly since academics tend to attract personality types who are attracted to the idea of “go into my office and close the door and get to play in the space between my ears.”

  • mds

    Columbia said that tactics like voter coercion may have tipped the balance in favor of the union

    To be fair, I remember back to my own TA days, when the big successful TAs would come through the grad student office area, shaking us down for “contributions,” telling us whom to vote for in upcoming municipal elections, stealing our boyfriends and girlfriends, etc. Because there’s nothing more powerful on a college campus than a collection of graduate teaching assistants. Just ask the people at Columbia who can hire and fire them.

    • postmodulator

      And who can forget when the grad student local president vowed to battle corruption within the national unions?

    • Sly

      “Grad student unions were probably useful once, before they were taken over by the Genovese crime family and became a Mafia racket.”

      • Lost Left Coaster

        Hey, with the right connections, you step into your TA office in the morning, and all those exams on your desk are already graded.

        Of course, later they might come after you for a favor…

        • John Revolta

          “Then I said to my adjunct, ‘For justice, we must go to Dean Corleone'”

  • Linnaeus

    first, that supposedly liberal elite institutions have a lot to gain from a Trump presidency and won’t be shy in taking advantage of any opportunity

    Over here, Seattle University refused to bargain with the newly-formed adjunct faculty union (in opposition to the NLRB ruling that SU had to bargain) on the grounds of “religious freedom”.

    SU, by the way, is a Jesuit institution, so this claim is a real laugher to say the least.

    • solidcitizen

      Jesus was a big market guy.

      “Should not the market set salaries?” he asked the disciples. “For it is easier for the department head to determine the precise best salary than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Some of the disciples thought he went to the “camel” and the” eye of the needle” bit a little too often. “Peter, you are the rock on which I will build my church. And remember, you will need flexibility in scheduling – don’t get locked into contracts lasting more than a semester.”

      • Linnaeus

        “Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the workers?”

        “The one who refused to bargain with them.”

        “Go, and do likewise.”

    • Downpuppy

      It’s not like the Catholic Church has a 125 year history of supporting unions.

      • postmodulator

        In calmer times I would consider this an interesting test case: probably the first ever claim of religious privilege where the claimant was demonstrably lying(as opposed to almost certainly lying, like the rest of them).

        • mds

          probably the first ever claim of religious privilege where the claimant was demonstrably lying

          Well, based on their own history of covered contraceptives, Hobby Lobby was demonstrably lying, too. The SCOTUS majority simply considered sincerity irrelevant to their desired outcome.

          • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

            Sincerity has no place in religion!

  • solidcitizen

    Always interesting to watch the most powerful of our universities do their best to prevent their workers from having a collective voice.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    And I could have sworn that Mark Lilla told me there were no conservatives at Columbia.

  • Hogan

    When I saw the headline I thought it would be about South Carolina. Turns out it was someplace much worse.

    • Colin Day

      The Columbia had me for a second, but there is no such statue at the University of South Carolina.

      I used to be a TA at South Carolina.

  • A friend works for a super liberal non-orofit. She was supposed to get a 10k raise because of the new overtime rule but now with the court challenge and trump presidency she has given up hope. Her boss hate trump, but their interests align on labor costs.

    • postmodulator

      My employer already handed out the raises — I am above the cutoff, but I know someone who wasn’t. I bet they feel stupid.

  • DrDick

    supposedly liberal elite institutions have a lot to gain from a Trump presidency and won’t be shy in taking advantage of any opportunity

    While university faculty are often liberal, administrators never really are, especially on labor issues.

    • Murc

      While university faculty are often liberal

      I would submit that if the faculty aren’t liberal enough to actually demand liberal governance and organize to ensure it, their voting habits every four years aren’t actually relevant to their day-to-day employment.

      • DrDick

        Faculty influence on university governance has been under attack for decades and is rapidly eroding. It is largely top down governance everywhere now.

        • Murc

          On the one hand, you’re absolutely correct about this.

          On the other hand, it seems to me that faculty members as a class have been very… supine about it. I suspect at any given university, if you asked the faculty “do you actually care about the latest administrative power grab enough to do something effective about it?” the answer would be “no, not really.”

          I don’t like to blame victims, but it has seemed increasingly obvious to me that our corporate and conservative overlords have started caring less and less about optics and public opinion lately. They care about power. Where once open power grabs would not have happened, because they feared looking bad, it has gotten to the point where if the only downside is people will say nasty things about them and maybe hold some aesthetically satisfying but otherwise completely ineffective public protests, that’s not a downside at all.

          It’s getting to the point where you have to actually shut shit down in order to get traction, because shutting shit down is actual power, not symbolic power.

          What’s the biggest labor success in recent years. The Verizon strike of 2015, right? The union didn’t adopt a “tough negotiating stance.” They shut it down. Verizon didn’t give a good goddamn about tough negotiating stances; that’s just some guy in a suit talking at them across a table. They sure as shit cared about people walking off the job, tho.

          If faculty members don’t care enough about regaining control over their workplaces to actually exercise power directly by striking directly at the university apparatus they control, I would submit they don’t actually care about regaining that power. Because, from my perspective, that is the only way it is gonna happen. Administrators simply do not care what some faculty representative in a meeting tells them, unless that representative can force them to care.

          • DrDick

            More to the point they have very little power or leverage. At most public universities, they are covered by state laws prohibiting them from striking. It is not like they can easily go somewhere else, given incredibly tight academic job markets.

            • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

              Not familiar with university jobs, but I’m guessing “incredibly tight academic job markets”=no shortage of at least semi-qualified replacement workers.

              • Linnaeus

                You have guessed correctly. I’d even say that that’s an understatement.

      • mds

        In fairness, at some institutions I’m familiar with, it’s that they’re not prepared to go all the way to a large-scale walkout. Because faculty senates and the like have themselves been victims of the corporatization of the university. At my last graduate school, the academics had had much of their formal influence stripped away, over loud protests from a few of them.

        Now, maybe they should threaten to take direct action. E.g., when hiring and tenure decisions of a department get directly overridden by the trustees for ideological reasons, there should be a widespread backlash. The treatment of Juan Cole, for one, was indefensible. But even if they’re liberal, and well-meaning, they’re still people like any other. The tendency to “keep one’s head down,” “not rock the boat,” and other such cliches applies even to many professors, especially if they’re not the top well-funded superstars. (And of course, in the case of the latter, universities have cultivated an attitude of “I’ve got mine; fuck you” amongst its so-called top people. Divide and conquer, as always.)

        • Barry_D

          “E.g., when hiring and tenure decisions of a department get directly overridden by the trustees for ideological reasons, there should be a widespread backlash. ”

          I’ll put my money on ‘should be, but not’. Any substantive action would be risky, awhile not taking action is safe and easy.

          The one big possible spur to action would be if the tenured professors felt that their jobs were on the line. Since they aren’t, why rock the boat?

          My prediction is that in almost all universities, tenured faculty will retire out, with the tenured positions converted to non-tenured.

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