NLRB ruling against grad students unionizing

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sat Aug 07 2004 - 19:10:33 PDT

I copied the article below about the recent NLRB ruling against grad
students unionizing from another discussion list. It comes from The
Chronicle Review.

- Steve

>From the Chronicle issue dated August 6, 2004


Graduate Education Is a Seamless Web of Learning and Work, Not Class

Article: The NLRB's Ruling on Collective Bargaining


The recent decision by the Republican-dominated National Labor
Relations Board to exclude graduate students from the protections
offered by federal labor law drew a sharp distinction between their
role as students and their role as workers. They have to be one or the
other, according to the NLRB. No multiple identities, please!

Members of the board ruled 3 to 2, along party lines, that teaching
assistants at Brown University are primarily students and not covered
by federal labor law. The decision is undoubtedly a setback to the
organizing campaigns that graduate students have mounted not only at
Brown, but at Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and
other high-profile private universities. At a very important and
consequential level, it represents another battle in the long,
successful war that conservatives have waged to marginalize the labor
movement and confine it to a shrinking blue-collar ghetto. Bush
administration appointees at the NLRB and the Labor Department have
been busy overturning Clinton-era rulings -- in this case, the 2000
NLRB decision that declared working graduate students at New York
University "employees."

So unions have suffered yet another blow. It will take a victory by
John Kerry, plus much lobbying and litigating, and a spirited,
sustained renewal of organizing in the university, to get the NLRB to
reverse itself again. It may well happen, but don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, the ruling raises even larger issues. What is the meaning
and definition of work in the modern university? What is the
relationship among teaching, learning, and creativity? And how is the
idea of trade unionism, which once stood close to the imaginative
heart of the American democratic ethos, to be restored to its former
status? The stakes are huge because if one explores the logic inherent
within the NLRB majority opinion, we are moving not just toward the
extinction of the American labor movement, but into an Orwellian
universe in which words like "individualism," "education," and
"choice" turn into their opposites.

In distinguishing between the educational and economic functions that
graduate students perform, the Republican appointees harked back to
the original language of the Wagner Act from the New Deal era and
embraced something close to a class-warfare reading of American labor
law. The 1935 statute, they argued, was "premised on the view that
there is a fundamental conflict between the interests of the employers
and employees."

More important, the GOP appointees, emphasizing a passage from an
earlier decision, argued that "the vision of a fundamentally economic
relationship between employers and employees is inescapable." Thus,
according to their reasoning, if graduate students have something less
than an antagonistic relationship with administrators and professors,
if they are paid mainly to learn and not work, they are not employees
and therefore not covered by the labor law.

Such a Marxist analysis of labor relations flies in the face of the
argument that conservatives have long made to declare both the labor
law and the labor movement antique and obsolete: that both modern
management and postindustrial technology have made for cooperative and
nonadversarial relationships within the world of work. High-tech firms
like Microsoft declare unions unsuitable to their well-educated,
hyper-creative employees. Even General Motors says it now rejects the
production principles pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor and Henry Ford,
correcting "the great flaw in the assembly-line concept" that "tends
to exclude the creative and managerial skills of the people who work
on the line." So if the current NLRB has returned us to a stark world
of polarized classes, I hope that the government will soon inform the
millions of workers at Wal-Mart, Kmart, FedEx, and other anti-union
firms who are constantly bombarded with a contrary message.

Of course the reason the Republican members on the NLRB echo such
class-warfare polarities is to make the argument that graduate
students at Brown, New York University, and other big universities are
there not to work but to learn. And like their hyperindustrial
conception of the world of work, they also subscribe to a Victorian
notion of education, which is at once highly personal and, at the same
time, utterly authoritarian. Professors impart knowledge to graduate
students who soak it up; no back talk please, and no tilt toward the
participatory, learning-by-doing aspirations of John Dewey, Paul
Goodman, or Arthur E. Morgan, the Antioch College educator who
pioneered the cooperative, work-and-learn model of higher education.

In truth the advocates of graduate-student unionism also see a
dichotomy between the educational life of employed students and their
function as the labor power that makes the big university go.
Empirical reality undoubtedly lies far more on the union side of the
debate because teaching assistants and research assistants, like all
workers, are indeed paid for their work time, and because their labor
now plays such a massive role in sustaining the instructional and
research life of higher education. In some courses at some
universities, more than 40 percent of all teaching hours are now
performed by graduate students. But most important, tens of thousands
of employed graduate students feel like workers, which is one reason
why so many have joined organizations that can collectively represent
their interests.

Right-wing conservatives argue that any job that contains a spark of
creativity, a bit of authority, or an element of education or
apprenticeship should be exempt from the labor law and the union
compass. They are happy to consign the union idea to the most onerous,
repetitive, and undignified forms of labor. And then, of course, as
the union idea becomes synonymous with such jobs, the same ideologues
argue that teachers, programmers, nurses, doctors, journalists, and
writers would be crazy to link their fortunes with such unfortunates.

In truth, all jobs, even the most low-wage and low-skilled, require
judgment, self-reliance, and initiative. All work can and should be
dignified. By the same measure, the labor movement needs to make it
abundantly clear that you don't have to be a horny-handed proletarian
to benefit from a collective defense of one's self-interest, which is
why 18th-century printers, 19th-century craftsmen, and 20th-century
airplane pilots, screenwriters, and baseball players joined the house
of labor. Union work rules and wage standards are best understood not
as a depersonalizing straitjacket, but as the code of workplace law --
a practical instance of "equal protection under the law" -- to which
all men and women are rightly subject.

And that brings us back to the NLRB's spurious distinction between the
educational and the employee aspects of graduate-student existence.
Although many universities have forged money-making alliances with
corporations and the state, and although many research assistants
provide a pool of cheap, talented labor for such enterprises,
universities still measure their well-being by a standard that falls
somewhat outside the capitalist marketplace. They are judged, and
their students and faculty are rewarded, not by how much money flows
to the bottom line, but by the standing and prestige their
researchers, teachers, and students generate. And sports teams too,
one must admit.

One might take a cynical approach, like Thorstein Veblen did, and
assert that all the heavy academic lifting is merely designed to boost
undergraduate match-making and alumni self-image. But I'd rather argue
that the scholarship that takes place in the modern university, and
upon which so much of its standing is measured, cannot be
distinguished from the educational "work" itself.

For example, when a research laboratory attracts outside money, the
status of the principal investigator, and her capacity to recruit
excellent research assistants, is all part of the dollar-labor
exchange, even as the RA's are working on their Ph.D.'s. Likewise,
when a graduate student in history writes a great dissertation and
lands a prestigious job, that accomplishment, while undoubtedly part
of the great stream of disinterested scholarship, also redounds to the
material credit of her university and mentors.

We have no trouble paying faculty members for their career-boosting
scholarship, so why not recognize that graduate education is also a
seamless web of teaching, learning, and research? The general
well-being of the institution -- in terms of its capacity to attract
students, recruit professors, raise money from alumni, secure
government and corporate support -- is enhanced by the scholarship of
the faculty members and the educational apprenticeship of their

It is therefore futile for a government agency or a university
administrator to construct a set of antiquated job categories and then
stuff unwilling graduate students into them. Instead we should
celebrate the multiple identities held by not only the men and women
of the university but also by so many other Americans. Their
democratic empowerment requires the legal and imaginative
deconstruction of the stultifying and dysfunctional occupational
hierarchy into which our current labor law seeks to consign them.
Indeed, it was Karl Marx, our most famous sociologist of class
society, who looked forward to the day when we "hunt in the morning,
fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after
dinner ... without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd, or

Unionization not only contributes to graduate students' well-being,
but helps vitalize humane learning and the democratic ethos. These
young men and women should not allow a partisan, parochial NLRB to
stanch their organizing efforts.

Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history and director of the
Center for Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California
at Santa Barbara.

----- ----- Section: The Chronicle Review Volume
50, Issue 48, Page B16

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