Re: NLRB ruling against grad students unionizing

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Sun Aug 08 2004 - 04:05:36 PDT

I'm sympathetic to the needs of grad students. I was a grad student myself
(though instead of having an assistantship, I taught full-time as an
English teacher at a public high school to pay the bills), and have close
relationships with the doc students in our program at UGA.

But this article is overlooking some fairly basic things. How will the
increased salaries and benefits be financed? I can think of a few ways,
none as gloriously unproblematic as the author suggests:

1. With increased salaries and benefits, the pot of money stays the same.
So, fewer grad students receive assistantships, fewer classes are taught
(or larger sections are taught), less research gets done, more students
(and their parents) are angry, etc. A bad scene.

2. With increased salaries and benefits, the number of grad assistants
remains roughly the same, but must be financed. But how?
a. These students and their salaries and benefits (and likely tuition
waivers) are subsidized by a fee charged to tuition-paying students.
b. The costs are covered by a tuition increase.
c. The costs are covered by a generous contribution from the state
legislation (for public universities), which itself will be covered by a
tax increase to all citizens whether they support the universitites or
d. The costs are covered by faculty members and administrators who
voluntarily have their own salaries reduced to pay the assistants.
e. The costs are covered by funds diverted from other expenses required to
run a university.
f. The costs are covered by the university's endowment and/or targeted
alumni contributions.

I've never taken an economics course, but even I can see that the fine
idea of paying grad students more costs money, that most universities (not
sure about the Ivies) have annual financial crises as it is, and that any
plan to pay them more and increase their benefits will create anger and
resistance from other sectors.

I'm all for great ideas and a better life, but I also think that any
so-called social analysis has to have a viable alternative before I take
it seriously. Until then, it's just romantic hogwash.


> 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
> Warfare
> 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
> students.
> 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
> critic."
> 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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