Tag Archives: union

Should We Unionize the Grad Students?

On September 12, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing that focused on the subject of unionization of graduate students. Inside Higher ed covered the story.

Here is the issue. Private colleges and universities are subject to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which permits employees to seek to unionize through an election process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Employees can petition for the NLRB to hold an election and when at least 30 percent indicate their desire for an election, it will be scheduled. If more than half of the workers vote in favor of a union, it then becomes the exclusive representative of all the workers and the employer is legally compelled to bargain with union officials “in good faith.”

Labor unions have been steadily eroding except in the public sector for decades. Their political allies would like to see that decline reversed and are happy to help unions open up new “markets.” That is why the prospect of unionizing grad students appeals to Democrats, who receive almost all of the political support dished out by Big Labor.

Under the NLRA, which is vague as to just who is an “employee” and who is not, grad students are currently regarded as outside the definition. The NLRB, controlled by pro-union Democratic appointees, has held hearings meant to pave the way for change. As expected, the House committee hearing divided neatly along party lines.

I haven’t read the transcript of the hearing, but from the IHE piece and my experience with such hearings, I’m pretty sure that no one brought up the strongest objections to expanding unionization “rights” to grad students.

For one thing, unionization under the NLRA is nothing like a voluntary cooperative effort aimed at improving conditions. Once a union is voted in and certified, it has exclusive bargaining authority over all the workers. No individual is allowed to handle his own affairs any longer. Some grad students would probably like this collectivization, but others would find it abhorrent. Why should their freedom be trampled upon?

Moreover, a union vote is not like a political election. A union voted in today remains in place indefinitely. Grad students who enter school after a union has been certified won’t have any say about it unless they go through the rather difficult process of petitioning to decertify.

Nothing prevents grad students from getting together and arguing their case for better compensation or conditions without relying on federal coercion. That’s how we should leave it.

A Stage-Managed, Occupy-Like Protest at CUNY

A central mantra of the PSC–the City University of New York’s hapless faculty union–is a complaint about defunding CUNY, as part of an alleged plot (by whom and for what reason we never learn) to “defund” public higher education. Yet over the past several months, the most aggressive advocates of “defunding” CUNY have been none other than union activists, who have piggy-backed on sporadic student protests against mild tuition increases in an attempt to embarrass the CUNY administration.

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Where Is the Faculty on Unionization?

A story today at insidehighered.com has a hole in it: the faculty is missing. Entitled “So Close,” the piece covers unionization efforts at University of Michigan by graduate research assistants, those efforts recently blocked by state legislation, signed by the governor, preventing the union from happening. The story contains viewpoints from research assistants, union advocates, the Michigan administration, and the Mackinac Center, a think tank in the state, but nothing from professors.

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Unionize All Those Adjuncts?–Let’s Not

adjunct union protests.jpgSome two-thirds of America’s college students are taught by adjuncts, and now the battle is on over whether these low-paid, low-status workers should be unionized. Adjuncts, also called contingent faculty, are teachers hired without tenure, paid a small fraction of those on tenure-track positions, (typically $2700 per course, with minimal benefits). All three college faculty unions–the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association–have recently ramped up unionization campaigns while non-academic unions like the United Auto Workers have likewise entered the battle. The stakes are high both for institutions and for individuals.

One does not have to be a Marxist to yell, “Exploitation!” Endless tales of “Gypsy Scholars” abound–young men and women struggling with no job security to teach as many as six courses per semester, occasionally at multiple schools, lacking any health or pension plan at a salary comparable to working at McDonalds. Meanwhile tenure-track colleagues, some of whom may be brain dead, enjoy a princely wage (with generous benefits) for teaching identical courses. So, what better way to eliminate this blatant unfairness than unionization?

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More on Professors and Unionization

As K C Johnson noted here yesterday, Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels have a conversation at the New York Timesopinionator blog in which both advocate unionization (see here).  Their immediate target is an op-ed by Naomi Schaefer Riley in USA Today entitled “Why Unions Hurt Higher Education” (see here).

It should be noted that Michaels and Fish are both English professors, which puts them in a department where the adjunct hiring problem is, perhaps, the worst on the entire campus.  They see enormous differences in working conditions for those at the top and those at the bottom, and with the job market in literary studies in dreadful condition, unionization is certainly one of the options the faculty may take if things get any worse.

When humanities professors talk about unions, however, they run up against a wall of their own making.  it is that while unionization requires collective thinking and action, humanities working conditions, particularly the incentives for promotion and salary, are all individual.  Professors are valuated on their teaching and research, mostly, with service a distant third.  Service is, indeed, collective (committee work, administrative duties), but teaching and research are almost always based upon solitary work.  People write books and articles by themselves and they teach classes by themselves.  They have learned from the start that unless the sequester themselves for individual work, they won’t have the time to meet tenure demands.  In the 1950s, social theorists used to talk about the way television “atomized” people, separating them into houses at night, eyes focused on the electric hearth.  Today’s research university does the same for professors, their eyes focused on the books and web pages they need to write their way to advancement.

They’ve done it so long that it becomes a professional trait.  They think separately and work separately, often regarding collective moments such as department meetings as a bother.  Many of them just want to be left alone.

The union option works against years of acculturation.  So much so that it is hard to imagine 35 English professors convening, drafting an objective, formulating a method, and mobilizing for action.

An Odd View of Faculty Unions

In Monday’s edition of The Hill, Juan Williams penned a column advocating defunding NPR. There are lots of reasons why such an approach might be a good idea–we’re in very tough budget times; credible allegations of bias have been made against the organization; a far wider array of media outlets exists now than when NPR first was created. Yet Williams justified his recommendation by focusing on one, irrelevant rationale: that House Democrats had cited GOP attempts to defund NPR in a fundraising letter.

 This curious connecting of a significant policy recommendation to a basically unrelated, if high-profile, political development also appeared in Stanley Fish’s Tuesday’s column on the New York Times website, in which Fish announced that he now supported the creation of academic unions. “I recently flipped,” he explained, “and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” 

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Higher-Ed Unions and the Shortcomings of Public Employee Organizations

The activities of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker have brought unusually high public attention to the status of public employee unions. Few, if any, public employee unions could withstand intense media focus less han those representing higher education: too often these unions provide a caricature of the critics’ vision—organizations that seek to use the public dime to fund mediocrity. A good example comes in a recent dispute, profiled in Inside Higher Ed, in Washington state. The basics: the state’s academic union had championed a bill to regularize the funding stream for raises–guaranteed annual raises– for full-time faculty members. Such a move seemed like a normal activity for an academic union, though I suspect that most taxpayers could respond with a reasonable question: why should a tenured professor who hasn’t published anything recently, and whose teaching is mediocre, receive the same raise as a tenured professor hired the same year who had just published a major monograph and whose teaching is first-rate? For union official Jack Longmate, however, this one-size-fits-all approach didn’t go far enough, and he testified against the bill. Longmate, an adjunct at Olympic College, demanded that the state also guarantee seniority-based raises for adjuncts; otherwise, he argued, the bill should be rejected altogether, since adjuncts do the same teaching as full-time faculty. This line of reasoning makes perfect sense from a hard-line union perspective: qualifications of instructors are irrelevant, and everyone should make the same salary. But given that by any definable measurement—they’re not hired through national searches, they have no expectation of scholarship—adjuncts are less qualified than full-time faculty, it’s hard to see how such a viewpoint is politically or financially defensible. Continue reading Higher-Ed Unions and the Shortcomings of Public Employee Organizations

Why Faculty Unions Could Destroy Our Universities

After decades of trying, the Democrat-controlled Wisconsin legislature, with the encouragement of the union-backed governor, passed a statute allowing unionization of faculty in the University of Wisconsin system. Recently the first campus, Superior, voted to unionize their faculty by a 75-5 vote. I believe that ultimately faculty unions will seriously damage public universities in Wisconsin and elsewhere, particularly at “flagship” campuses that produce and require serious faculty research.
I do not say this out of hostility to unions. I have been an advocate for organized labor and taught and directed organizations connected to the movement. I was the last director of the Industrial Relations Research Institute and also worked with the university School for Workers, which has a long history of training union stewards, organizers, leaders of locals. In my book, Democracy, Authority, and Alienation in Work (University of Chicago Press, 1980), I argued that for industrial democracy to work in practice, a union was required as an ultimate protection for workers.
But those connections were to blue-collar workers, in the trades, in manufacturing, or in service positions. They did not include “professional unions,” the largest being kindergarten to twelfth-grade teachers, but also including other professions and of course faculty unions. Blue-collar unions were and are necessary to both counteract very asymmetric power relationships with management and to establish decent and living wages and benefits. The great era of American unions from the 1930s to the 1970s did that and the result was a burgeoning middle class that aided the prosperity of the nation through jobs that fathers and mothers held with pride.

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NYU’s ”Union” Activism Re-Emerges

The New York Times recently brought news that that the union and faculty activists determined to establish a graduate student union at NYU have renewed their crusade. I use the phrase “union and faculty activists” deliberately, since it’s hard to imagine that any of the graduate students actually involved in the original controversy remain at NYU, unless they have experienced writers’ block in the production of their dissertations.
The matter appeared to be settled in 2004, when the NLRB understandably ruled that graduate students are primarily just that—students, not workers. The reaction on the NYU campus and among faculty and professional allies was fierce. Graduate student activists then serving as teaching assistants decided to penalize their own undergraduate students for the NLRB decision, going on strike and refusing to submit grades. In perhaps the most bizarre expression of support for the strikers’ cause, the AAUP declared that NYU’s refusal to recognize the union constituted a violation of both academic freedom and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights(!).
When NYU president John Sexton reasonably decided to hire for the spring 2006 semester only those graduate students who would commit to actually teaching their classes—rather than going on strike on NYU’s dime—a group of around 200 NYU professors calling themselves “Faculty Democracy” protested the “undemocratic” requirement. The signatories even threatened to withhold grades in their courses. In the end, except for a handful of malcontents, the situation returned to normal, and the strike fizzled.

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Betraying Your Students 101

One of the more heroic acts in the recent annals of American higher education came from NYU president John Sexton, who stood up to the faculty radicals within his midst and (thus far successfully) fought creation of a graduate student “union” on his campus. There are lots of reasons why academic unionization is problematic, but the concept of graduate student unionization is ridiculous. That the movement is often promoted as a fight against the “corporate agenda” in higher education is even stranger, since the idea that graduate students are “laborers” who need to “unionize” reflects a vision of the academy that should repel anyone opposed to the “corporatization” of higher education.

The dangers of graduate student “unionization” are currently on full display at the University of Illinois. Betraying the undergraduates that they teach, Illinois graduate students went out on strike Monday, demanding that the university guarantee tuition waivers for out-of-state students. In a statement that offers a sense of how much the “union” activists value the students they teach, Kerry Pimblott, lead negotiator for the graduate student “union,” proclaimed, “We control this campus; we decide if they have instruction on this campus.”

Why should Illinois taxpayers accommodate the strikers’ demands? Amber Cooper, a leader of the University of Michigan’s graduate student union who joined the strikers, offered an articulate rationale: the university’s position was “freaking ridiculous.”

Any good Ph.D. program will offer tuition waivers—they’re the only way to recruit talented graduate students. But the Illinois administration, for perfectly understandable reasons, has proved reluctant to place what amounts to an academic decision into a contract. Moreover, if the current economic downturn continues, Illinois, like all public universities, will come under increasing pressure to cut costs and raise additional revenue. There’s no particular reason why automatic tuition waivers should be exempt from consideration in such a budget crisis.

Meanwhile, the strikers don’t appear to be experiencing any particular hardship. The Illinois provost sent out a mass e-mail indicating that no current graduate student would see his or her tuition waiver adjusted. And though they walked out on their students, it appears as if the graduate students will not see their stipends reduced for the time they spend on the picket line instead of the classroom.

Undergraduates—as so often is the case on campus political matters—offered the most sensible response. Senior Alisha Janssen, astutely noted, “It’s not really fair that we have to pay for an education, and they are complaining about getting paid for getting an education.” And James Liu told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s not that hard to cross a picket line. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t feel like I should sacrifice my credit because this is between the grad students and the university.”

Liu and Janssen, of course, are correct. While the Illinois administration appears ready to cave to the “union” extremists, the university should do more to look after the undergraduates it teaches, and do less to accommodate the demands of graduate student activists.

CUNY Union: Challenge Gratz?

I have written elsewhere on how academic unions tend to attract the most extremist voices even in an academy that overwhelmingly tilts to one side ideologically. Within the category of extremist academic unions, however, the CUNY union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), stands out.
Since 2000 headed by a faction called the New Caucus, the PSC has seemed to be far more interested in play-acting as 1960s radicals than in doing to hard work of negotiating or building popular support for higher education. The union leadership criticizes Israeli national security policy. It demands a return to the disastrous open admissions policy of the 1970s. Its president, Barbara Bowen, was the only New York union head to oppose military action against the Taliban in 2001. It has spent countless hours advocating for striking Stella D’Oro workers, or striking teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, or various other causes that have nothing to do with what’s supposed to be its central mission—ensuring the economic well-being of CUNY faculty and staff.
Yet even given this record, the PSC’s latest initiative is off the wall. The union leadership (whose president and vice-president are both white), has just announced that it :has convened an advisory group on CUNY and Race . . . to investigate the impact of racism and racial inequality within the University and without – as a possible factor in the history of public funding for CUNY.”

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Card Check Comes To Campus

Labor unions have suffered a number of defeats in recent years, but they hope to regain momentum by gaining passage of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to secure votes for unionization, mainly through a mechanism called “card check.” Card check would replace the traditional method of unionization by eliminating secret ballots when employees vote for or against unionization. “Card check” would allow the signing of cards without the benefit of secrecy, perhaps even in the presence of pro-union activists. Will employees actually make free, unfettered choices in the face of union organizers who present them with cards? Or is the “Free Choice Act” but the latest historical incarnation of Newspeak?
Card check is in some trouble in Washington, but similar policies are having more success at the state level. A prominent example is Wisconsin, which has recently enacted such legislation regarding the University of Wisconsin. The policy is part of a larger pro-union package in the state.
Recently Governor Jim Doyle signed the state’s 2009-2011 biennial budget, which includes a provision that gives collective bargaining rights to over 20,000 UW System faculty, academic staff, and research assistants. As of this writing, the faculty members of all UW System schools except UW-Madison have passed resolutions favoring the right to decide on unionization. Madison will no doubt deal with this issue in the fall; but even if Madison faculty members vote to have the right to decide, it is not evident that they will ultimately vote to unionize, for reasoned arguments exist on both sides of this question.

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