How Unions Change Universities

Graduate worker unions don’t pit faculty against students — they challenge the corporate ethos of modern universities.

“Dear Marley-Vincent,

Congratulations! Based on the recommendation of the History PhD program, Brown University offers you admission* to the Graduate School, beginning in the 2015–16 academic year.”

Perhaps for future graduate admissions, schools like my own institution should add a footnote: “Keep in mind that ‘admission,’ in our opinion, places you in a separate class of workers, in whose rights for collective bargaining we do not believe.”

This is a key subtext from the National Labor Relations Board’s 2004 Brown case, whose ruling excluded graduate students from collective bargaining processes: “The case presents the issue of whether graduate student assistants who are admitted into, not hired by, a university, and for whom supervised teaching or research is an integral component of their academic development, must be treated as employees for purposes of collective bargaining under Section 2(3) of the Act.”

Last Tuesday, the NLRB reversed that decision, arguing that an additional educational relationship does not foreclose the ability of the Board to treat student assistants as employees where they perform labor as directed by the university, for which they receive payment.

In simpler terms, this means my relationship with faculty members has nothing to do with the economic transaction the administration of my university engages in with me.

Despite this, the administrations of private schools across America have expressed deep concern over this impossibility.

My alma mater’s president, Robert Zimmer — who was, incidentally, provost of Brown during the 2004 NLRB case — wrote to the student body at the University of Chicago that “Unionization, by its very nature will mean that a labor union, which may be unfamiliar with what is involved in developing outstanding scholars, will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students.”

The FAQ on unionization at my current institution argues, “It is impossible to speculate on the impact that a business relationship would have on the relationship that exists between a graduate student and faculty members.” Peter M. Weber, former dean of the graduate school at Brown, testified in front of Congress in 2012 that defining Brown’s graduate students as “employees” would damage the fabric of graduate education, saying that “engaging in collective bargaining about issues at the core of the academic curriculum would wreak havoc with academic freedom.”

Many of the amici briefs filed by other private schools, anxious over the meaning of collective bargaining, engage in producing fearful shadows about impossible speculation.

This is despite the fact that the only existing surveys of data done at public universities — where unions have been legal for some time — suggest that any influence of unions on student-faculty relationships is positive. From the abstract: “Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and non-unionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom.”

The truth is that graduate student unions have little to do with most faculty-student relationships; they instead threaten the very structure of power within bloated administrations that have restructured academic programs and services at personal gain.

We’re all aware of the rising corporate structure of the twenty-first-century university. Adjuncts’ horror stories have moved from anecdotes reserved for a select few graduate workers to a central expectation for all workers in a variety of fields and departments.

Estimates of non-tenured faculty are between 50–70 percent, depending on how you count them. That is up from 30 percent in 1975, which was right when the first case evaluating graduate students’ rights for collective bargaining was brought forward to the NLRB in 1972.

The adjunctification of American universities was a symptom of the university’s corporate transformation. But this transformation did not receive even a footnote when the Board issued their decision to overturn graduate workers’ right to organize in the Brown 2004 case.

Instead, the Board based that decision on the assumption that an educational relationship could never be exploitative for the simple reason that both faculty and graduate students hold the students’ best interest at heart. So long as the relationship between a student and her university was educational, there was no conflict of interest between a faculty member in whose class a graduate student worked, and the graduate student’s desire to advance in the program.

The Board’s decision last week seems to cut against this Bush-era line of reasoning, but it’s still worth addressing because variants of it come up so often. We should be clear on this question: faculty have almost nothing to do with the questions at hand in a unionization drive.

My willingness to unionize has no bearing on the conversations that I have with professors in my department. As the graduate workers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) organize at Harvard, for example, they have only asked one thing of faculty: to sign a neutrality pledge to prevent students from fearing professional backlash for their actions.

It is not the relationship between students and faculty that is on trial in graduate worker union battles around the country, but rather the administrative structure of a university that demands more classes be offered with increasingly fewer resources, a story that is replicated throughout states where austerity is the norm.

Demonstrations in Missouri, Wisconsin, Davis, California, or Kentucky rarely target already-suffering faculty or departments; they target the administrations that systematically deprived them in the name of cutting costs or otherwise use their administrative positions to enrich themselves.

There is, however, one area where the union could actively intervene between faculty and students: the creation of a real grievance process.

The lack of an impartial grievance process for graduate students serves no one but the administrations that seek to avoid headlines and the select predatory faculty who realize graduate students lack adequate protection.

This is more than hypothetical. Yale’s Spanish and Portuguese department, for example, afforded protection to at least one professor accused of sexually harassing graduate students over a long period of time.

When administrators decided to review the case — only after the department failed to have any students matriculate to its program for the fall of 2015 — many of the changes they implemented, such as changing the director of graduate studies, or mandating sexual harassment workshops for faculty, offered little substantial change for ensuring the protection of its graduate student workers.

The University of Chicago, in tandem with its recent posturing against safe spaces, hired and retained a professor with a pattern of sexual harassment, before finally dismissing him after sexual advances made against graduate students at a faculty retreat.

Victories like this are few and far between, and they leave prolonged silence in their wake. As Sara Matthiesen recounted in her assessment of the problem at Brown, “Most graduate students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault at the hands of colleagues or faculty are reluctant to address instances of harassment for fear of negatively impacting their professional opportunities.”

Despite knowing the statistics, it is sometimes difficult to envision these beneficial results of a union because many of us can only see our relationships with our immediate advisors; relationships that are typically warm, cordial, and instructive in our careers. These faculty members are the ones who forward us books or introduce us to the scholars that ask the same questions we do.

This memory of our relationships with advisors is consistently exploited by administration and pro-administration faculty in their public arguments against unions: if you vote for a union, all of this will suddenly disappear, and your advisor will drop you at the end of your forty-hour week.

Graduate student training in the United States has functioned as an informal apprenticeship with the most coveted of prizes for successful disciples: the title of intellectual, and the freedom to do with that title what one will.

Instead of discussing the many ways that a union can uplift the entire student population, administrators have used our tendency to believe that unions are antithetical to this process: a long institutional history of individual relationships between masters and their pupils, through which the selected talent continues to the next generation.

But unions were never about minimizing an individual’s ability to do well; they were about ensuring some basic standard of living for all members within the field. Such basic standards can keep us from the exploitation of universities that ultimately desire total control over their labor, whether that control is in terms of precarity, intellectual accessibility, or profit.

Regardless of how we feel about it, survival in the academy has become a corporate exercise. Instead of looking at unions as the antithesis of academic life, we should consider them an assertion of the authority of those of us who carry out the labor that makes higher education possible. All of us will be better for it.