Yale’s Bad History

What happens when a history professor at Yale opposes a grad union but doesn’t know her history?

A scene from the 2003 Yale graduate student strike.

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument — reason, evidence, that kind of thing — when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent op-ed by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says:

One of the main tools available to unions is to strike. When employees strike at a company, their consumers lose services until management negotiates a new contract with the union. For example, a strike at Metro-North brings the suspension of train service and a decline in revenue until management and employees reach agreement and employees return to work.

So Yale shouldn’t recognize a union of its grad employees because those employees will go out on strike.

Since 1991, by my count, there have been five strikes by Yale’s grad employees: in December 1991, March 1992, April 1995, December 1995-January 1996, and 2003. Five strikes — and probably more — without Yale ever having recognized a union of its grad employees. I know, history.

Oddly, Hansen does go on to mention that Yale’s grad employees have struck in the past (and she should know since she’s been there since 1988), but she doesn’t seem to realize how the evidence she cites undermines her claim: if the fact that grad employees, with a union, would strike is a reason to oppose their unionization, then the fact that grad employees, without a union, have struck, should at least be considered as a reason not to oppose their unionization.

That’s not fancy forensics; it’s actually, um, history.

When Congress and the Supreme Court finally came to terms, in 1935 and 1937, with the idea of a legally recognized right to form unions in the United States, one of the reasons they gave was that workers were already striking and had been striking for some time. While unionized employees might strike, Congress and the Court reasoned that having a legally recognized union would be a way for workers to advance their interests without having to strike. Unions, in other words, would reduce strikes.

It’s right there, in Section 1, of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the very first sentence, in fact:

The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes…

And then, Congress adds this, in the first sentence of the third paragraph of the NLRA:

Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest…

I know, history.

Another reason Hansen cites for her opposition to a grad employee union is that grad employees “are not full-time” and “being a graduate student is not a lifetime job.” Grad employment is neither full-time nor lifetime: ergo, no union.

Here’s Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

Notice that that passage doesn’t say “only full-time and lifetime employees shall have the right to self-organization.” Nowhere in all of the National Labor Relations Act in fact does it say that you have to be a full-time worker at a lifetime job in order to have a union.

And how could it? Many workers only work part-time, and many jobs in the new American economy are part-time. The average time at a job in the United States, moreover, is 4.6 years (that’s 1.4 years less, incidentally, than the 6 years that Yale and other universities consider to be the normal time to degree for their graduate students). Does that mean those workers are not entitled to a union? Of course not.

Like I said, I can understand a tenured historian at Yale opposing a union of grad employees. But at the cost of embarrassing herself? That takes real commitment.