Over 20 years ago, I was one of many graduate students at a certain East Coast university who fought for the right to unionize.
Why would academics-in-training at a prestigious university need a union to protect their rights in the workplace?
Many courses at U.S. universities and colleges are taught by graduate students. In the early 1990s, we were paid less than a living wage to teach college courses, while conducting research and writing dissertations; graduate students with families were, as you may imagine, especially hard-pressed. We had actions, grade-ins, rallies and joined forces with the maintenance and clerical workers unions.
On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives held a hearing to put a stop to just what we were working to do 20 years ago.
House Republicans Seek to Undermine the Rights of Higher Ed Workers
Last year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) adopted new rules to make unionizing easier for private-college employees and to “[clear] the way for union elections at religious institutions such as Saint Xavier University and Duquesne University.” Such rules are necessary to prevent the exploitation of university employees, especially graduate student workers — teaching and research assistants — who are in a sort of “apprenticeship” status as they pursue masters and doctoral degrees under faculty advisors who they rely on heavily for their careers.
In particular, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the NLRB is reviewing a 2004 decision made prior to the unionization of graduate assistants at colleges and universities. It is also revisiting its standards about which faculty members at private colleges “should be classified as employees who can unionize and which should be classified as managers legally ineligible for union representation.”
The House’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training and the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions called for the hearing about graduate students and faculty unionizing. The NLRC is, the subcommittees claimed, “taking steps to impose changes on private postsecondary institutions by re-examining its jurisdiction over graduate students, university faculty, and religious institutions.”
But the hearing was really about Republicans objecting, yet again, to workers’ right to unionize.
College Teaching Isn’t What You Might Think It Is
Some professors only teach one or two classes all year, sit in book-lined and technologically-equipped offices, attend lectures by eminent colleagues, spend hours in quiet libraries or sparkling labs conducting research. But this is the Hollywood version of being a professor. Most of us juggle too many classes with demands to publish frequently in peer-reviewed journals, to advise a stream of students and take on administrative duties.
More and more faculty have no office to speak of but only a bag stuffed with student essays and textbooks. They also lack job security: 70 percent of college instructors in the US are non-tenure track faculty and adjuncts; the latter may teach two courses here, one there, two more there, a Saturday morning one there. Being an adjunct means you’re a casual worker with no health benefits and no job security.
Yes, Graduate Students Work At Jobs in Universities
As the Chronicle of Higher Education observes, the very title of the House subcommittees’ hearing (“Expanding the Power of Big Labor: The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion Into Higher Education“) had “an adversarial tone.” This was not surprising due to Republicans complaints of “recent attempts by the NLRB’s Democratic majority to reverse decisions issued when Republican appointees held most of the board’s seats.”
Higher education officials (Michael P. Moreland, vice dean of the Villanova University School of Law and Peter M. Weber, dean of the Brown University Graduate School) testified at the hearing as well as a lawyer, Walter C. Hunter, who represents colleges as the co-chairman of the higher-education practice group of the Littler Mendelson law firm. Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, also testified.
Weber argued that considering Brown’s graduate students as “employees” would do nothing less than “damage the fabric of graduate education at Brown University and institutions like it.” He also said that
At Brown, we do not consider teaching, research or proctorships to be “jobs.” That concept is so foreign to our academic mission that characterizing our Ph.D. candidates as ‘employees’ would irrevocably alter the essence of our programs.
Teaching and research, which graduate students devote hours and hours to in preparation for future careers, are not “jobs”?
Representative George Miller, D-California, the senior Democratic member of the Education & the Workforce Committee, pointed out that graduate students could have their workloads arbitrarily increased without worker protections. Indeed, he noted that ”depriving the graduate student assistants of the right to bargain collectively suggests they are not intelligent enough to exercise the right responsibly.”
The House hearing was not really about protecting private universities’ “freedom of speech” or keeping costs down for students as higher-education officials have been claiming. The hearing was politically motivated. As Citizen Vox says, the NLRB is not (as House Republicans claim) trampling on the “sacred ground” of private universities and colleges but carrying out its mission, “to protect the rights of employees and employer” — and, I would add, of students and those who teach them in our colleges and universities.
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