Why Did the New York Times Ask Everybody But Grad Students About Grad Student Unions?

Anna Waltman, Natasha Raheja and Shannon Ikebe

Graduate students march in New York City. Apparently the New York Times has never heard of them. (GEO-UAW)

Grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers per­form salaried work that is inte­gral to uni­ver­si­ty oper­a­tions, includ­ing under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion and research. Over the past sev­er­al months, union­ized grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, NYU, Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts-Amherst and UMass-Boston, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, York Uni­ver­si­ty, Rut­gers, Michi­gan State and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut have used direct action and oth­er tac­tics to push their uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions to pro­vide more afford­able health insur­ance that also cov­ers fam­i­lies, fair­er expec­ta­tions regard­ing work­load, liv­ing wages and rea­son­able griev­ance pro­ce­dures. Grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers at Colum­bia, the New School, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai’i, Yale, Har­vard and Cor­nell are active­ly orga­niz­ing their own unions and fight­ing for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights.

These efforts date back to the 1960s. Grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers at UC Berke­ley union­ized dur­ing the Free Speech Move­ment in 1964; in 1969, grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers joined the fac­ul­ty bar­gain­ing units at CUNY and Rut­gers, fol­lowed close­ly by Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin-Madison’s Teach­ing Assis­tants Asso­ci­a­tion, who gained recog­ni­tion inde­pen­dent­ly of fac­ul­ty in the same year. 

In oth­er words: grad­u­ate union­iza­tion is not a pass­ing fad, but a move­ment over half-a-cen­tu­ry old.

Giv­en the rich his­to­ry of stu­dent-work­er orga­niz­ing — in and around the New York met­ro­pol­i­tan area and around the coun­try, in addi­tion to the high­ly-pub­li­cized, vibrant orga­niz­ing of pri­vate-sec­tor uni­ver­si­ties chal­leng­ing the 2004 NLRB deci­sion that has been ongo­ing in the region for the last two years — we find it dis­turb­ing and frus­trat­ing that the New York Times failed to inter­view a sin­gle grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­er for its recent op-ed series Room for Debate” on the grad­u­ate and con­tin­gent labor movement.

Instead, the Times chose to inter­view uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors and fac­ul­ty, some of whom dis­miss stu­dent-work­er union­iza­tion as naïve” and dis­rup­tive of del­i­cate bal­ances.” While we wel­come the Times’ late entrance into the debate over grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion, in order for such a debate to take place in earnest, stu­dent-work­er per­spec­tives must be included. 

Over the last two decades, the strug­gle of adjunct fac­ul­ty liv­ing in pover­ty has dom­i­nat­ed the con­ver­sa­tion about the qual­i­ty of under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion and acad­e­mia as a viable career path. For fledg­ling aca­d­e­mics in grad­u­ate school, it has become impos­si­ble to avoid the sto­ries of adjunct pro­fes­sors liv­ing out of their cars, strug­gling to col­lect enough mon­ey to eat, even dying from lack of insti­tu­tion­al support.

A head­line from the pop­u­lar aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty blog Vitae encap­su­lates the bleak­ness of the adjunct life: Sui­cide is My Retire­ment Plan.” This is the utter­ly dis­em­pow­ered and dark career path and uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­ment that many of us stand to inherit.

Unions offer us an alter­na­tive set of pos­si­ble futures, all of which are brighter than the present. Through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and col­lec­tive action, we fight against the increas­ing cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty. The mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits and improved work­ing con­di­tions we achieve through our col­lec­tive efforts are also impor­tant for high-qual­i­ty aca­d­e­m­ic instruc­tion and research, since we can’t pro­duce good work if we have to take on many addi­tion­al jobs to make ends meet.

In many respects, the grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­er move­ment func­tions as a train­ing ground for tomorrow’s adjunct and fac­ul­ty orga­niz­ers. Tak­ing part in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing as grad­u­ate stu­dents teach­es us how neolib­er­al-era col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties actu­al­ly work, and the key role con­tin­gent labor plays in sup­port­ing these insti­tu­tions. Through engag­ing in grad­u­ate unions, we learn cru­cial skills for build­ing effec­tive orga­niz­ing cam­paigns, nego­ti­at­ing strong con­tracts and stand­ing togeth­er across disciplines.

The impor­tance of unions goes beyond work­er edu­ca­tion. A strong, col­lec­tive­ly-bar­gained grad­u­ate employ­ee union con­tract pro­tects the most vul­ner­a­ble grad stu­dent-work­ers from abuse and makes an aca­d­e­m­ic career pos­si­ble for a wider range of peo­ple. Acad­e­mia can be a deeply dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and pre­car­i­ous place for women (espe­cial­ly with fam­i­lies), LGBTQI peo­ple, peo­ple of col­or and peo­ple liv­ing with chron­ic ill­ness and dis­abil­i­ties. (See the anthol­o­gy Pre­sumed Incom­pe­tent for some stag­ger­ing exam­ples.) Just cause” pro­vi­sions are a hall­mark of union con­tracts, and pro­tect work­ers from arbi­trary or capri­cious hir­ing and fir­ing deci­sions; con­tracts also fre­quent­ly offer pro­tec­tion from sex­u­al harass­ment, retal­i­a­tion and oth­er forms of mis­treat­ment in the workplace.

Unions can also nego­ti­ate eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits like liv­ing wages and more afford­able health­care. Many grad­u­ate employ­ees with­out unions live on pover­ty wages. With­out a good health insur­ance plan, they may be forced to choose between tak­ing care of their health and eat­ing or pay­ing rent. Some grad­u­ate stu­dents may be able to rely on fam­i­lies or spous­es to sup­port them dur­ing their grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion, but this is a priv­i­lege that not every­one has or can access. Grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers are often forced to take on stu­dent loan and/​or cred­it card debt to sur­vive. Unions allow grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­ers to fight for wages and ben­e­fits that allow them to sur­vive inde­pen­dent­ly of their fam­i­lies with­out tak­ing on debt. This is cru­cial for keep­ing grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion acces­si­ble to peo­ple from all socioe­co­nom­ic backgrounds.

The only del­i­cate bal­ances” that stand to be upset” by grad­u­ate employ­ees and oth­er con­tin­gent aca­d­e­m­ic work­ers attain­ing full col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights are the deeply uneven bal­ances of pow­er and cap­i­tal that have allowed high­er edu­ca­tion to plunge fur­ther and fur­ther into an employ­ment cri­sis over the last two decades. We believe that all work­ers deserve bet­ter than pover­ty wages, poor or nonex­is­tent health insur­ance, and no job security.

The labor of grad­u­ate employ­ees, post­doc­tor­al fel­lows, and con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty in labs, class­rooms, offices and dorms keeps research uni­ver­si­ties afloat. Unions allow us to lever­age the pow­er of our labor to ensure our sur­vival now, that we may build a bet­ter future.

The recog­ni­tion of grad­u­ate stu­dent work as work is grow­ing, but for any debates over grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion to take place in earnest, stu­dent-work­er per­spec­tives must be includ­ed. The New York Times made a seri­ous omis­sion by leav­ing out grad­u­ate stu­dent-work­er voic­es which demon­strate the ways union­iza­tion and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing yield ben­e­fi­cial changes to our lives while enhanc­ing the qual­i­ty of uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tion and research.

Anna Walt­man has served as co-chair of GEO-UAW since May 2013, and has worked at Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts-Amherst as a teach­ing assis­tant or teach­ing asso­ciate (instruc­tor of record) since begin­ning grad­u­ate school in Eng­lish in 2009.Natasha Rahe­ja is a teach­ing assis­tant and Ph.D. can­di­date in the Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. She has served on the GSOC-UAW Bar­gain­ing Com­mit­tee and is a mem­ber of the social jus­tice cau­cus Aca­d­e­m­ic Work­ers for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (AWDU). Natasha is also the direc­tor of the doc­u­men­tary Cast in India on the work­ing lives of the men who make the man­hole cov­ers in New York City.Shan­non Ikebe is a Ph.D. stu­dent in Soci­ol­o­gy at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley. He is a mem­ber of AWDU and for­mer North­ern Vice Pres­i­dent of UAW Local 2865, which rep­re­sents more than 12,000 grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers across the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia campuses.
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