In the Ivory Tower, labor organizing is no easy task. Teaching assistants, who have recently unionized at New York University and the University of Connecticut, don’t have factory floors where collective bonds can be readily formed. We’re scattered throughout classrooms spread over vast campuses, each grading for different professors and advisers, with different and often incommensurable working conditions. We don’t stand before an assembly line with parts of metal and plastic – we work face-to-face with students, who are sometimes apathetic and bemused by our decision to prolong our schooling, but sometimes enthusiastic and insightful enough to remind us why we thought a life of teaching and research could be worthwhile.
When I started graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I proudly signed a union card the first day of orientation. The unprecedented contractagreement reached this year between the University of California and my union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants at all UC campuses, reflects our strategy for dealing with these challenges.
Since teaching assistants are also students, we have to insist on our work being taken seriously as work, not just a step on the way to a future career. In order to win higher wages, our union wrote a report (“Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education”) demonstrating that the viability of the university depends on whether it provides livable conditions for its student-workers. Over half of our most qualified applicants currently choose to attend other institutions, which offer better compensation. We were only able to settle our contract when the UC – after a long, drawn-out struggle – agreed to close a third of this gap between pay at our university and other institutions.
What’s more, many graduate students are supporting families, and enticing as the prospect of a future tenure-track income may be, it doesn’t put dinner on the table tonight. So our new contract also includes increased child-care subsidies, as well as expanded parental leaves and guaranteed access to workplace lactation stations.
We think that we were able to win these demands because we responded to the specificity of our workplace, and expanded the boundaries of union activity. In this contract campaign, expanding the boundaries meant raising three issues alongside wages, and refusing to allow management to dismiss them: class sizes, opportunities for undocumented students, and rights for transgender students.
For teaching assistants, working conditions are a question of quality of education for undergraduates. Class sizes are perhaps the clearest point at which these two interests intersect: every additional paper we have to grade means less time to sit with students in our offices and less time grading the papers of other students. Every extra seat filled in our discussion sections means a reduced opportunity for quieter students to speak up – and they’re usually the ones who will benefit the most from asking questions. The impact that class size has on our workload is mirrored by its impact on the ability of the institution to serve its constituents. Unless educators like us play a role in determining what class size is appropriate, students will be left to flounder instead of thrive.
We’ve also tried to show that universities are one of the places where civil rights issues can be seen as labor issues. One of our most pressing concerns is the availability of funding for students who are undocumented immigrants. About 500 graduate students at the UC are undocumented, and face incredible challenges to completing their degrees. Without the opportunity to work as teaching assistants, undocumented students lead precarious lives, and they’re unable to gain the teaching experience they need to build their careers.
Another issue has been discrimination in the most personal of settings. Once upon a time, when women began to enter male-dominated academic departments, it wasn’t uncommon for them to discover that there were no bathrooms for them in their buildings. We realized that while our society is coming to recognize that transgender people need the safety of gender-neutral bathrooms – indeed, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California law dictating that public schools should provide these facilities last summer – this issue needs to be addressed in labor contracts, since it bears directly on conditions for trans workers.
The contract we’ve agreed on breaks new ground on each of these issues. After months of insisting that TA-to-student ratios were not a “mandatory subject of bargaining,” the UC has agreed to form joint labor-management workload committees in which class sizes can be discussed. The UC has also agreed to form an "instructional opportunities" committee, which will be directed toward providing equal academic and professional opportunities for undocumented students. Finally, we’ve successfully bargained for language in our contract that guarantees access to gender-neutral bathrooms as a “right,” setting a precedent for us to directly address other anti-discrimination demands in the future.
As graduate students, undergraduates, adjuncts, and others grapple with increasingly precarious conditions, unions will become a major force in shaping the future of the university. This is not always clearly understood; successfully waging our contract campaign required us, at times, to go on strike against unfair labor practices that interfered with our ability to bargain. Armed with the UC precedent, frustrated graduate students across the country can think creatively about how to meet their needs as educators. Instead of arguing about ballooning class sizes at interminable department meetings, they might take their demands to the picket line.
Asad Haider is Ph.D. student in history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a member of the Executive Board of UAW 2865.
Invoking the National Labor Relations Act. the president moves to terminate a shutdown of the major Bowl Games following work slowdowns, student riots and threatened strikes by college football players. Ending the lockout may be good news for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, local economies in cities with major bowls, those counting on television revenues and football fans, but leaders of the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, United Electrical Workers, unions already representing graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of public unions say the president’s move will enable them to rally voters for midterm elections.
Does this scenario sound plausible? Given the recent ruling of a National Labor Relations Board regional office to back a bid by football players at Northwestern University to unionize, the answer is yes, in theory at least, although we are years away from resolution of this case. The accelerating trend toward unionization in higher education — far beyond athletics — suggests that public officials, policy makers, corporate leaders, legislators and especially educators might take a second look at why academic institutions are proving fertile grounds for organizing efforts.
History provides some context. Undergraduates working in resident halls, libraries and other ancillary units of universities have been organized for over a decade. For example, at the University of Massachusetts, the UAW overcame opposition at the state labor board and successfully organized over 300 undergraduate residence hall workers. At the University of California, undergraduates are found in unions representing teaching assistants, readers and tutors, although the majority of members are graduate student employees. Graduate student unions have been successful at many public universities including the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon, and union organizing drives are nascent at many elite private universities, pending a ruling of the NLRB on such unions. , one more sympathetic to organizing. Over the years, labor management conflict with graduate students has involved New York, Yale, Brown, and Columbia Universities, among others.
While those who oppose graduate student unions regularly talk as if the sky would fall at their institutions, it’s also the case that places like the University of Michigan – unquestionably one of the best places in the country to earn a Ph.D. – have had T.A. unions for years, with no notable diminishment of the graduate school.
Across a wider landscape, adjunct and part-time faculty have organized successfully and, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education located at Hunter College CUNY, nearly 40 percent of full-time U.S. faculty (and many athletic coaches), primarily in large public state and city systems, have been unionized for decades. Particularly in states with enabling public sector labor legislation, whether red (Alaska) or blue (New York), the determining factors are administrative agencies, legal support and legislation allowing public employees to organize.
In the private sector (Northwestern) bargaining falls under the National Labor Relations Act, where the situation is more complex in academic organizations following a 1980 Supreme Court decision involving Yeshiva University, which effectively denied tenure-track faculty at private institutions the right to bargain. Here again, however many who work in food services, craft and laborer units, transportation and libraries, have been organized.
In the last 45 years, higher education has become one of the most heavily unionized sectors in the U.S. Why?
Although U.S. postsecondary education is emulated throughout the world, and our universities are clearly associated with greater productivity, economic vitality, upward mobility, democratic values, and higher career incomes, there has been, unfortunately, a decline in public support and resources. As resources are scaled back institutions identified alternative ways to generate new revenue streams and lucrative competitive sports contracts have been one such approach. Think about how much time leading university presidents have spent on conference realignment in recent years – does anyone really think the motive wasn’t money? And at the same time, there is more and more evidence that playing college football may not add up educationally (look at the low graduation rates at some institutions) or even physically (think about the emerging research about concussions). Is it really a surprise that some football players look at their role through an economic prism?
While many will shake their heads about the implausibility of student unions and labor conflict (the latter has been relatively rare in higher education), the questions we should be asking ourselves concern what we value, and what the purpose of education should be. Constituencies within postsecondary education have been organizing, first into crafts and disciplines, followed by union affiliation, for over 100 years. They have done so to assert control over what they view as their professional prerogatives, to achieve better working conditions, and as a reaction to external authorities who fail to appreciate the nature of shared authority in colleges and universities.
And this applies across the board. Do you think that if Ph.D. students earned their doctorates in five years, and had a good chance at a tenure-track job, and had decent health insurance and stipends, that they would be spending time on unionization?
The idea that unions and professionalism are incompatible is not substantiated, nor do unions by themselves hurt competitiveness or profitability (professional sports, an extremely profitable industry, is organized wall-to-wall). To date it has been difficult to say what exactly the impact of unions in higher education has been. What the Northwestern case presages is that we might have to look carefully at the roll of the NCAA and better-separate terms and conditions of employment from academic matters. Ultimately, universities may have to stop leveraging faculty time with the employment of part time, casual, and adjunct employees and students or face additional union drives.
It is our responsibility to ensure students and employees an ethical and transparent working and learning environment and we should also be cognizant that organized labor in America, particularly unions in shrinking industries where traditional members are disappearing, will vie with colleges and universities for the allegiance of students and employees. The alternative to lockouts rests in our ability to adequately fund and manage higher education while responding intelligently, respectfully and effectively to all, be they students or represented or non-represented employees.
Daniel J. Julius is a visiting scholar at the Center for Higher Education Studies at the University of California Berkeley and is an affiliated faculty member at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Labor board seeks views on how to evaluate whether adjuncts may unionize at religious colleges, and continued role of Yeshiva decision that largely stopped collective bargaining by tenure-track faculty at private institutions.