Graduate Students, the Laborers of Academia

Source: Mark Oppenheimer, The New Yorker, August 31, 2016

….While labor supporters have every reason to be gladdened by the N.L.R.B. ruling, there are already numerous graduate-student unions in the United States, as the N.L.R.B. noted—representing sixty-four thousand graduate students on twenty-eight campuses, including the universities of Wisconsin, California, Michigan, and Iowa. But those are all public universities (although private N.Y.U., which had a union and then lost it, won a new contract last year). And until last week the law recognized an arbitrary, and unmerited, distinction between workers at public and private schools. Grade papers on a large, public campus and you were a laborer, with a union and the right to strike; do the same work at Yale or Columbia and you were a student, one who happened to do a little grading, but certainly nobody who needed union protections.

The law has never put the dichotomy so starkly, of course, and students at state schools are just lucky that those institutions are governed by generally more union-friendly state laws, not by the fickle federal board. But the grad-student-union movement at private schools is decades old—by some counts, the fight at Yale is the longest-lasting struggle for union recognition in the country—and throughout its history its opponents, including me, once upon a time, have relied on the élitist logic that unions are for other people, not for our kind.

The standard argument against graduate-student unions, one adopted by the lone dissenter in last week’s federal ruling, is that graduate students are “primarily” students, and that any work they do, like leading discussion sections or grading papers, is educational in nature—that is, they are learning a skill that they will need on the job market. And, the argument goes, if on occasion they do actual labor, they still should not be able to join a union, because the adversarial nature of collective bargaining would threaten to undermine the primary relationship, that of student to professor, advisee to mentor……

…..In the end, of course, the question of graduate-student unionism does not turn on whether the unions are good or bad for students. Whatever else graduate students are, they are workers now. In 1975, fifty-seven per cent of American faculty were tenured or tenure-track, but by 2011 that number had fallen to thirty per cent. As jobs in the professoriate have disappeared, graduate students have become an indispensable source of labor, without whom undergraduates simply could not be taught. They have become workers, not for their own sake as apprentice-learners but because their schools need them as casual labor…..