Unions and Universities

Originally published in Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, in April 1997.

Gregory Beyrer’s recent essay, “In Favor of Unions for Graduate Students,” enters the increasingly spirited national debate about student labor and campus unionizing (“In Favor of Unions for Graduate Students,” Perspectives, January 1997.) In numerous journals, on electronic mail, and at universities all across the nation, more graduate students than ever are singing in praise of graduate-student organizing, a chorus to which Beyrer harmoniously lends his voice. However little work culture we might share with more traditional laborers, he suggests, teaching assistants and graders make obvious financial contributions to university life. As such, they deserve the right to bargain for increased security, health insurance, and fair wage rates. Asserting his belief in “the right of all labor to organize,” Beyrer proffers a simple, but powerful, idea: we work, therefore we organize.

For me, Beyrer’s case is both welcome and worrisome. On one hand, I applaud his careful assessment of graduate labor. Clearly, many students, faculty, and administrators undervalue the economic contributions that accompany the presence of teaching assistants and graders in the classroom, and thus remain skeptical about union organizing.

Recently, for instance, I was discussing this issue with a fellow graduate student. As a child of struggling, working-class parents, she told me, the virtues of organized labor were manifest early in her life. Nonetheless, the prospect of a union of graduate students disturbed her. Certainly, proletarians should organize their interests when faced with layoffs, pay cuts, or eroding control of their work milieu. But why, she challenged, did I believe that graduate students should do the same? Insisting that graduates are not really workers—at least not the kind with whom she was raised—she concluded that they are apprentices, and lucky ones at that. Beyrer’s argument is a persuasive rejoinder to my otherwise prolabor friend, who articulates the familiar and bedeviling problem of hybridization.

On the other hand, Beyrer’s analysis falters for a couple of reasons. First, he too easily assumes that conditions similar to those at UCLA, his school, prevail among small and private universities. Graduate students in locations without an active labor movement, for example, might have more difficulty garnering the resources than he allows. Moreover, while the recent labor activism at big, state-run schools inspires promise and more than a little excitement, it is worth remembering that of the 12, recognized graduate-student unions, none belong to a private institution. That may be changing, as the recent agitation at Yale University and other private schools suggests. Still, what of medium- and small-sized universities, where teaching assistants are too few to command bargaining power, where graduate organizations do not enjoy the leverage conferred by threats of grade-strikes and other weapons of large constituencies? Any movement to organize these campuses must be sensitive to such particularities.

These questions aside, some disturbing implications reside in Beyrer’s framework of analysis. The purpose of unions, he suggests, is the “protection of workers.” Just compensation, improved health care, job security, and perhaps an improved standard of living—all these, in the custody of organized labor, are essential to the maintenance of a productive and contented workforce.

In the rush to construct an economic raison d’etre for graduate unions, however, Beyrer forgets to mention that universities are not supposed to be large businesses, that the democratic claims of education should not be given over to the pecuniary reasoning of the marketplace. Short-term agitation for wages and job security are essential, but union campaigns focused solely on these issues threaten to elide the distinctions between business and campus, differences surely worth preserving. “The issues that concern GSAEs are strictly workplace issues, not academic issues,” Beyrer affirms. “They consist of bread-and-butter concerns …” Narrowly conceived in this way, the argument for graduate unions indeed risks mimicking the rhetoric of corporate-minded administrators, too willingly acceding to the incorporation of American universities.

Why not academic issues? We should demand that the university function as something better than “knowledge factories,” to use Clark Kerr’s inglorious phrase, where market logic invades classroom rituals, cafeteria dining, and healthcare options, where corporations shape curriculum according to their short-term needs, where undergraduates pose as consumers, and where professors sign away proprietary rights to their research to business sponsors. To accept uncritically graduate-student hybridization is to lose sight of the peculiarities of universities, and particularly to diminish the humane imperatives of higher education. Beyrer is assuredly correct to note that the “protection of workers is the main purpose” of unions. But his framework neglects to include a question equally germane: what is the “main purpose” of a university?

Here at the University of Rochester—a campus undergoing reorganization to restore profitability—the president has deployed idioms more appropriate to a downsizing corporation. Indeed, “carefully redirecting our resources and energy” has not only meant reducing certain graduate programs, but shrinking the undergraduate population and privatizing many campus services; the latter move ostensibly will save the university on wages and health benefits, but threatens the health of the larger community. The university is among the largest and most influential employers in the city. Nevertheless, as Ralph Nader wryly commented during a visit here last semester, “they’re going to be outsourcing everything but the students at this university.”

Many graduate students here fret about these developments, yet their concerns have not been heard. They were not invited to participate in the plan’s conception or implementation, as the existing graduate organization, heretofore a social group, was not consulted until after the announcement, when it was permitted a single meeting with administration officials. Subsequent attempts to question the wisdom of the plan have been met with controlled antagonism; merely the idea of forming a graduate-student union here, an associate dean recently warned me, is “outrageous.” Nevertheless, many continue to worry that the direction set by the administration imperils the ideal of a humane, liberal education, and that excluding students from participation in the university erodes the democratic sensibility.

Would Beyrer’s argument appeal to graduate students at Rochester? That is, would an organizing drive waged exclusively on “bread-and-butter concerns like wages, working hours, and medical insurance” bear fruit here? Perhaps, but probably not. We are a medium-sized, private school without large numbers of teaching assistants, and our problems transcend our status as workers. More likely, economic issues would arouse interest if they were linked to a careful, and more radical, commentary on the incorporation of our education.

Graduate students here and elsewhere should assert their rights as workers, but they must also insist on preserving the university milieu as a hallowed province of inquiry and imagination. This strategy affords activists at small and private schools a key role; although they usually do not enjoy access to the resources available at state-run systems, they can still remind administrators that corporate logic should not be allowed to diminish the ideals embedded in a liberal education. Coupling real economic grievances with a democratic appraisal of the university also promises to broaden interest-based union drives and to affirm the cause of participatory democracy.

To this end, organizers must consider alliances with faculty, undergraduates, and most important, with community activists and labor leaders. Whether researching university contracts with corporations, assessing standards of living, available health options, and housing arrangements; measuring the influence of business leaders on campus; understanding the political machinery of local municipalities; figuring ways to allow graduate students greater participation in university life; or questioning the affiliations of board members—all these enterprises will profit immensely if organizers work alongside activists and labor groups practiced in negotiating local politics in a common project to decentralize power.

Organizing graduate students anywhere, of course, can seem like an overwhelming endeavor. Many remain skeptical about our status as workers and dubious about prospects for democratizing universities; and we cannot forget that graduate school universally means heavy workloads, lots of pressure, and extended instability. Add the radical skepticism that pervades contemporary humanism and a more general sense of the languor of American democracy, and it is no wonder few are willing to commit either the time or the emotional energy necessary for union drives.

I certainly do not wish to make the task any more difficult. I do want to suggest, however, that conducting narrowly focused organizing campaigns may not be the best way to resist the incorporation of American universities, that acquiescing to proletarian status perhaps raises as many questions as it answers. Our project instead demands that we link the moral imagination and the democratic spirit to contemporary dissent about wages, health care, and similar issues. We must examine, in other words, not only how universities are functioning, but how we think they should behave.