BY MICHAEL MERANZE
The following is reposted with the author’s permission from the Remaking the University blog. Michael Meranze is Professor of History at UCLA.
As you may know, a 3-1 majority of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia University’s Teaching Assistants (known at Columbia as Instructional Officers) are to be considered “employees” under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act. As a result of this ruling, Columbia’s TAs (and by implication those at other private universities) now have the legal authority to seek an election to select a union to collectively bargain with the University. In so ruling, the Board Majority overturned a previous decision concerning Brown University but also, and more significantly, rejected the argument that if a graduate student’s relationship with their university was “primarily educational” (6) they could not be considered employees when serving as Teaching Assistants. Instead, using the legal equivalent of “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” the Board Majority ruled that when graduate students functioned as common law employees (under the power and direction of managers subject to sanction and receiving compensation) then they should be considered employees.
Moreover, the Board majority noted quite correctly that whatever may have once been the case, in the modern corporate university graduate student employees provide important economic service to their university. As the majority noted (16):
Teaching assistants frequently take on a role akin to that of faculty, the traditional purveyors of a university’s instructional output. The teaching assistants conduct lectures, grade exams, and lead discussions. Significant portions of the overall teaching duties conducted by universities are conducted by student assistants. The delegation of the task of instructing undergraduates, one of a university’s most important revenue-producing activities, certainly suggests that the student assistants’ relationship to the University has a salient economic character.
The Board thereby acknowledged the current structure of university labor–that Teaching Assistants (like adjunct faculty and tenure track faculty) provide important economic value to universities above and beyond the educational benefit they may receive. That economic value is generated by teaching classes and sections that bring in tuition. Without this revenue, private universities could not exist. Moreover, this labor takes place under the determination of the university’s needs and not of the educational logic of graduate education.
In doing so, the Board recognized the logic that has been systematically imposed by university managers onto their teaching forces for decades now. As is common knowledge, a substantial amount of the actual teaching in higher education is done by graduate students and adjuncts (of course the amounts vary institution by institution). Despite all the worries expressed about how collective bargaining will intrude inappropriate economic questions into academic life, it is, in truth, the changing labor strategies of universities that have already subordinated academics to economics. The never ending cries to make universities more like “businesses” (i.e. lower labor costs) is only the most obvious symptom of this transformation.
Predictably, the managers of leading private universities have objected to this recognition of reality in the discussion of graduate student employment. As Corey Robin has pointed out, Chicago, Columbia, Princeton and Yale all quickly released statements warning graduate students that they might lose their individual voice in the overweening collectivity of a union. Implicit in all of these discussions is the threat that if graduate students voted to be represented by a union on issues relating to their working conditions, these negotiations would interfere with the educational relationship of faculty and graduate students. As Columbia’s Provost John Coatsworth put it in a letter to staff: “For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.” But this claim is absurd on its face. As Provost Coatsworth must well know, if the graduate student employees vote for collective bargaining it will be graduate students and not some “non-academic third party” conducting the negotiations in a situation in which universities have long let non-academic (financial) considerations shape their programs.
It is hard to tell whether these responses are a sign of managers’ failures of self-awareness or truthfulness. After decades of transforming themselves on the model of the financial industry (and ensuring that many of their students end up in finance), they now worry that economic interests may disrupt academic relationships. But graduate student employees at Columbia and elsewhere are seeking an institutional mechanism to address a power imbalance between them and university management. It is in fact this power imbalance that is destroying the academy from within, and not bargaining rights designed to correct it. The NLRB recognized that. Reality made a rare appearance in the discourse about the economics of higher education.