When Professors Oppose Unions

by Corey Robin on December 5, 2013

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions.

He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a union there.

What always amuses me about these sorts of statements from faculty is how carefully crafted and personal they are—you can tell a lot of time and thought went into this one—and yet somehow they still manage to attain all the individuality of a Walmart circular. No union contract was ever as standardized or as cookie-cutter as one of these missives. The very homogenization and uniformity that faculty fear a union will foist upon their campus is already present in their own aversion.

Anyway, here’s what the good professor has to say (I have no idea which member of the poli sci faculty at Chicago actually wrote this):

First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.


The I-come-from-a-working-class-background-my-dad-was-in-a-union-my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther-I-organized-the-workers-at-Flint-this-may-come-as-a-surprise-but-I-actually-am-Cesar-Chavez opening. Check.

 

That said, I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says “Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.” Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.


We make all the decisions around here. Check. (Ask that professor if he even knows how much you make as a TA; they almost never do, though this one seems to. One point for research.)

The union will screw up your very close and personal relationship with your adviser. Check.

Oddly, when you point out that relationships between students and professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have unions, are not that different from relationships between students and professors at Chicago, Yale, and Harvard, these peer institutions that these professors would be thrilled to get their students a job at suddenly become tarred with that dreaded word “public” or even worse “state school.”

And when you ask these professors to explain, concretely, why it makes a difference that Berkeley is public and Chicago is private, a thoughtful look will inevitably descend upon them, as they slowly emit the following carefully chosen words: “Well, it’s different at Berkeley. They’re a public university.”

What’s more egregious is the fact that most of the faculty I know do not think of interns [the University of Chicago’s term for teaching assistants] as employees but think of the internship as another educational experience.


You’re students, not workers. Check.

Though this one has a novel twist: we, the faculty, think of you as students, not workers.

And just like that, our hard-bitten empiricist turns into the most starry-eyed constructivist.

And now comes the climax.

Every year there are hundreds of applicants for a very small number of slots to study here. You are very lucky to be here, just as I am very lucky to teach here. When you were admitted to the university, you were not hired. You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted. To call yourself an employee and complain about an absence of cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance, or the burdens of being a graduate student…sounds both presumptuous and petulant.


You’re privileged, presumptuous, and petulant. Check.

I, on the other hand, am…just another tenured professor at a fancy school. Saying what every other tenured professor at a fancy school has said to any one of his students who managed to tell him that she wanted to form a union too.

Check check check.

Academia: the herd of independent minds.

{ 113 comments }

1

Nick 12.05.13 at 1:41 am

Not exactly union-related, but a classic in the same vein:
http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/03/i-expect-you-to-correct-your-work-ethic.html

2

Main Street Muse 12.05.13 at 1:45 am

“…unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with…”

How appropriate for that poli sci prof to notice! YES – unions change relationships – they take power from those who want to pay people very little/next to nothing/advise employees to go get food stamps, as McD’s says to long-time employees….

Uof C is a tiny island of prosperity and whiteness in a sea of some of the worst poverty found in the United States. Chicago’s south side – beyond Hyde Park – is in despair. Violent, poverty-stricken, gang-ridden. Let that professor live in his illusionary bubble.

Leave it to a former UCBerkely grad student to trash the union dreams of UofC grad students….

U of C gave us the freshwater school, right?Do you know who works at UofC these days? David Axelrod and Hank Paulson. Very nice.

3

Main Street Muse 12.05.13 at 1:59 am

But let’s face it – professors are not alone in their disdain for unions. They are aligned with most of America these days.

4

oldster 12.05.13 at 1:59 am

More evidence that Hyde Park is just a deeply poisonous place. For all we know, this guy really *was* another Caesar F-ing Chavez during his years at Berkeley. But he had the bad luck to be sucked into the UChicago mind-warp, and now all he can do is spout some combination of freshwater economic policy, neo-con foreign policy, and screw-the-worker domestic policy.

Cool. I look forward to his encomia for Pinochet, too.

Has anything non-pernicious ever come out of that school? Like, when last?

5

phenomenal cat 12.05.13 at 2:16 am

Corey, I often find myself disagreeing with your posts (eg, Nietzsche as reactionary) but god bless you for drawing attention to this stuff on CT. The latent, very self-satisfied bourgeois presumptions found in many quarters of the academy needs exposing whenever possible.

6

kent 12.05.13 at 2:43 am

I hope I’m non-pernicious and I got my PhD at the U of C. Of course I left academia years ago so maybe I don’t count.

Is Barack Obama pernicious? What about Michelle?

I think the OP is right: this could have been written at pretty much any university.

7

Anderson 12.05.13 at 2:45 am

2: bingo. Yes, we want to change the relationship, Massa.

Srsly! Change a few words, and you have Colonel Reb explaining to the coloreds that emancipation will disrupt their happy, organic way of life. Fuckers.

8

Anderson 12.05.13 at 2:49 am

And just one more:

” You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted.”

Yep, and an at-will employee in a non-union shop was hired as such, with no promise of future unionization. This does not actually bar her from seeking to unionize.

You don’t want students to act like employees? DON’T HAVE THEM DO YOUR WORK. Do your own research. Teach freshman classes yourselves.

9

floopmeister 12.05.13 at 2:54 am

Work hard; don’t complain; doff you cap at your betters and if you’re lucky and in the right place at the right time you might get offered a position as unpaid intern…

10

mpowell 12.05.13 at 2:57 am

The funny thing is I don’t see any problem with the first two sections. The union does change the employee-manager relationship. But this is generally an improvement for the employee.

Also, the “you’re lucky to be here” part is total bullshit. The admissions process is a two way filter. If UofC is a fantastic place its because the people there are fantastic. Especially the students. You could say the UofC is lucky to have them. If the university wants to move to a model of taking the applicant willing to accept the worst possible financial deal, they are free to do so..

11

Clay Shirky 12.05.13 at 3:05 am

There is, I think, another reason professors oppose unions. (Not a replacement reason to those Corey lists, but an additional one): Unions cement a set of work relations into something fairly visible and fixed, and this worries tenured faculty in part because, if there is a non-tenure track career to be had in academia with clear contractual guarantees and direct relations with the administration, then tenure becomes merely one class of employment, and a minority one at that.

Starting in 1975 (the beginning of the end of academia’s Golden Age in the US), the academy has become increasingly “dualized”, where a population of insiders (we tenured faculty) are allowed to speak on behalf of all teachers, even as we have shrunk to a minority of teaching staff. This change in headcount between tenured and tenure-track faculty and everyone else started as a small accommodation to the aforementioned breakdown of the era of constantly rising subsidized demand, but it has now become the normal case for employment in even the richest universities.

So if the low-paid majority of the teaching profession, including especially the grad students, begin to acquire representative bodies and negotiate directly with the administration, it will not only make it clear that faculty employment has stopped being a guild system and started being a caste system, it will rob the tenured faculty of our long-cherished position as the main (and in many institutions, sole) representatives of all faculty.

12

QS 12.05.13 at 3:07 am

^ Academics enjoy and wish to preserve the academic hierarchy that subordinates graduate students. This is why they are not in favor of changing the “employee-manager relationship.” If this were seen as a battle against the administration, faculty would support it. Instead, they feel unionization threatens the hierarchy within the guild.

My school had unionized grad students. It was useful in protecting students from outlier faculty who did attempt to squeeze more work out of the student than was contracted. But mostly it was useful in negotiating with the university for things like dental care. Things that any faculty member should support.

13

MPAVictoria 12.05.13 at 3:08 am

Man this is depressing….

14

Hector_St_Clare 12.05.13 at 3:10 am

Re: You’re students, not workers. Check.

I was a grad student until May, at one Big 10 research university (public): I’m an employee (research associate) at another one now, also public. I think I was theoretically unionized as a grad student, I’m not now. I don’t really see much difference between my day to day life then and now: I was mostly doing *work* there, not teaching classes. If anything I ‘work’ fewer hours now, even though I get paid much more.

In terms of day to day workload, grad students, at least the PhD ones after their first year or two (and even a lot of masters’ students) have much more in common with an ‘employee’ than with an undergrad, law student, medical student, etc.

15

hix 12.05.13 at 3:32 am

“You’re privileged, presumptuous, and petulant. Check.

I, on the other hand, am…just another tenured professor at a fancy school. Saying what every other tenured professor at a fancy school has said to any one of his students who managed to tell him that she wanted to form a union too.”

If only, fancy schools would be the only ones that say those things and just in response to a demand to form an union. That part is a more generaliced bad unhappy teacher mindset. I remember such shit from a run the mill grammar school and from a run the mill third rate University of applied science. I bet they scream the same shit at recruits during basic training before they get shipped off to Afgahnistan. The rest sounds like standard ani Union rethoric.

16

Ed Herdman 12.05.13 at 5:36 am

@ oldster (#4):

How about Charles Merriam’s Chicago School political science movement? My understanding is that by the 40s-50s it shifted towards behaviorism, but many of the aims of the program were explicitly progressive, especially Merriam’s vision of creating a larger institution bringing together public policy and political science (never realized, of course).

17

prasad 12.05.13 at 7:27 am

Is this site behaving really weirdly suddenly? Can’t even get to it depending on the network networks, and I don’t think it’s just me:
http://www.downforeveryoneorjustme.com/http://crookedtimber.org/

^^ It says ‘It’s not just you! http://crookedtimber.org looks down from here.’

And yet here I am with a proxy…

18

Mao Cheng Ji 12.05.13 at 7:31 am

As The Book says: “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you.”

19

Adam 12.05.13 at 9:06 am

“Let’s say each quarter of being a teaching intern requires about 200 hours of work (which is a high estimate), as graduate student ‘employees’ you are effectively making at least $300 an hour for the limited amount of time you are ‘working.’”

This has got to be a typo on someone’s part—surely TAs aren’t making $60,000 a quarter, even at the U of C?

20

GiT 12.05.13 at 9:18 am

an extra 0, I presume. $6,000/quarter divided by 200 hours/quarter = $30/hr.

21

Passing By 12.05.13 at 10:36 am

Actually, Main Street Muse (#3) had it.
Nothing in this note is distinctive to the University of Chicago, and very little is distinctive to academic institutions. The logic and emotions it displays are typical of most Americans in private-sector white-collar jobs, and have been for decades. Which is why the level of unionization in those occupations is near-zero.

22

SusanC 12.05.13 at 11:17 am

At the Universities I’m familiar with in the UK, interns are clearly employees (have employment contracts, are paid by the university); anyone who teaches a class/gives a tutorial etc. is also clearly an employee (and is paid). And yes, we’re unionized.

If I recall correctly, some grad students have visas that permit them to be a student but not a university employee — the university cannot ask them to teach (even if they offer to do it for free) because that would cause the government’s Border Agency to become extremely upset, and you wouldn’t want that, because much of the university’s income comes from foreign students who need visas…

So a grad student who isn’t teaching, isn’t working as an intern or an RA etc., is — officially at least — something more like a customer than an employee. I would note that the advantages of collective bargaining that employees gain from unionizing also apply to a group of customers who want to collectively bargain with a large supplier.

The reality of the status of a grad student doesn’t really fit cleanly into either the “employee” or “customer” category. It has something of the feel of a hold-over from pre-capitalist forms of organization (the idea of a university, and some still-existing actual universities, predating capitalism).

23

UChicago grad student 12.05.13 at 12:31 pm

Also unmentioned is the only reason graduate students are currently paid “so much” to adjunct is because of sustained organization and campaigning on the part of…the Graduate Student Union. Chicago’s health insurance is noticeably worse than that of Michigan and also U Illinois Chicago, and campus resources for graduate student parents are non-existent and the administration is basically hostile. It really is the case that the administration and, apparently, professors in certain departments really play up their to their caricatures as comic book villains of neoliberalism.

24

UChicago grad student 12.05.13 at 12:46 pm

But yes, the professor is right, we do earn $60,000/quarter. We’re capped at only teaching three of the four quarters, so we can’t break $200,000. I’m having problems financially juggling my house cleaner and my Aspen time share, so I might have to sell the Porsche we get as a signing bonus and get something cheaper, like a low-end Lexus.

25

Tom Slee 12.05.13 at 12:50 pm

Canadian unionization has distinguished between the roles of “Graduate Student” (for which there was a Graduate Student Association”) and “Teaching Assistant” (for which there was a union — originally the Canadian Union of Educational Workers and now CUPE). I assumed this distinction was held elsewhere, but judging from the comments it isn’t. It was always explicit that, although the overlap was large, the two roles were distinct and the union represented teaching assistants while the GSA represented graduate students. In many places, the union encompassed both teaching assistants and part-time faculty.

I only use the past tense because it’s a long time since I’ve been in that sphere — I would guess it’s similar now.

26

Barry 12.05.13 at 12:59 pm

BTW, grad student compensation isn’t that high. It’s all wooden nickels; if there were no TA’s or RA’s, and grad students had to pay the stated rates, Ph.D. programs would wither and die.

27

Margaret 12.05.13 at 1:47 pm

A tiny note of correction: Students in Wisconsin used to have unions. I know that in most of the country Scott Walker has morphed into the goto GOP candidate of the future, but we in Wisconsin have long memories.l

28

Michael Bérubé 12.05.13 at 1:53 pm

Goddamn. Seventeen years ago I wrote an essay for Social Text, “The Blessed of the Earth,” on the response of Yale faculty to the GESO grade strike. Just checking in to see that nothing has changed since then.

Nope, nothing. When the history of deprofessionalization in the US is written (and Corey, how about you write it? that would be awesome), surely there will be a chapter on how academe was one of the easiest targets for neoliberalism, thanks to the number of tenured professors who were not merely oblivious to what was happening but positively eager to speed the process along.

29

Barry 12.05.13 at 2:01 pm

“Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.”

And he thinks of this as a bad thing.

30

Barry 12.05.13 at 2:03 pm

Michael Bérubé

“Nope, nothing. When the history of deprofessionalization in the US is written (and Corey, how about you write it? that would be awesome), surely there will be a chapter on how academe was one of the easiest targets for neoliberalism, thanks to the number of tenured professors who were not merely oblivious to what was happening but positively eager to speed the process along.”

Somebody pointed out that, back in the Olden Days, the Long Long Ago, a far higher proportion of administrative positions were filled by faculty members (on rotation). One effect of this was that if the faculty as a group didn’t like something, they had far greater power – they could directly oppose it as a manager (who didn’t have to fear firing, just going back to his regular job), or refuse to fill the positions, which was a huge problem, because the faculty had possession of the institutional knowledge.

Given a ‘professional’ administration, neither of those are a problem.

.

31

Barry 12.05.13 at 2:16 pm

Adam 12.05.13 at 9:06 am

“This has got to be a typo on someone’s part—surely TAs aren’t making $60,000 a quarter, even at the U of C?”

He’s counting their tuition waiver, which is priced at a fictional level. From my experience in a Ph.D. program, and talking with others, maybe 10% of the students are actually paying that level, and 90% of those are paying it from an outside funder; for practical purposes, *no* Ph.D. student is actually paying the stated tuition.

GiT 12.05.13 at 9:18 am

“an extra 0, I presume. $6,000/quarter divided by 200 hours/quarter = $30/hr.”

And I’ll bet that the majority of TA’s (and *all* of the RA’s) are working far more than 200 hours/quarter.

32

Kaveh 12.05.13 at 3:11 pm

TA’s at the University of Chicago officially make $3,000/class/quarter.

33

Chris Bertram 12.05.13 at 3:16 pm

SusanC: yes, but they are in the same union as permanent staff and I really don’t think the UCU does a very good job of representing them.

34

weareastrangemonkey 12.05.13 at 3:41 pm

Teaching is part of the scholarship. So if you look at the cost of a phd at Chicago it works out at about something like $125 per hour.

Graduate students are some of the most privileged people in the world (I am one), and especially so at the top universities. The fact that they are not as privileged as the professors does not somehow make their privilege any the less. If a university does not want to allow a union then fine, this might effect whether students apply to go to that university but it is not as if these students are on the end of a great injustice.

This stuff annoys the hell out of me because it makes the left seem like a bunch of whiney over-priveleged intellectuals trying to make their already big pie even bigger. There is serious stuff to deal with and it is not the rights of graduate students at top universities (or improving the salaries of professors).

35

Kaveh 12.05.13 at 3:50 pm

So if you look at the cost of a phd at Chicago it works out at about something like $125 per hour.

Huh…..?

36

JW Mason 12.05.13 at 4:00 pm

academe was one of the easiest targets for neoliberalism, thanks to the number of tenured professors who were not merely oblivious to what was happening but positively eager to speed the process along.

This is the exact opposite of the truth, I think. If you look for one sector in the US that is successfully resisting the marketization of everything, education would be a good candidate. (Success being relative.) Yes, faculty at Chicago are opposing unionization if graduate employees; some are being real dicks about it. But note: Graduate employees at Chicago are organizing a union. Outside of higher ed, where else do you see new groups of workers successfully unionizing, largely by self-organizing by the workers themselves.

37

JW Mason 12.05.13 at 4:01 pm

If you think we’ve already lost, you’re on the side of the Bosses.

38

Olle J. 12.05.13 at 4:05 pm

#3. Compared to a underage textile worker in Bangladesh we’re all quite privileged. I don’t really see how it helps them if I or anyone else bows my head to our overlords, regardless if they are the government, faculty or bank managers.

39

Olle J. 12.05.13 at 4:06 pm

(sorry, #33, not #3.)

40

MPAVictoria 12.05.13 at 4:08 pm

“This stuff annoys the hell out of me because it makes the left seem like a bunch of whiney over-priveleged intellectuals trying to make their already big pie even bigger.”

Big pie? What world do you live in? Not mine when I was a grad student living on Mr Noodle.

41

AcademicLurker 12.05.13 at 4:10 pm

@31,

Ah…the old “you don’t need a union because you’re not starving to death in a ditch yet” argument. A classic that never goes out of style.

42

Kaveh 12.05.13 at 4:17 pm

@33 “Yes, faculty at Chicago are opposing unionization if graduate employees

This letter represents just one guy though, I wouldn’t generalize to rest of the faculty.

43

Marc 12.05.13 at 4:32 pm

The academy is not a unified whole. There are disciplines where graduate students almost never pay tuition and ones where they usually do. There are some with strong external funding (in the sciences, for example) and ones with strong internal funding (e.g. “service departments” such as math, languages, or other areas where the majority of students are not majors). There are some with high teaching loads and others with small ones. This is a huge issue for any graduate student union: their primary contact is very local and balkanized. Michael noted the Yale GESO experience; what he didn’t note is that the sciences and humanities students had radically different attitudes towards it, in large part because they had such radically different experiences. The union skeptics tend, unsurprisingly, to be in fields where the conditions are objectively much better than those in the fields where union sentiment is stronger.

There is also a real tension between the roles of student and employee, although there are overlapping components. Again, this differs by field. This can be an excuse, but it can also be an important and legitimate point. The bottom line is that it isn’t simple, and that it isn’t obvious that a model developed for factory workers is an ideal template in all situations.

Truthfully I think that there is a better case for a national student organization by discipline than for a global one per employer: the former can address major issues, such as employment prospects and degree overproduction, that are not well handled on the local level. The latter can, of course, be important for traditional bread-and-butter problems – but if you asked most students what they would care about the former class of problems would be likely to be much more highly ranked.

44

geo s 12.05.13 at 4:41 pm

the problem with grad student unions is that, if you strip away the social contract and associated expectations, the job is high stress, low pay temp. work. strictly as an economic proposition, no rational actor would choose it.

by acknowledging the union, you acknowledge that the social contract between faculty and students has been broken ergo by choosing to be a grad student you are a sucker (imagine your academic advisor as Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.) having a union doesn’t rebuild the social contract, far from it, it actually ratifies that it’s permanently gone.

45

Corey Robin 12.05.13 at 5:00 pm

“by acknowledging the union, you acknowledge that the social contract between faculty and students has been broken ergo by choosing to be a grad student you are a sucker (imagine your academic advisor as Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.) having a union doesn’t rebuild the social contract, far from it, it actually ratifies that it’s permanently gone.”

Or, to put it another way, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

46

Robert Savage 12.05.13 at 5:05 pm

Let’s abbreviate the Prof’s email.

I got mine….go suck on an egg.

Collegially yours (not)
Prof DB

47

geo s 12.05.13 at 5:38 pm

the other (economic) side to this, is that adjunct professor labor is actually cheaper (for the most part) than grad. student labor and the specific economics depends very much on the research specialty. so, organizing grad. students without adjunct faculty leaves a natural wedge between them and the grad students themselves are split on economic terms among academic specialties, humanities vs. sciences being the broadest division.
And then, since many graduate students (especially in the sciences) are on student visas, those students are particularly vulnerable to threats: at the university I went to, a strike over conditions in university run housing was broken by effectively threatening to dematriculate (and thus cancel the visas of) the striking students (who were largely foreign citizens.) and then, solidarity between staff and student workers is always going to be a tenuous thing for lots of complicated reasons.

My experience with graduate student unions is that they tend to recapitulate rather too well the failures of the labor movement in the US: irreconcilable divisions between “skilled” and “unskilled” labor and a built in bias towards organizing for economic gains over political gains. Money and benefits seems like a convenient commonality to create solidarity, but once you find yourself in the grind of negotiating and supporting contracts, organizing toward political objectives becomes more difficult rather than less, especially since everyone’s temporary contract eventually ends and institutional memory resides with people who drift into bureaucratic positions… at which point you come face to face with the reality that US labor unions tend to have some really ugly internal problems.

48

Barry 12.05.13 at 6:10 pm

“…at which point you come face to face with the reality that US labor unions tend to have some really ugly internal problems.”

Yes, as do corporations. The difference is that when the people running a corporation f*ck their customers, their shareholders, their employee and anybody else who got in the way/lived in the wrong neighborhood, it’s expected and praised.

49

SusanC 12.05.13 at 6:17 pm

@Corey Robin.

The previous bit of the Communist Party Manifesto seems pretty on-topic too:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

50

Scott P. 12.05.13 at 6:27 pm

An attitude implicit in the letter, and which I have encountered frequently, is the idea that forming a union is a move akin to using chemical or nuclear weapons in warfare: justifiable perhaps in extreme circumstances, but otherwise outside the bounds of reasonable behavior. People can then say they’re not ‘anti-union’ per se, but only when used inappropriately.

51

JW Mason 12.05.13 at 6:28 pm

This letter represents just one guy though, I wouldn’t generalize to rest of the faculty.

Kaveh, you’re right. As we used to say on the Internet, I believe that is central to my point.

by acknowledging the union, you acknowledge that the social contract between faculty and students has been broken

No. Empirically, this is false. I went to a PhD program at a school were graduate employees were unionized, as I’m sure many others here did. And I can assure you, the same social contract between faculty and students was recognized there as anywhere else. Unionization of teaching staff (faculty as well as graduate students) is quite common at public universities in the Northeast, and has been for decades. The academic social contract is holding up fine.

(In my program, the graduate students not only were unionized but controlled the distribution of the majority of assistantships. But that is very unusual.)

If anything, graduate employee unions probably help maintain academic norms. the relationship between professors and graduate students, and the relationship between employers and workers in the context of a strong union, resemble each other more than
either does a fully liberalized labor market.

So with dues respect, Corey, I think you are wrong to say “everything solid melts into air.” In education, everything solid has NOT melted into air. Academic labor has NOT been fully proletarianized. It is very important that we promote and defend the unalienated character and social embeddedness of academic labor. Protecting it where it exists is the first step toward extending it.

There’s a certain kind of left politics that can only ever see defeats. We need to resist that.

52

JW Mason 12.05.13 at 6:28 pm

” It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”

Yeah, but Marx was wrong about that.

53

mds 12.05.13 at 7:35 pm

Marc @ 40:

Michael noted the Yale GESO experience; what he didn’t note is that the sciences and humanities students had radically different attitudes towards it, in large part because they had such radically different experiences. The union skeptics tend, unsurprisingly, to be in fields where the conditions are objectively much better than those in the fields where union sentiment is stronger.

Indeed, Yale life science students with full research fellowships and no teaching duties have tended to be absolute shits to GESO organizers. “We’re students.” Yet in a comparatively short time, thanks to the unfortunate accident of STEM Ph.D. overproduction, many of them will be joining the cohort of “Wah-wah-wah, I have to postdoc and adjunct for years and years.” Do you guys see this? It’s the smallest MP3 file in the world, containing a digitally-remastered version of “My Heart Bleeds for You.”

54

Kaveh 12.05.13 at 8:04 pm

@47 If anything, graduate employee unions probably help maintain academic norms.

Definitely–I think for a lot of professors, the last thing they want is to have to feel responsible for their students’ finances as well as their educations. If grad students’ financial situation is too tenuous, then even if it’s not their responsibility to make sure their students are fed and clothed, that will become a factor in their relations, like it or not.

55

William Timberman 12.05.13 at 8:17 pm

JW Mason @ 48

Yeah, but Marx was wrong about that.

Not by as much as you’re making out, I think. There are classes of employee who rarely have occasion — in so-called normal circumstances — to glimpse the steel fist inside the velvet glove. Then bad economic or political stuff happens, and the social contract they’d believed to be their shield against indignity is suddenly null and void. Graduate students may not like to think of themselves as being in the same boat as autoworkers, or school teachers in Detroit, but if you squint a little, the similarity in their circumstances is pretty hard to miss. Collegiality counts, in other words, except when it doesn’t.

56

john c. halasz 12.05.13 at 8:21 pm

Josh, two words: “adjunct faculty”.

57

Barry 12.05.13 at 8:30 pm

Marc: “Michael noted the Yale GESO experience; what he didn’t note is that the sciences and humanities students had radically different attitudes towards it, in large part because they had such radically different experiences. The union skeptics tend, unsurprisingly, to be in fields where the conditions are objectively much better than those in the fields where union sentiment is stronger.

mds: “Indeed, Yale life science students with full research fellowships and no teaching duties have tended to be absolute shits to GESO organizers. “We’re students.” Yet in a comparatively short time, thanks to the unfortunate accident of STEM Ph.D. overproduction, many of them will be joining the cohort of “Wah-wah-wah, I have to postdoc and adjunct for years and years.” Do you guys see this? It’s the smallest MP3 file in the world, containing a digitally-remastered version of “My Heart Bleeds for You.””

And those RA’s were probably working brutal hours (any RA who only worked 20 hrs/week in the lag was undoubtedly not renewed for the next year, and possibly any RA who only worked 40). The difference was that they had thought that those brutal hours would lead to a good position, either in academia or the private sector – just like many non-science grad students thought years ago.

Then, they’ll find out that their actually hourly rate was rather low, since it led only to a series one-year post-docs at $35k/year, in various miscellaneous places, in somebody else’s lab, working on somebody else’s ideas, and still putting in looooooooooooong hours and evenings and weekends. Until they hit age 35 and were no longer employable.

.

58

GiT 12.05.13 at 9:03 pm

Tom Slee @23: This distinction exists in the US as well, I think. I don’t know what thing are like at every unionized campus, but in the UCs you have the GSA – Grad Student Association – and then you have the TA union. The trick, though, is that any grad student can be a voting member of the TA union, though the bargaining unit only contains those who are employed in covered positions at the time.

Barry @28 – factoring in tuition (which would be a joke) still wouldn’t get you anywhere near 300/hr. At best you’re looking at what, another 50k in alleged “benefits” from a high sticker price private college, tacking on another 80/hr or whatever. As to work hours, I know at the UC the contract is for 220 hrs/quarter. But yeah, even with union protection people certainly get over-worked.

59

anon 12.05.13 at 9:12 pm

Main Street Muse – #2

“U of C is a tiny island of prosperity and whiteness in a sea of some
of the worst poverty found in the United States. Chicago’s south side
– beyond Hyde Park – is in despair. Violent, poverty-stricken,
gang-ridden. Let that professor live in his illusionary bubble. “

It is also also known as: “the place where fun goes to die”

60

john in california 12.05.13 at 9:13 pm

I’m not an academic but from the outside I think think the opportunity for a ‘bad boss’ faculty member to abuse their graduate ‘staff’ is probably great. A grad student would have a hard time quitting a professor or program because they were being used or abused and finding another who would take them up, in or out of the institution they are presently in. I know those who have had their PhD advisor set them research tasks that were the most unpromising avenues of solutions to problems in the advisor’s specialty just to eliminate those solutions even though proving a negative usually doesn’t lead to much recognition for the grad. The pay aspect may be overriding for most grads but being treated with respect is more likely when there is a union contract with a grievance policy .

61

JW Mason 12.05.13 at 9:28 pm

two words: “adjunct faculty”

Where I work, the adjuncts have a union.

62

john c. halasz 12.06.13 at 12:09 am

@61:

Playing goalie.

63

William Berry 12.06.13 at 2:31 am

I’m a working-class dawg, not an academic, but looking at the debate from the outside, and as a long-time USW steward, committeeman, local prez (USW Amalgamated 7686, years back), and part-time labor and Democratic activist, ditto JW Mason in this thread (esp. 36 & 37).

In heavy industry (what’s left of it), where I hail from, we— and I mean workers generally, not just unionized— are being body-slammed, but we still have some fight left in us.

64

William Berry 12.06.13 at 2:37 am

@JW Mason:

“the Slack Wire”, eh?

Bookmarked it. Thnx

65

ezra abrams 12.06.13 at 4:21 am

I worked as a molecular biology postdoc ( very junior, very much not on the high status track) at some top places.
I believe that one of the characteristics of faculty at “top” institutions is competitiveness: they got to MIT or Univ Chicago because they wanted it, and were willing to do what ever it took to get their;
As one postdoc remarked of a faculty member, he plays bball every day and if his team is loosing, his elbows get sharper and his fouls more blatant

Or as another postdoc told me about a Nobel level guy in his 50s
he has a constant stream of students and postdocs [people in their 20s] going thru the lab, and he always says, innocently, if you like to jog, lets go for a run…the faculty dude never looses the run
etc

which is not surprising: the path to a tenure track at a top institution is as competitive say as a major league sports spot.

66

JTFaraday 12.06.13 at 4:27 am

“the other (economic) side to this, is that adjunct professor labor is actually cheaper (for the most part) than grad. student labor”

Indeed. I imagine many adjuncts, degree in hand, would like to go back to being compensated as student apprentices, who only got such a stellar gig because weren’t yet skilled adjuncts– Eh.

Granted, the through the looking glass caste system isn’t in effect for students everywhere, so your mileage may vary. Come to think of it, some TAs on one campus I can think of are called “Fellows” and are student apprentices with tuition remission, and some TAs on the same campus are called “TAs” and get paid the much lower skilled adjunct rate, while paying tuition.

It’s not like the students weren’t all unionized with respect to their campus job, and the skilled adjuncts too. They sure were!

I must say, that when I discovered this one, this was a new one on me.

67

Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 8:01 am

Hey now everyone, the U. of C. gave us our fellow blogger John C. Holbo, so there! In your face!

john in california: “I’m not an academic but from the outside I think think the opportunity for a ‘bad boss’ faculty member to abuse their graduate ‘staff’ is probably great. A grad student would have a hard time quitting a professor or program because they were being used or abused and finding another who would take them up, in or out of the institution they are presently in.”

Unfortunately, even unionized TAs have trouble dealing with this problem, if they are TAing for one of their thesis advisers. How much can you really complain, in that position? And even though there are obviously sexual-harassment policies in place, they can suffer the same fatal weakness. UC Berkeley was unionized while I was there but that didn’t prevent there being a period during which I had to completely avoid one of which my potential thesis advisers of whom I had several due to my Classics/Philosophy split so this person remains nameless. Like, really couldn’t go to his office to talk to him, because he had a giant crush on me and was obviously at the point where he was juuuuust about at the point where he was going to make a serious pass at me and that was going to be super-awkward and terrible, so I just had to avoid him for like a year until he got a crush on another grad student. He was still a little sketch, but dealable.

68

hix 12.06.13 at 8:33 am

Sounds like a lot of problems are caused by different unions for different job descriptions. The continental european one union per industry apporach is just a lot better.

69

Barry 12.06.13 at 11:03 am

hix 12.06.13 at 8:33 am

” Sounds like a lot of problems are caused by different unions for different job descriptions. The continental european one union per industry apporach is just a lot better.”

They’re actually caused by not having unions at all. BTW, the normal American approach is one union per industry, whenever possible.

70

JTFaraday 12.06.13 at 12:49 pm

” I think think the opportunity for a ‘bad boss’ faculty member to abuse their graduate ‘staff’ is probably great. A grad student would have a hard time quitting a professor or program because they were being used or abused and finding another who would take them up, in or out of the institution they are presently in.”

Unfortunately, even unionized TAs have trouble dealing with this problem”

There is nothing unionization can do to prevent a faculty person from doing the worst possible damage to a grad student’s career prospects, which is to destroy it from the inside.

All the nickel and diming the administration does to grad students (and everyone else), which a union might partially protect one from, pales in comparison to what the profession itself does to its prospective members, directly.

If people want the way tenured faculty conduct themselves with respect to every other class of laborer on campus to change, they are going to have to change the (insular) culture directly, much in the way an earlier generation attempted to deal with sexism and racism.

I think this conversation is stuck at the level of unionization as panacea. It also suffers from a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty about what managerial unions have and haven’t done for American labor.

The problem you’re going to have with graduate student unions is similar to the problems the university staff unions already have, which is that the students are temporary, and the unions are permanent.

The union organizers will develop the nice cozy relationship with university administration that students don’t have, and indeed which academic departments don’t always have, and together they will proceed to manage you as they see fit.

Being a little more honest about them, as opposed to defending them as a partisan institution, will better help you manage them instead.

71

Jonny Butter 12.06.13 at 1:16 pm

I think this conversation is stuck at the level of unionization as panacea.

I didn’t notice anyone suggesting that unionization is a panacea. I think the OP is about hostility to unionization.

But you do have a point: unionization is a baseline or minimum, not a final victory.

72

Barry 12.06.13 at 2:11 pm

JTFaraday: “I think this conversation is stuck at the level of unionization as panacea. It also suffers from a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty about what managerial unions have and haven’t done for American labor.”

Nobody has said that; nobody has come close to saying that. Perhaps you should engage with what people are actually saying.

73

JTFaraday 12.06.13 at 2:47 pm

“But you do have a point: unionization is a baseline or minimum, not a final victory.”

The form of collectivization employees need to protect their interests takes amongst themselves. Managerial unions have their own interests, which only moderately correspond with your interests, and also come to view the employees under their purview in much the way management itself does.

Grad students are a union’s dream because, like I said, they’re temporary so such self defensive collectivism is difficult to achieve. On the staff side, they have to collude with management to force people out should they be so uppity as to defend their contractual rights.

For example, take habitually working overtime without pay, which is the regular order of business in chronically understaffed universities in which tenured faculty have also exercised their caste based prerogatives and absented themselves from the departments they claim to manage.

Working overtime without overtime pay in office settings is entirely normalized in the American workplace, and university staff unions DO NOT enforce the hours provision of the staff contract.

Staff employees who eventually tire of this ritual ongoing abuse and rationally decide to defend their (alleged) rights in this regard can pretty much count on being run out of town by the administration and the union in concert.

The reason the administration does this is obvious. They don’t want to pay staff overtime or hire more people. If you’re not willing to be a beat down dog, you need to go. In any given year, the Administration is not going start rolling over for a handful of renegade employees it knows it can mob out the door one way or another.

The reason the union helps run such employees out of town is that cooperating with the administration to rid themselves of the troublemakers is easier for them than one day finding themselves in the position of admitting publicly that historically they have failed to enforce the most basic provisions of the contract, for the entire group.

So, they decide to fail to enforce it in its entirety and they quietly execute you while co-signing the university resignation agreement with the usual gag provisions.

Most staff employees are not equipped to fight this and most graduate students aren’t either. So, when the Chicago faculty say to the union supporting graduate students “you’re naive,” it’s entirely possible that they’re actually in the know and that you really are naive.

74

JTFaraday 12.06.13 at 3:04 pm

” Nobody has said that; nobody has come close to saying that. Perhaps you should engage with what people are actually saying.”

Sometimes engaging directly with what people say doesn’t enable anyone to say what needs to be said. Therefore, I don’t always feel the need to follow.

75

Corey Robin 12.06.13 at 5:25 pm

“There is nothing unionization can do to prevent a faculty person from doing the worst possible damage to a grad student’s career prospects, which is to destroy it from the inside.”

As someone who had three of his dissertation advisers do just that — two wrote blacklisting letters of recommendation for me, one simply refused to work with me anymore, all b/c of my involvement with the TA union — I think I’m in a position to speak on this.

Had we had a legally recognized union, faculty could not in fact do this kind of thing. It would be illegal. And while the penalties for these sorts of things are woefully inadequate — not b/c of any coziness between unions and management but b/c labor law has been systematically undermined over the last 50 to 75 years — professors are peculiarly sensitive to charges of illegal activity. I suspect one or two high-profile cases, and few would dare do it again.

Faculty abuses thrive on secrecy, and what unions are very good at is publicizing these sorts of things. And shaming offenders.

In my case, even though we still do not have the law on our side, our union was able to publicize my case, and it led to one of the offending faculty in question to have a prestigious book prize taken away from him.

Will this solve every type of professional deformation? No. But I’d much rather try to take on that problem with a union than with some dubious and vague campaign “to change the (insular) culture directly.” Having seen some of those types of efforts in action, I’d say academics are especially ill-equipped to deal with the real power dynamics that they are confronting without a disciplined organization on the ground that has the law on its side.

76

Corey Robin 12.06.13 at 5:30 pm

Also, if unions are as anodyne and inconsequential — indeed as supportive of management — as some here seem to think they are, I’m not quite sure why bottom-line administrators oppose them so ferociously. You’d think the rational titans of the neoliberal university would welcome them.

77

JW Mason 12.06.13 at 5:40 pm

, if unions are as anodyne and inconsequential — indeed as supportive of management — as some here seem to think they are, I’m not quite sure why bottom-line administrators oppose them so ferociously.

I’m not sure who you are responding to here, but again, it’s important to remember that compared with other sectors, unions are opposed LESS ferociously in higher education. That’s one reason why people are still able to form unions there.

Also, I respectfully disagree that unions offer any protection for grad students from hostile advisors. Grad employee unionization deserves our unqualified support, but we have to be realistic about what it does and does not do.

78

Corey Robin 12.06.13 at 5:57 pm

Josh, I’m not sure what you mean when you say unions are opposed less ferociously in higher education. The only places where unions have been successful in that sphere are in public universities, where the law is completely on their side and they function similarly to other public-sector unions. The real comparison you’d have to make then is between how governments respond to grad students unions in higher ed versus how they respond to other public-sector unions. Have governments systematically been less hostile to grad unions than they are to other types of public sector unions? I haven’t seen any evidence about that.

In terms of private universities, unions have been opposed with all the same ferocity as private companies oppose unions. That includes firings, blacklisting, captive-audience meetings, and more. In the case of Yale they threatened international students with expulsion which would lead to their being deported from the country. That is why with the exception of NYU there has not been a single successful union drive at any private campus. Even though there have been efforts at quite a few of them.

As for the adviser question, I agree that unions can’t offer total protection from hostile advisers. But it’s not true that they don’t offer “any.” First, they offer protection from advisers who are hostile to them for their union activity. That, in my experience, is a very important thing. Second, they can go beyond that, not in their legal capacity but as collective organizations. They can do all sorts of things to shame professors who don’t live up to their obligations to students and more, who mistreat them, and so on. This is a tricky issue, I understand, but good social movement type unions do do that, and I see no reason why grad unions can’t as well.

79

Barry 12.06.13 at 6:47 pm

JTFaraday: “The form of collectivization employees need to protect their interests takes amongst themselves. “

Um, English, please? I wouldn’t ordinarily mock like that, but the rest of the comment has no better logic.

80

JW Mason 12.06.13 at 6:47 pm

According to the BLS, union membership in private-sector education services is around 15 percent. That’s higher than today’s unionization rate in manufacturing or construction. And education is the only major private industry in which there has been no decline in union membership since 2000. It is true that graduate employee unions have not been successful at private universities. But it is pretty clearly not true that private universities resist unions in general as strongly as most other employers do.

I don’t in any way want to diminish the struggle you went through at Yale, which was really heroic IMO. But I don’t think Yale is typical.

81

Barry 12.06.13 at 6:50 pm

JW Mason 12.06.13 at 5:40 pm

“Also, I respectfully disagree that unions offer any protection for grad students from hostile advisors. Grad employee unionization deserves our unqualified support, but we have to be realistic about what it does and does not do.”

To be pedantic, it’s ridiculous that unions do not ‘offer any protection for grad students from hostile advisors’. It’s likely debatable that they would offer *enough* protection, but it’s a serious fool who’d rather deal with such a situation by their lonesome self vs. with others on their side.

.

82

Corey Robin 12.06.13 at 6:59 pm

Josh, I think we had a miscommunication here. In my original comment, which you were responding to, I was talking about grad unions, not unions in private-sector universities more generally.

83

JW Mason 12.06.13 at 7:03 pm

Here in Chicago, adjuncts have successfully organized at half a dozen private colleges and universities in the past decade.

it’s ridiculous that unions do not ‘offer any protection for grad students from hostile advisors’. It’s likely debatable that they would offer *enough* protection, but it’s a serious fool who’d rather deal with such a situation by their lonesome self vs. with others on their side.

Barry, I spent a fair chunk of my life as a member of a graduate employees union, including a stint in the leadership. I’ve sat across the table from administrators in contract negotiations, represented grad employees in grievance hearings, worked on our (successful!) campaign to get continuing education jobs added to our bargaining unit, etc. I have a pretty good idea of what grad unions can and can’t do.

84

JW Mason 12.06.13 at 7:03 pm

Corey – sorry, you are right, I misunderstood you.

85

Barry 12.06.13 at 8:01 pm

“Barry, I spent a fair chunk of my life as a member of a graduate employees union, including a stint in the leadership. I’ve sat across the table from administrators in contract negotiations, represented grad employees in grievance hearings, worked on our (successful!) campaign to get continuing education jobs added to our bargaining unit, etc. I have a pretty good idea of what grad unions can and can’t do.”

“Also, I respectfully disagree that unions offer any protection for grad students from hostile advisors. Grad employee unionization deserves our unqualified support, but we have to be realistic about what it does and does not do.”

86

KayP 12.06.13 at 8:21 pm

This doesn’t really have anything to do with this article, but since you wrote about the BART negotiations a few months ago, you might find irony in the fact that the head of Labor Relations at BART claims Cesar Chavez as his uncle.

87

GiT 12.07.13 at 2:45 am

“The reason the union helps run such employees out of town is that cooperating with the administration to rid themselves of the troublemakers is easier for them than one day finding themselves in the position of admitting publicly that historically they have failed to enforce the most basic provisions of the contract, for the entire group.”

The grad student union I was in rather regularly resolved hours grievances in favor of grad students. I’m not sure what you’re basing your oh so matter of fact conclusions on.

88

StevenAttewell 12.07.13 at 4:47 am

weareastrangemonkey at 34 – it’s tricky paying the rent with privilege or tuition accounting; the landlord normally wants cash. I’m a unionized graduate student at the University of California, and I know plenty of *employed* graduate students who have to rely on food stamps to get by. Our pay scales put us at below 125% of the poverty line for an individual (which qualify us not only for Medi-Cal (thank you Obamacare!) but also for Section 8), and I know plenty of graduate students who are single parents who drop below the poverty line as a result.

We should be paid a living wage, not because we are the most imisserated of the earth, but because everyone should be.

geo s at 47 – I find this really unconvincing. Graduate students have real economic needs that shouldn’t be subordinated to someone’s conception of what the union’s political agenda should be. And my 8 years of experience in a graduate student union has been that a larger political agenda – from paid family and medical leave to organizing new workers to keeping public universities affordable to raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for public goods – has always been part of what we do.

JTFaraday at 70 – rubbish. Graduate student unions are run by graduate students, so you have turnover both within the union structure and among the rank-and-file.

Regarding the problem of what to do about advisers, honestly in my experience, a lot of it comes down to the willingness of graduate students to bring in the union. UAW 2865 has contract provisions that bar sexual harassment and we’re happy to bring a grievance ourselves without the graduate student having to be present and act as a decoy for any blowback; but people have to contact us first to tell us about it. And a lot of graduate students still haven’t changed their mentality when it comes to professor-TA relationships and won’t come forward.

89

Katherine 12.07.13 at 4:02 pm

Undergrad students are properly students, with no danger of an employee/employee relationship, and we still manage to have a National Union of Students to represent them, in the UK.

Now, obviously they don’t do exactly what an employee union does, but if the HE establishment hasn’t ground to a halt in the UK because of the union, I find it difficult to believe that US universities can’t adapt.

90

Andrew F. 12.08.13 at 3:15 am

Ring Lardner has the perfect summary of the professor’s letter:

“Shut up,” he explained.

91

bjk 12.08.13 at 11:05 am

90 comments and nobody bothered to figure out which polisci prof it is? Or does nobody want to name names? It’s not hard to figure out.

92

Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 2:52 pm

I think a young labor scholar should look into the Walmart-ization of faculty positions – adjuncts make up the majority of teachers in universities now – cheap labor, no benefits. Just like WalMart.

Here’s a source: http://bit.ly/1gPGQEC

93

JW Mason 12.08.13 at 3:14 pm

Jobs in academia are about as far from Wal Mart as you could imagine. For example: Are you making suggestions for what some young Wal Mart cashier should work on?

94

JW Mason 12.08.13 at 3:25 pm

Just for the record: When I wanted weed the economics graduate program at the University of Massachusetts a bit over a decade ago, I was one of a cohort of nine. Of those nine, six, including me, now have tenure-track jobs; two dropped out early and one is still (at least notionally) working on the degree. Admittedly, prospects in economics are better than in many disciplines, but on the other hand UMass is very far from an elite school. I don’t understand why people are so eager to believe that traditional academic jobs are disappearing, but it is not true.

If you can complete a PhD, becoming a professor is still a reasonable expectation. And being a professor is still a very good job.

This could also go in the other thread, in response to John Emerson.

95

JW Mason 12.08.13 at 3:26 pm

wanted weed = entered

96

belle le triste 12.08.13 at 3:53 pm

Predictive text, it’ll track you down and snitch you up.

97

Hector_St_Clare 12.08.13 at 3:56 pm

JW Mason,

Economics and the hard sciences are probably easier to find jobs than other fields.

The basic issue here is that the number of tenure track jobs isn’t increasing, and each tenured professor typically trains more than one PhD, so there are many more PhDs than tenure track jobs. In fairness, in many fields (like a lot of biological sciences fields) you can find research jobs at government institutions or in private industry, so the prospects are not quite as difficult.

98

Jonny Butter 12.08.13 at 4:11 pm

Of those nine, six, including me, now have tenure-track jobs;

A total sample of nine from an economics department 10 or so years ago? Color me convinced!

Jobs in academia are about as far from Wal Mart as you could imagine.

No, the farthest from a walmart job one can imagine is these features: generous benefits, very high salary, respectful treatment by management, job security. About 75% of academic jobs have none of these features.

And…I have to ask: ‘wanted weed’? Is this one of those weird English phrases like ‘put paid’ or ‘needs must’?

99

Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 4:25 pm

To JW Mason @ 94 “I don’t understand why people are so eager to believe that traditional academic jobs are disappearing, but it is not true.”

Please share data (other than anecdotal) about the prevalence of traditional (tenure-track) academic jobs.

There IS data shows that the majority of classes are taught by adjuncts – who make little money and get no benefits – which is a higher ed version of the WalMart approach to employment.

From a September NPR story on an adjunct professor who died destitute after 25 years as adjunct professor: “Today, these itinerant teachers make up a whopping 75 percent of college instructors, with their average pay between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.” http://n.pr/1gPa2K0

From a press release from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce: “As of 2009, 75.5% of instructional staff members were employed in contingent positions either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.” http://bit.ly/18uhNkN

From Inside Higher Ed: “Research on adjunct working conditions paints a picture of inequality between them and their tenure-track counterparts. A 2010 survey of non-tenure-track faculty members by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce showed low median compensation rates for adjunct faculty, at $2,700 per three-credit course, with little, if any, compensation based on credentials and minimal support for work or professional development outside the classroom. (At four courses per semester, that’s $21,600 annually, compared to starting tenure-track salaries that average $66,000, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.)” http://bit.ly/1gPGQEC

Being a professor is a good job. Being an adjunct is a completely different story. No debate there. The question remains: why have universities adopted the WalMart model of employment?

Again, I would love to see your data that shows tenure-track professors are the norm, not the exception these days.

100

Barry 12.08.13 at 4:29 pm

JW Mason 12.08.13 at 3:14 pm
“Jobs in academia are about as far from Wal Mart as you could imagine. For example: Are you making suggestions for what some young Wal Mart cashier should work on?”

I am not. University/dept administrations can and do for many faculty because they. Are adjuncts. I would ask you to follow the link to that article, but it is common knowledge for anybody in academia.

You are not helping your credibility there.

101

JW Mason 12.08.13 at 4:35 pm

The basic issue here is that the number of tenure track jobs isn’t increasing, and each tenured professor typically trains more than one PhD, so there are many more PhDs than tenure track jobs

This doesn’t work. Most professors are not teaching at the PhD level.

102

JanieM 12.08.13 at 4:44 pm

Are you making suggestions for what some young Wal Mart cashier should work on?

Do adjunct faculty do scholarly research, or do they just teach classes? If the latter, then MSM’s suggestion for a scholarly research topic was aimed at people doing supported research, i.e. presumably not adjuncts.

103

Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 5:26 pm

TO JanieM @102 – I’m not suggesting anything about research. I’m saying that of the “nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part- time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.” http://bit.ly/1eZLUVG

If those 600,000 tenure-track and tenured professors want to think that their research is of significantly greater value than teaching, that’s fine.

There’s millions of college students who are going into serious debt to be taught by low-wage, no bennie adjuncts – there’s a serious disconnect here about the purpose of higher ed.

104

JanieM 12.08.13 at 6:15 pm

TO JanieM @102 – I’m not suggesting anything about research.

Oh? Then what did this mean:

I think a young labor scholar should look into the Walmart-ization of faculty positions –

JWM responded to that comment by writing Are you making suggestions for what some young Wal Mart cashier should work on?

It seemed to me that he was roughly equating your “young labor scholar” with a Walmart cashier, and I was just trying to point out that “young labor scholar” (i.e. someone who can “look into” something — i.e. do research) adjunct faculty.

105

JanieM 12.08.13 at 6:17 pm

Bad html. I was trying to say that “young labor scholar” is not the same as “adjunct faculty.”

106

JanieM 12.08.13 at 6:21 pm

Or to put it another way, I thought that JWM @ 93 was mischaracterizing you (MSM) @92.

107

Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 6:30 pm

Oh yes – I see what you are saying. Thanks for clarifying. And you are right! I DO feel that a scholar should research this issue – and yes, a Walmart greeter is not the right person for this research. And yes, an adjunct is simply not paid enough for teaching, let alone embarking on significant research.

I find it a significant flaw in higher ed – that so many teachers are seriously underpaid.

But higher ed is not the only sector where the work is so undervalued. We’ve shifted to a point in our culture where work is significantly undervalued for 99% of the people who work: educators, journalists, middle managers, anyone in a “right to work” state, auto workers hired since the bailout, Walmart cashiers, McDonald’s fry cooks are all lumped into the category of undervalued, overworked employees. This is huge shift in the last 30 years. Reagan’s rising tide has swamped most boats.

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JW Mason 12.08.13 at 6:30 pm

MSM-

That is an interesting document. I appreciate you sharing it. But it doesn’t address (what I see as) the question at issue here, which is the change in academic working conditions compared with the past.

Let’s consider the past 20 years (Do we agree that is reasonable?) Using the Digest of Educational Statistics to compare 1993 to the most recent available year, we find the following:

1. The number of full-time instructors has increased from around 550,000 to 760,000, while the number of part-time instructors has increased from from 370 to 760,000. So in 20 years, the proportion of part-time instructors has increased from 40% to 50%.

2. The number of tenure-track positions has increased from to 410,000 to 510,000. So over this 20 year period, tenure-track positions have fallen from a bit under half of all teaching positions, to a bit under a third.

3. The proportion of institutions with tenure systems has fallen from 63% to 48%. However, that fall is entirely accounted for by community colleges. At 4-year schools, the fraction with tenure systems has been essentially constant.

4. At schools with tenure systems, the proportion of full-time instructors with tenure has declined modestly, from 56% in 1993-1994 to 49% in 2011-2012.

So overall, it is certainly true that higher education teaching is shifting away from the traditional model of tenured, fulltime faculty. But, first, this shift is moderate, not dramatic. “Wal-martization” may describe the direction of travel correctly, but gives a misleading impression of the amount of ground covered. And second, the casualization of academic labor, to the extent that it has taken place, has not been through a decline in traditional academic employment; rather, it has been through an even faster growth of causal, adjunct teaching jobs on top of the steady growth of good tenure-track jobs.

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Main Street Muse 12.08.13 at 6:51 pm

To JW Mason – I see – it seems that WalMart has appropriated the higher ed system of using cheap, underpaid labor to do the bulk of the work.

Why is job creation in higher ed moving toward the “faster growth of the casualized* model?” Are you saying this is a good thing? Good for whom?

What’s been the change in the cost of college since 1993? According to a 2012 Forbes article, “since 1985, the overall consumer price index has risen 115% while the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.” http://onforb.es/1btHS83

Certainly, this is not the result of rewarding the labor of those who teach.

And I guess the fact that tenured faculty has dipped to less than 50% of the pool is nothing to worry about.

*Casualized labor – it’s the capitalists’ version of the “pre-owned” car. Have the urge to watch Glengarry Glen Ross now.

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JW Mason 12.08.13 at 6:58 pm

Why is job creation in higher ed moving toward the “faster growth of the casualized* model?” Are you saying this is a good thing? Good for whom?

No. It is a bad thing. What is a good thing, is that a core of good jobs has continued to exist and even expanded in academia, unlike elsewhere. If we don’t recognize that academia has defended itself against deskilling and proletarianization more successfully than other sectors, we won’t be able to learn from that success and build on it.

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JW Mason 12.08.13 at 7:01 pm

I guess the fact that tenured faculty has dipped to less than 50% of the pool is nothing to worry about.

Yes, let’s worry about that. But let’s also never stop pointing out that one of this country’s most successful industries also has the greatest degree of worker protection and autonomy. American higher education is thriving. Why give Wal Mart credit for that?

You’ve got to be able to look both up and down, comrade. It’s dialectics.

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Clay Shirky 12.10.13 at 12:04 pm

Putting this here, after the party’s over, mostly because it’s something I’m thinking about, and this will give me a handy URL for later, but to Josh @108 and @111, I don’t think the story of academic employment is one of the successful maintenance of worker protection and autonomy so much as a story of dualization.

Figure 1 here:
http://www.aaup.org/file/2010-11-Economic-Status-Report.pdf

…or the chart here:
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-ever-shrinking-role-of-tenured-college-professors-in-1-chart/274849/ (Nota Bene: Y-axis is wonky 1975-1993)

…illustrate what’s happened.

The early 1970s mark the rather abrupt end of the Golden Age of American education. The era of rising prosperity, a social contract that includes a draft army and a generous GI Bill, and fear of Soviet competition all come to halt between 1973 and 1975. Enrollment falls for the first time since 1945, and states begin reducing subsidy of public colleges and universities.

In 1975, the rank order of kinds of faculty in the US is:

Tenured Faculty (~30%)
Part-time Faculty (~25%)
Grad Students (~20%)
Tenure-track (~15%)
F/T, Non TT (~10%)

By 1993, there have been two important reversals: P/T > Tenure (the rise of the adjuncts) and F/T over TT (the dualization of full-time employment). Now the order looks like this.

Part-time Faculty (~35%)
Tenured Faculty (~25%)
Grad Students (~15%)
F/T, Non TT (~15%)
Tenure-track (~10%)

Josh, you’re correct that the changes since 1993 have been more gradual, but they are all pointing in the direction established in the immediate reaction to the end of Golden Age economics. As the 70s began, the academy was still a guild system, divided in three tranches — grad student, tenure track, tenured — with some fill-in by part- and full-time contingent faculty. By 1993, we had become a caste system; insiders had tenure or a shot at it, outsiders did not, and an increasing number of graduate students were (and are) relegated to outsider status as colleges and universities shifted employment from tenure-track positions to contingent ones.

Between 1993 and now, those trends have continued, accompanied by one more reversal: grad student employment now outnumbers tenured faculty, leaving the current league table looking something like this

Part-time Faculty (~41%)
Tenured Faculty (~19%)
Grad Students (~17%)
F/T, Non TT (~15%)
Tenure-track (~8%)

with no forces I can see suggesting a reversal of these trends any time soon.

So the story you tell here is going to depend heavily on your unit of analysis. Josh, your story seems to be about the preservation of tenure, which, by headcount, is true, but that is not inconsistent with a dualized employment structure.

That story also relies on ignoring the demand-side — as the US produces an increasing number of terminal-degree holders, the same number of teaching jobs shrinks per capita. And of course if you decide that community colleges don’t count, it makes the jobs picture looks rosier, because you have excised one of the places where much of the job growth has been.

Tenured faculty have indeed hung on to our privileges, but that’s largely because we’re tenured. When you have a job for life, in a field that doesn’t wear out the body, people can hang on for a long time. Change in employment mix comes slowly, as in all aspects of the academy. The long-term trend, though, is clear at both the top (the rise of the adjuncts) and the bottom (the percentage of tenure-track jobs has been cut over 50% since the end of the Golden Age.)

As a child, I read a story (which I can’t now find) about a sword so sharp that you could cut a man’s neck clean through, and he wouldn’t know until he went to turn his head. That’s us, and the name of the sword was ’1975′. The change in the nature of academic employment was accomplished in that year, and continues to advance through the system in alternating waves between the annual conferring of degrees to people who won’t get tenure and funerals of Emeritus professors.

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Clay Shirky 12.10.13 at 12:22 pm

Damn, third list should read

Part-time Faculty (~41%)
Grad Students (~19%)
Tenured Faculty (~17%)
F/T, Non TT (~15%)
Tenure-track (~8%)

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