When a history professor at Yale opposes a grad union but doesn’t know her history…

by Corey Robin on September 10, 2016

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent oped by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says:

One of the main tools available to unions is to strike. When employees strike at a company, their consumers lose services until management negotiates a new contract with the union. For example, a strike at Metro-North brings the suspension of train service and a decline in revenue until management and employees reach agreement and employees return to work.

So Yale shouldn’t recognize a union of its grad employees because those employees will go out on strike.

Since 1991, by my count, there have been five strikes by Yale’s grad employees: in December 1991, March 1992, April 1995, December 1995-January 1996, and 2003. Five strikes—and probably more—without Yale ever having recognized a union of its grad employees. I know, history.

Oddly, Hansen does go on to mention that Yale’s grad employees have struck in the past (and she should know since she’s been there since 1988), but she doesn’t seem to realize how the evidence she cites undermines her claim: if the fact that grad employees, with a union, would strike is a reason to oppose their unionization, then the fact that grad employees, without a union, have struck, might at least be considered as a reason not to oppose their unionization.

That’s not fancy forensics; it’s actually, um, history.

When Congress and the Supreme Court finally came to terms, in 1935 and 1937, with the idea of a legally recognized right to form unions in the United States, one of the reasons they gave was that workers were already striking and had been striking for some time. While unionized employees might strike, Congress and the Court reasoned that having a legally recognized union would be a way for workers to advance their interests without having to strike. Unions, in other words, would reduce strikes.

It’s right there, in Section 1, of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the very first sentence, in fact:

The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes….

And then, Congress adds this, in the first sentence of the third paragraph of the NLRA:
Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest…

I know, history.

Another reason Hansen cites for her opposition to a grad employee union is that grad employees “are not full-time” and “being a graduate student is not a lifetime job.” Grad employment is neither full-time nor lifetime: ergo, no union.

Here’s Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

Notice that that passage doesn’t say “only full-time and lifetime employees shall have the right to self-organization.” Nowhere in all of the National Labor Relations Act in fact does it say that you have to be a full-time worker at a lifetime job in order to have a union.

And how could it? Many workers only work part-time, and many jobs in the new American economy are part-time. The average time at a job in the United States, moreover, is 4.6 years (that’s 1.4 years less, incidentally, than the 6 years that Yale and other universities consider to be the normal time to degree for their graduate students). Does that mean those workers are not entitled to a union? Of course not.

Like I said, I can understand a tenured historian at Yale opposing a union of grad employees. But at the cost of embarrassing herself? That takes real commitment.

{ 25 comments }

1

marcel proust 09.10.16 at 6:21 pm

What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

IANAL, but rather an economist so I will rephrase the well known saying in a way that reflects my own experience:

When you have the fact, pound the facts.
When you have the theory, pound the theory.
When you have neither, pound the table.

2

Bill Benzon 09.10.16 at 6:47 pm

And if the table collapses, pound sand.

3

bruce wilder 09.10.16 at 7:02 pm

VH: The best practices in teaching do not presume a fixed number of hours per week, . . . When Yale instructors design their classes they do not stop to consider how many hours they are spending . . . Ph.D. students in the History Department . . . usually lead sections during two “teaching” years, when they prepare between 10 and 20 hours each week.

Which is it, do you suppose? Best practices, which apparently has no clock, unlike any other work activity known to humankind. Or, 10-20 hours a week of preparation?

VH: And make no mistake. Yale faculty members teach their own classes. Under our current system, regulations specify . . .

Ah, so there are regulations already! Who knew! Apparently, Yale’s Administration has an adversarial relationship with its faculty and finds it must require by detailed regulation that the faculty teaches. (And, the regulations are the documentary proof that this actually happens; interesting and creative use of historical methods.) But, still the institution survives.

I am not clear, though, on why Valerie Hansen imagines her opinion is needed or wanted. Is she being asked to join the graduate student union? Perhaps she should consider investing some of her time in reviving the AAUP chapter at Yale; they could use one.

4

michael braverman 09.10.16 at 7:03 pm

It sure is an outrage when tenured faculty oppose grad student unionization. But it’s also a bit of a straw man. The AAUP formally supports grad student unions. And it’s all but certain that a majority of faculty individually support it. So the occasional bonehead bloviating about the dangers of unions is hardly representative of the profession. Maybe Robin’s real complaint is that this one happens to be at his alma mater. Time to graduate, Corey.

5

jdkbrown 09.10.16 at 7:30 pm

When Yale instructors design their classes they do not stop to consider how many hours they are spending.

Ah, so this is why all those Yale professors are spending sixty hours a week on their teaching and never publish anything. Take heart, Harry.

6

Joseph Brenner 09.10.16 at 7:42 pm

Re: graduate workers are just part-time.
I think a lot of people in academia get stuck on the tenure
system, where if you’re a made-man you count, and if not, well
who cares.

When Stuart Reges was fired by Stanford (he annoyed someone in
the Federal government with anti-“war on drugs” activity), I
talked to some people at Stanford about it, and a common attitude
was “but he was only an Assistant Professor!”.

7

Corey Robin 09.10.16 at 8:18 pm

michael braverman: “And it’s all but certain that a majority of faculty individually support it.”

Do you have any evidence for that claim?

8

John Quiggin 09.10.16 at 9:45 pm

Hansen’s arguments (with the exception of the silly point about part-time/nonpermanent employment) serve equally well, or badly, as a case against teacher unions of any kind.

9

harry b 09.10.16 at 10:06 pm

Thanks jdkbrown! Now I know where to go for role models….

10

cassander 09.11.16 at 12:46 am

>So Yale shouldn’t recognize a union of its grad employees because those employees will go out on strike

This is a flat out dishonest misreading of her argument. The next two sentences read “At a university, what would the equivalent be? In previous strikes at Yale, some striking teaching fellows have not held sections and refused to grade papers and exams.
Who suffers? The undergraduates.”

The argument is that unions are supposed to more equitably divide the the spoils between management and labor, and are inappropriate for a circumstance with multiple players. Now, you can accept that argument our reject it, I don’t much care for it myself, but agree or disagree, you should at least engage with it honestly. Or, at least you should if you have goals besides self congratulatory intellectual masturbation and beating strawmen to death.

11

Corey Robin 09.11.16 at 2:26 am

Cassander: The previous paragraph, which sets up the argument about the strike, opens with this: “Unions often presuppose an adversarial relationship between ’employees’ and ‘management.'” The strike argument is a continuation of the claim about adversarial relations. The subsequent part regarding the costs of the strike to the students—which I in fact go on to discuss—is merely an elaboration of the point of the paragraph that I cited. There’s no claim about how unions are supposed to divide the spoils between management and labor or that they’re peculiarly inappropriate in a university because other people are affected. In fact, the author mentions a non-university related strike where other people are affected as well. That’s the nature of a lot of strikes.

Regardless of all that, the article is an argument against there being a union. The costs of a strike are the among the reasons it lists for opposing the union. My point is that there have been strikes without a union.

One more thing: don’t come onto my posts accusing me of intellectual masturbation or of being dishonest. You want to disagree, fine. Show me where I get it wrong. But don’t speak to me that way. You’re a guest here.

12

Meredith 09.11.16 at 3:34 am

13

Brett 09.11.16 at 3:45 am

When Congress and the Supreme Court finally came to terms, in 1935 and 1937, with the idea of a legally recognized right to form unions in the United States, one of the reasons they gave was that workers were already striking and had been striking for some time. While unionized employees might strike, Congress and the Court reasoned that having a legally recognized union would be a way for workers to advance their interests without having to strike. Unions, in other words, would reduce strikes.

That didn’t seem to work out.

14

cassander 09.11.16 at 4:13 am

@Corey Robin

> The subsequent part regarding the costs of the strike to the students—which I in fact go on to discuss—is merely an elaboration of the point of the paragraph that I cited.

First, you don’t discuss that at all. Second, it’s not an elaboration, it’s her whole point. Her argument is that when workers go on strike, managers suffer, but when grad students go on strike, it’s undergrads who suffer. Now, I don’t think this is a very good argument, but going on for several hundred words citing NLRA is entirely missing the point. She is not arguing that the NLRA makes it illegal to grad students to unionize, she is not arguing that grad students have never struck. She is arguing that grad students shouldn’t unionize and shouldn’t strike.

Now, to repeat, I find her arguments downright poor. They amount mostly to an unthinking defense of the status quo and bad moral appeals. But it’s perfectly possible to make those points without misrepresenting what she’s saying. Her argument is not “Yale shouldn’t recognize a union of its grad employees because those employees will go out on strike.” It’s not even close to that, and even if it were, reeling off a list of past strikes prove anything. It’s intellectual sneering and trivia, particularly since you know full well that there was a massive surge in labor activity, including strikes, in the aftermath of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.

There are plenty of good arguments to make against this piece, that the notion of a “lifetime job”
is silly is one. Stick to those, not beating up strawmen.

15

J-D 09.11.16 at 5:40 am

cassander, she wrote this:

At a university, what would the equivalent be? In previous strikes at Yale, some striking teaching fellows have not held sections and refused to grade papers and exams.
Who suffers? The undergraduates.

See that word ‘equivalent’? ‘Equivalent’ of what? The sentences I’ve just quoted follow closely on those previously quoted:

One of the main tools available to unions is to strike. When employees strike at a company, their consumers lose services until management negotiates a new contract with the union. …

When workers strike, consumers suffer; when graduate students strike, undergraduates suffer. Valerie Hansen’s description of these two effects is not that they are different, but rather that they are ‘equivalent’. You write:

Her argument is that when workers go on strike, managers suffer, but when grad students go on strike, it’s undergrads who suffer.

Your use of the word ‘but’ implies a contrast, which does not appear compatible with Valerie Hansen’s suggestion of an equivalence.

16

Corey Robin 09.11.16 at 12:56 pm

Cassander: “Her argument is that when workers go on strike, managers suffer, but when grad students go on strike, it’s undergrads who suffer….But it’s perfectly possible to make those points without misrepresenting what she’s saying.”

You offer no evidence that that is her argument. She nowhere uses the words, nowhere sets up the claims, in the ways you suggest. I’m willing to grant that *you*, for whatever reason, read the text this way. But I can assure you that you’ve given me *no* reason that the text should be read this way.

Your attempt to deliver a high-octane denunciation of my “misrepresentation” is considerably diminished by your total failure to offer a single shred of evidence for the claim that I have misrepresented anything. Just saying over and over again “this is what she is saying” doesn’t make it so; I know it *seems* that way to you, but it doesn’t seem that way to someone who is not you. Indeed, an outsider might surmise that the reason your rhetoric is so high is precisely that your evidence is so scant.

She does, however, set out the entire article as an argument against grad unionization. We can agree upon that, I hope. So every argument she adduces along the way is an argument against grad unionization. Again, I presume that’s obvious.

So let me concede, just for the sake of the argument, that in the specific paragraphs that we are in disagreement about, her point—contrary to everything she says, as J-D has pointed out—is that when grad students strike, the costs are borne by a third party, the undergraduates whom they teach. Let’s stipulate, again for the sake of the argument (and against all the evidence), that that is her claim.

My rebuttal still stands: If the reason you are against Yale recognizing a union of grad students is that those grad students strike and thereby hurt undergraduates, you have to come to terms with the fact that in the last quarter-century, those grad students have struck—and thereby have hurt undergraduates—at least five times. *Without ever having had a recognized grad union.* Perhaps, one might conclude, the cause of striking—and thereby hurting undergrads—is not the having of a recognized union but the NOT having of a recognized union. That was the logic of the National Labor Relations Act, which was based on decades of analysis and experience. It was also the logic of the Supreme Court. And if you look at the last 25 years of other grad unions that *have* been recognized—at Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, and elsewhere—you will see that in fact that they have had far fewer strikes than we’ve seen at Yale.

17

cassander 09.12.16 at 2:22 am

@jd

I was not defending her argument. I said, explicitly, I don’t think it’s very good. That said, as a rule, one does not set up “equivalents” for things that are identical, but for things that are broadly similar with important distances. If pressed, I assume that Hansen would say that there are differences between students and normal consumers. But I think now we’re paying far more attention to the language than the author did.

@Corey

The Wagner act was based on the labor portions of the NIRA and the jurisprudence and procedures it developed in the fortunately short years of its existence. The NIRA was little more than an enabling act, 20 pages to cartelize and plan the entire economy. To the extent there was any analysis going into it, it’s certainly not in the text of the act. Let’s not sugar coat reality.

More importantly, though, simply asserting that there have been strikes without a union proves nothing. One of the main purposes of a union is to facilitate striking, it is not ridiculous to assert implicitly that students unionizing will increase strike activity. The relevant figure is not Wisconsin’s strike rate compared to Yale’s, but their strike rate before and after unionization.

This should be obvious, and your noticeable silence about what happened after the Wagner act was upheld speaks volumes about the weakness of your position.

18

Corey Robin 09.12.16 at 3:12 am

Cassander: “One of the main purposes of a union is to facilitate striking, it is not ridiculous to assert implicitly that students unionizing will increase strike activity….This should be obvious, and your noticeable silence about what happened after the Wagner act was upheld speaks volumes about the weakness of your position.”

From P.K. Edwards, *Strikes in the United States 1881-1974* (the most comprehensive analysis of the history of strikes in America):

“Strike frequency rose during the 1880s, fell in the 1890s and then rose to peak levels in the early years of the present century. It remained high until the 1920s, when a dramatic decline occurred. The militancy of the 1930s was not sufficient to raise the index to pre-1920 levels. Since 1940 [five years after Wagner Act], there has been a historically low number of strikes per head, with a decline in the 1950s and some recovery subsequently….after a period of conflict in the 1930s, when unions were struggling for recognition, and the 1940s, when the conflict turned on the scope of collective bargaining, strike frequency declined to very low levels.”

19

Tabasco 09.12.16 at 4:53 am

The story so far: Corey and cassander agree that Valerie Hansen’s arguments are a crock, and having nothing of substance to disagree on, are at each other’s throats anyway.

20

Finn 09.12.16 at 2:39 pm

cassander: but the reason that she is describing supposed negative effects of a grad student strike is because there is an implicit assumption that a union will increase the frequency of strikes. (If she thought otherwise, then describing negative effects of a strike would be a non-sequitur.)

Everything in Corey’s post is a response to this assumption. Whether or not undergraduate students would be harmed by a strike is entirely immaterial to Corey’s point. There is no misrepresentation at all.

21

Trader Joe 09.12.16 at 3:10 pm

@17 Cassander

“One of the main purposes of a union is to facilitate striking, it is not ridiculous to assert implicitly that students unionizing will increase strike activity.”

That is absolutely NOT one of the main purposes of a union. If you’ve ever been part of a union you would understand this. No union ever wants to strike – the workers are always harmed by strikes, the reason they can be effective is sometimes management is harmed more or is under more public pressure due precisely to the fact that there are third parties who suffer collateral damage.

The main purpose of a union is to facilitate negotiation and have management hear a single common voice from the workers.

Strikes are what happens when unions fail, not when they succeed.

Cory’s take is fully correct in my view.

22

cassander 09.12.16 at 6:40 pm

@Trader Joe

That workers are harmed by strikes and are reluctant to engage in them does disprove the assertion that one of the purposes of unions it facilitating strikes.

>Strikes are what happens when unions fail, not when they succeed.

A union going on strike might not be their most desirable outcome, but it is manifestly not a failure in and of itself. And having an organized union certainly makes striking easier, defection harder, and creates legal protections that do not exist for a mere “association” of grad students. To claim that unions don’t facilitate strikes is simply ludicrous.

23

Jerry Vinokurov 09.12.16 at 7:21 pm

Even if we grant arguendo that what Hansen really objects to is that a third party (the undergrads) bear the cost of a strike, so what? When transit workers strike, third parties i.e. the commuters, bear the brunt of the costs. But this is not a rationale for forbidding transit workers from forming a union and striking.

24

Trader Joe 09.12.16 at 9:20 pm

@22
“And having an organized union certainly makes striking easier, defection harder, and creates legal protections that do not exist for a mere “association” of grad students. “

So what you’re saying is that unions mean there are fewer scabs and if there are fewer scabs then the strike is implicitly more effective. It really has no bearing on the actual number of strikes.

You said the MAIN PURPOSE of unions is to facilitate strikes. That’s far different than an agreed fact that unions can and do facilitate strikes, should they become necessary. A union doesn’t want strikes any more than a bullet inside a gun wants to kill people – it will do so if necessary, but its not what its there for.

25

Andy 09.17.16 at 2:25 am

The primary purpose of a union is to facilitate collective bargaining.
Strikes (or better, the threat thereof) are just one of the tools available to fulfill that purpose, but by far not the only one. Indeed, many unions, specifically in the public sector, have relinquished the right to strike, but function just as well without.

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