Union Dues

by Henry Farrell on April 18, 2005

Three links relating to unions and the academy:

A very nice article in Dissent, which I’ve been meaning to link to for a while, setting out the reasons why non-tenure track faculty should unionize.

Teaching assistants at Columbia and Yale plan strike action; the university administration responds with the usual chestnut: “The university’s relationship with graduate students is educational and collaborative. It is not an employer-employee relationship.”

Nathan Newman writes about a new book by Charles Morris, a labour law scholar, arguing that unions have a right to “engage in collective bargaining through a minority union on a members-only basis.” By Newman’s account, Morris “documents that the clear legislative intent of the National Labor Relations Act was to require collective bargaining by companies with minority “members only” unions.” If this original intent can be made to stick (which would be a hard-fought battle, given the current ideological slant of the NLRB), it could transform the US labour relations system.



Sebastian Holsclaw 04.18.05 at 3:18 pm

Why do Ph.D.s accept jobs as lecturers and then stay in them? One part of the answer is that they value things other than salary and job security that are difficult to find in other kinds of work. A lecturer may value the intellectual life, teaching college-age students, or staying in a particular community because a spouse or partner has a good job.

The specialized education that lecturers receive also limits their mobility. If they hold doctoral degrees-and, according to the AFT study, about half of nontenure-track faculty in public research universities do-lecturers have trained in their chosen discipline for five to ten years. In addition to this substantial investment of time, lecturers with Ph.D.s have a highly specialized knowledge that doesn’t readily transfer into non-academic settings. By the time they defend their dissertations, doctoral candidates know a great deal about a small topic that may be of significant concern only within the academy.

If the skills they developed in graduate school are not marketable outside of the academy, these Ph.D.s are in a bind. They’ve trained for a job that, for all intents and purposes, does not exist. This is not an unusual situation. The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions reports that in 1995 universities awarded approximately one-third more Ph.D.s than they hired. Perhaps the closest analog to the situation of “excess” Ph.Ds is an autoworker whose job on the assembly line is rendered obsolete through technological advances. The autoworker knows his or her particular job quite well and, if this job disappears, there may be no comparable position that makes use of these specific skills.

This is one of the biggest problems. We could unionize to give these lecturers higher pay, but it would be far better to train them into more useful jobs.


Jack Lake 04.18.05 at 4:18 pm

My slant is for unions for TAs, RAs and faculty (tenured or not). Nowadays, universities are run by CEO-like presidents with the proper amount of undemocratic antics, shenanigans, megalomania and, a minority, with proper humility and decency.

In such a reality, Labor unions are a must.


Hogan 04.18.05 at 5:04 pm

Just because they do work for us, and we give them money conditional on their doing the work, doesn’t make them employees for heaven’s sake.


Jackmormon 04.18.05 at 6:10 pm

I think you’re drawing the wrong conclusion from that, what is it, an article? Jobs do and should even more exist within the academy. There are a million things to do. Most of the tenure-track faculty I know

-teach two to three courses per semester
-lecture at two or more conferences per year
-publish an article or two a year
-supervise maybe ten doctoral dissertations, maybe five masters theses, maybe five orals exams every year

and all this while researching, writing, and getting published two books in seven years. The tenured faculty are also working seventy-hour weeks. So much of the tutoring and teaching that used to happen between professors and students is happening on an ad hoc basis: graduate students and adjuncts are taking up the slack. There is most definitely work enough–more people than ever want university educations–and the real question is how the work will be distributed and whether the people who do the work will have any protection.


Tom T. 04.19.05 at 12:12 am

I have no objection to grad-student unionization; certainly, they are the only teachers with whom many students will ever meaningfully interact.

Query, though, whether originalism should be any more valid as to the NLRA than it is as to the Constitution.


James 04.19.05 at 2:38 am

The shenanigans at Yale include this: All graduate students in arts and sciences receive 5 years of support at $17,000 per academic year (going up to $18,000 next year), and $3,500 per summer for 2 years. In exchange for which we serve as TAs for 4 courses. That is 4 courses, one a semester for 4 semesters. That leaves 6 semesters of being “paid” to read, to study, to pursue our research. Language teachers do have a legitimate gripe,as they need to put in more hours.

But most of us want nothing to do with the union. Here are the numbers:
2329: graduate students
1124: graduate students in the humanities and social sciences (and this is the target audience for the union, which just ditched the science students for failing to cooperate)
400: about how many graduate students voted to go on strike (we don’t know the actual number; the organizers are not fond of transparency).

Yes, those 400 have a right to form a union. I would think the rest of us have a right to NOT be coerced into one, but I am not seeing too many academics rushing forward to take that unpopular stance.


lakelobos 04.19.05 at 3:12 am

Your numbers are nice, but might not = right

Having a union does not imply that you are exploited or belong to an underclass; all it implies is the right to face the university’s might with some counter might.

Occasionally, university might is arbitrary, obnoxious, greedy, abusive and degrading, i.e. university = Enron.

University professors are the most docile lot I know. In 20 years in the same University there was only one case where faculty stood up for their right. An active union may provide the lacking backbone.


catfish 04.19.05 at 8:49 am

I agree with jackmormon. The problem is not a lack of demand for the services of adjuncts. The college population is growing. We need more teachers. Many people want to be teachers. All that is missing is the political will to focus on undergraduate teaching to make sure that those who do this teaching are fully vested members of the academy. Decent pay, benefits, and job security for adjuncts will help to integrate them into University culture, benefitting instruction for all students. Note, this may mean less emphasis on research, particularly in the Humanities and the social sciences. The tradeoff is worth making.


James 04.19.05 at 9:51 am

thanks for reducing things to the simplest terms for me. Let me see if my addled, mystified brain has this straight:
Might not = right
counter might = right?
But counter might is still might, is it not, and what happens when counter might not = right? Or is that not an option? The tactic of choice among union organizers at Yale is to preclude that option with manichean rhetoric (university administration = evil; enemy of administration = good). This is allied with a tendency to romanticize labor (most commonly found among those with little experience of it). Result: to question the union organizers’ goals or methods is to be a lackey of the administration, an enemy of working people, and an enemy of progress.

The fundamental issue remains: does a minority’s right to voluntary association imply the right to impose involuntary association on the majority? Even at Enron University???


Uncle Kvetch 04.19.05 at 3:49 pm

University professors are the most docile lot I know. In 20 years in the same University there was only one case where faculty stood up for their right. An active union may provide the lacking backbone.

Indeed. During the initial unionization drive at NYU, my PhD advisor expressed a lot of ambivalence about it. At one point she said “I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a union too; we need one just as much as you TAs do.” And I said, “I couldn’t agree more…so why don’t you have one?” As I recall, she didn’t have an answer for that.

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