NY Grad Students

by Henry Farrell on December 8, 2005

“Cosma Shalizi”:http://www.cscs.umich.edu/%7Ecrshalizi/weblog/397.html says it loud and clear

bq. Surveying the treatment of our graduate student employees from the lofty perch of half a year on the faculty, it seems to me that CMU, at least in the statistics department, treats them pretty well, and much better than we had it at Madison when I was a TA there, and a member of AFT local #3220. But still, if they wanted to unionize, I’d be completely behind them, and I think it’s idiotic and reprehensible for universities to refuse to even recognize and negotiate with graduate student unions. Unions can ask for stupid and/or selfish things, of course — which distinguishes them from any other organization how, exactly? — but the merits of particular proposals isn’t the issue here; punishing people who attempt to organize to exert their rights is.

As “Chris notes”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/07/nyu-grad-students-petition/#comment-127564 in comments, left academics who’ve come out in favour of the NYU administration have ducked this point, preferring to concentrate on whether or not the grad student union has somehow or another been a pain in the ass. Get over it – unions are professional pains in the ass for administrators – and in any event it’s quite irrelevant to the broader issue. The make-or-break question is quite simple. Do you, or do you not, support what the university is threatening to do to striking grad students? To quote the title of “one of my favourite books”:http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-1565848861-2, which side are you on?



Sherman Dorn 12.08.05 at 3:41 pm

Absolutely right.


Colin Danby 12.08.05 at 4:12 pm

Well put. Are NYU faculty unionized?


Uncle Kvetch 12.08.05 at 4:31 pm

Are NYU faculty unionized?


I was a grad student at NYU when the unionization drive first got underway, in the late 90s. I remember talking with my advisor, who was very ambivalent about the whole thing. She got a little defensive at one point: “Look, we have grievances too–about our workloads, our salaries and benefits, the administration, and all that. So why shouldn’t we have a union, too?”

The strange thing is, I think she meant the question rhetorically.


Jamie 12.08.05 at 5:47 pm

I thought it was illegal for faculty members at a private university to join a union.


djw 12.08.05 at 5:51 pm

The Paul Bohgossian comment that David Velleman “points to”:http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2005/12/nyu_graduate_st.html#comment-11801616 at leiterreports in the other thread really bothers me. After protesting that he really, really is pro-labor, he says (speaking of TAs) “I don’t believe that they would want to think of themselves as employees, if they could possibly avoid it.” He goes on to explain why he doesn’t think they should be thought of as employees, but not why they should try to avoid thinking of themselves that way. I wish he’d explain his thinking here, but since he doesn’t I have infer that he thinks that it’s somehow denegrating of the grand enterprise of the life of the mind to be an employee. Perhaps it’s my working class roots, but I must say my response is quite the opposite. But I think jobs of all sorts can and should be sources of dignity and pride.

But the thing that really gets me is his horror story of the grievance procedure. Why it’s evidence of the rottenness of the situation with the union is beyond me, since Boghossian’s preferred outcome (which, from his telling, certainly sounds like the correct outcome to me) did, in fact, occur. He seems to find it appalling that the party on the strong side of a very asymmetrical power relationship might actually have to defend their decisions to those on the other side to a third party is pretty hard to square with his insistence that he’s pro-labor.


djw 12.08.05 at 5:53 pm

dammit fixed?


djw 12.08.05 at 5:54 pm

I was trying to link to the offending comment, here’s the lowtech:



The Continental Op 12.08.05 at 6:07 pm

The faculty at NYU, like the graduate assistants, lack the right to form a union, though for a different reason. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University, 444 US 672 (1980), faculty members at most private universities are considered “managerial” employees, a category that is excluded from union representation under federal labor law. In contrast, faculty at public universities in many states are able to form unions under state law governing public employee labor relations.


Henry 12.08.05 at 6:53 pm

djw – have fixed yer comment.


John 12.08.05 at 7:01 pm

Just to note – my understanding is that faculty at private universities is not allowed to unionize under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act. Just like any other private work force anywhere, there is nothing stopping the administration from voluntarily recognizing a faculty union at a private university. There’s just no legal means to compel them to do so.


jacob 12.08.05 at 9:04 pm

John: You are entirely correct. Indeed there are a few faculty unions at private universities which date to before the Yeshiva ruling and which were never decertified. (I can’t think of them right know, but I’m sure there are one or two.)

DJW: As a graduate student, I have to say that I agree with Bohgossian to the extent that I wish we weren’t employees. I wish that universities didn’t treat graduate students as cheap labor to teach the unwashed masses of undergrads. I wish that my department approximated more perfectly the guild system. I wish that universities were still run by scholars, rather than by professional administrators. But given that my wishes aren’t coming true, given that universities are more and more run like businesses, given that we are just another form of cheap labor, I sure as hell want a union to protect me. Closing my eyes, tapping my heels, and repeating “I’m an apprentice, I’m an apprentice, I’m an apprentice” doesn’t make me one. And faculty doing the same, repeating, “We’re a guild, we’re a guild, we’re a guild” doesn’t actually change the fact that higher education is now organized on a modern, industrial model.


benjamin weiner 12.08.05 at 9:46 pm

The previous comment about NLRB v. Yeshiva is correct for faculty. It doesn’t really make any _sense_ that public faculty can unionize and private essentially can’t, but there you go. At most state universities the faculty (and often the grad students on TA/RA lines) are state employees with the rights (and often health benefits) thereof. At several state universities, the faculty, grad students, or both are unionized – both at Rutgers, where I was a grad student.

Curiously, the sky has not to my knowledge fallen at any university with a grad student union. The lack of dire consequences (grievances, union interference in the oh-so-sacred professor-student relationship, etc) are a powerful argument that shows the vacuity of mealy-mouthed opposition to grad student unionization.

I once read a Yale professor commenting to the effect that grad student unionization might be acceptable at a _state_ university but not at an elite institution like Yale. This type of remark almost doesn’t deserve rebuttal, but the level of self-deception it reveals is interesting. Someone should write a thesis about it.


David Velleman 12.08.05 at 11:23 pm

What dtw fails to understand is that, although particular grievances may have been resolved correctly in the past, their resolution was entrusted to labor mediators, who have very little understanding of higher education. It is in the power of those mediators to dictate decisions that fall clearly within the expertise and responsibility of faculty. The university cannot allow labor mediators to be the ultimate arbiters of who is qualified to teach what — even if they happen to have made the right decision in a few cases so far.

Jacob’s remark that universities are now run “on a modern, industrial model” is simply false in reference to a private university like NYU. (It may be somewhat more applicable to a public institution like the University of Michigan, where I previously taught.) The idea that the graduate students in my department at NYU are treated as “cheap labor” is laughable.

The Houston janitors: now, there are people who are treated as “cheap labor”. They need a union, and — thank goodness — it looks like they’re going to get one. In my view, it is an insult to the Houston janitors, and others like them, for graduate students such as Jacob to fashion themselves as exploited laborers.


Doug 12.08.05 at 11:43 pm

How does janitors’ need for a union exclude grad students’ need for one?

That is like arguing that poor Bangladeshis need a government, while rich Americans do not.


jacob 12.08.05 at 11:48 pm

David Velleman:

Out of curiousity, where do you draw the line about when it is appropriate to be in a union? Is it only when you’re in the bottom quintile of income? How about the bottom two?

There can be no question that my colleagues and I perform labor. We teach students, we grade their work, we run experiments, we research for faculty. All of these things are things also that faculty do, and indeed were we not there to do it for them, faculty like you would have to spend much more of their precious (and more expensive) time doing them. We are, without question, a source of cheap, skilled labor for the university. (I am not at NYU, and have never studied there, but I find it difficult to believe that it is appreciably different from the two private universities of which I do have personal knowledge.)

We do different labor than the Houston janitors. We get paid more. Sure. But does that mean we aren’t workers, just because we’re a different kind of workers? It’s indisputable that we serve as cheap labor for universities. That we are more expensive than janitors is really neither here nor there; we do different work and are required to have significantly more education.

While we’re in the business of claiming that a position is “insulting” to janitors, your position that as intellectual and professional workers we are unbridgeably different from janitors is insultingly elitist. You’re claiming, in essence,that you’re too good for a union, your work is too important, and unions are for (gasp) poor people. The claim that unions for intellectuals and professionals is insulting to service workers would no doubt come as a surprise to the unionized janitors at Yale, who have worked in partnership with graduate employees for more than a decade. The workers in Unite Here local 35 (along with their brothers and sisters in Local 34, the clerical and technical workers) have seem to have no problem expressing solidarity with their fellows in GESO. Similarly, the UMass “Unions United” includes workers at all levels of the university–from faculty down the janitors. I’m sure those janitors, too, would be surprised to hear that they are insulted by a faculty union.

Perhaps if you spent less time speaking for other people–Houston janitors, your own graduate students–and more time actually talking to people, you’d have a better sense of just what was insulting.


Scott Lemieux 12.08.05 at 11:51 pm

“What dtw fails to understand is that, although particular grievances may have been resolved correctly in the past, their resolution was entrusted to labor mediators, who have very little understanding of higher education.”

What Velleman fails to recognize, of course, is that similar arguments could be made about *any* union. Since collective bargaining generally involves rules that constrain management, it can almost always involve arbitrators who are not experts within a given field making judgments about how the rules apply. (Your random anecdotes also fail, of course, to actually prove that such rules cannot be applied rationally in an academic context-indeed, they suggest the opposite–and of course it would not be hard to compile competing anecdotes about rank cronyism and other irrational factors being part of job assignments, which having exlicit rules and due process could conceivably improve.) We’re expected to take it on blind faith that university administrators have a unique necessity to be unconstrained by labor rules. Why? And, of course, faculty at public universities also presumably apply expertise in deciding who would teach classes, so why can they be constrained by such rules while private teachers can’t? This latter point is just a self-serving non-sequitur, as is the idea that because workers may be better situated than janitors that they are not entitled to fundamental rights.

So we’re back to the original point; if you’re against the ability of grad student instructors to organize, then you’re just anti-labor, or more specifically opportunistically anti-labor when there’s a chance your own interests and power will be affected, which is even worse.


Doug 12.08.05 at 11:56 pm

I fear that Professor Velleman’s fears concerning third-party arbitrators may prove too much insofar as they entail that no adjudicator who is not an expert herself can evaluate disputes concerning “esoteric” subject matters. That concern would eliminate the legitimacy of all judical dispute resolution regarding the professions. The costs of some “incorrect” grievance decisions seems low to the very real benefits of democratic governance that unionization provides.


djw 12.09.05 at 12:32 am

Scott makes the main thrust of my response unnecessary, so I have only one minor point. Let’s assume I concede that the Houston janitors–and a thousand other potential bargaining units–need a union more than NYU teaching assistants do. So what? Is there some zero-sum game at work between these two specific unions? Are you implying that those don’t have unions have no business organizing until those whose situation is worse first have them? Such an attitude would clearly be toxic to the future of organized labor.


Chris Bertram 12.09.05 at 3:33 am

Just to note that Velleman, despite commenting in this thread where Henry explicitly draws attention to the point I made in the earlier one, has yet to offer any defence of the way the NYU adminstration has conducted itself in the course of the dispute.


Teddy 12.09.05 at 5:49 am

How come that Velleman, Boghossian et al. declare that they are “pro-labor” but are against the unionization of their students? Consider the following possibility. Being “pro-labor” creates in them a good feeling of supporting the underdog but without any need to take into account and understand all the complexities of possible conflicts of employers and employees. (Indeed, wouldn’t a rational person be sometimes pro-labor and sometimes anti-labor, depending on the nature of a specific case?)

But when, rather than judging things in the abstract and from their ivory tower, they are in real life confronted with what THEY regard as unreasonable demands of “labor”, they are quick to abandon their simplistic ideological slogan. In other words, can it be that they are “pro-labor” only as long as they are not themselves negatively affected by their blanket “pro-labor” attitude?


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 8:00 am

Jacob: I made none of the elitist claims that you attribute to me. My only claim is that NYU graduate students are not “cheap labor” — which is demonstrably true. They are receiving a very expensive and valuable education for free, which is what differentiates them from the Houston janitors, who are working solely for a wage.

One further note. The problem with the quotation from Cosma Shalizi with which this thread began is that the NYU graduate students have never voted to form a union. The unionization vote was taken in a gerrymandered constituency from which students in the sciences were excluded, precisely because they would have opposed the union. (Even in the gerrymandered constituency, the union won by only 53%/47%.) So the question for those who claim a democratic right to organize is this: does this right inhere in any subset of the student body that can be carved out for the purposes of rigging a pro-union vote?


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 8:36 am

Chris Bertram — Which actions of the administration would you like me to defend? I don’t support all of the administration’s actions. For example, I think that the sanctions against the strikers are too harsh — though I think that removing the TAs eligibility to teach next semester was not only appropriate but obligatory, given the University’s responsibilities toward undergraduates. I spoke up because of what I regard as knee-jerk interference in the situation by outsiders who know (or, apparently, care) very little about the complexity of the situation (“Which side are you on?” and blah blah blah).


Chris Bertram 12.09.05 at 9:30 am

I guess I wouldn’t like you to defend their actions at all!

But I did want to know where you stood since the issue of stipends and future teaching had been raised but you had kept silent on it. Whether the administration is right to victimize the strikers is surely a different question from whether the strike has merit. You’d concentrated only on that question (as did Boghossian).

As for “knee-jerk” interference by outsiders unaware of complexities etc. You may be right. But since this is the sort of point typically made by employers in response to campaigns of solidarity with unions, solidaristically disposed outsiders are entitled to be a little sceptical.


jacob 12.09.05 at 9:32 am

NYU graduate students are not “cheap labor”

I honestly can’t tell if you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying, if you honestly don’t understand how the modern university works, or if the NYU philosophy department works entirely differently from any other department I’ve ever heard of.

I’ll try again. Which part of this is untrue? Graduate employees perform work that if they were not there, faculty like yourself would perform. They teach students (either in their own classes or as section leaders). They grade papers. They perform research (that is, research for hire for faculty’s projects, rather than their own). Facutly are paid rather more handsomely than graduate employees. If there were no graduate students, the univeristy would have to hire more faculty to do the same work and greater cost. Ergo, graduate employees are cheap labor. Perhaps not dirt cheap, like Houston janitors, but cheaper than the alternative.

NYU graduate students have never voted to form a union. The unionization vote was taken in a gerrymandered constituency from which students in the sciences were excluded, precisely because they would have opposed the union.

But the scientists aren’t included the the bargaining unit, either! They didn’t vote for the union, they aren’t represented by the union, and they don’t get the benefit of the union.

I spoke up because of what I regard as knee-jerk interference in the situation by outsiders who know (or, apparently, care) very little about the complexity of the situation (“Which side are you on?” and blah blah blah).

Very few, if any, of us are outsiders. We are all acadmics, and we know and care something about how universities are run. I, for instance, am in the same position as NYU’s grad employees. GSOC’s struggle is my struggle. You may not describe yourself as “pro-labor” (perhaps I am conflating you with your chair), but the term has no meaning if it does not include this basic solidarity. “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there/ You’re either for the union or you thug for J.H. Blair.” It’s as true at NYU as it was in the coal mines: you’re either for the union or you thug for John Sexton. You’ve made your choice clear.

I should probably leave this be, because arguing with anti-labor managers (and that’s what, in regards to his grad students, Professor Doctor Velleman is) is almost always fruitless. As I noted on the other NYU thread here, the debate between people want rights for workers and those who care more about rights for managers has been going on in remarkably unchanged terms since at least the 1880s.


Maria 12.09.05 at 9:43 am

I am a graduate student at NYU. It seems being against *this* union and its claims seems to imply that graduate students are not workers, or something of the sort. Apparently, being against *this* mode of student organization implies agreement with each and every action and proposal of the administration.

I don’t agree with the strike. I think the union’s complaints are unfair (health benefits were reduced by the insurer – it is simply NOT POSSIBLE to get the same plan as last year – and this comes from someone with health conditions such that she didn’t need to read about the change, but noticed it immediately from her bills). I believe we do work, but it IS part of our education and as such a student committee elected democratically seems to me a better choice. [Although I’m still waiting for a better third-party intermediation for grievances].

Also, the union may have been voted democratically, but
– its actions have only been approved by members, not by those who pay the agency fee (and I would love to have accurate numbers available)
– it was voted at another era of the university, as I’ve been told, and I’m not sure it would have been voted *before* this whole mess began. Say, last year. Again, it’s speculation, but I believe the high turnover in graduate student population in at least some departments makes claims to “democratically elected” choices somewhat untrue.

Just as some have accused left academics who don’t agree with the union of “feeling good” except when it affects them, I could claim faculty who support the strike just want to “feel good” about themselves by supporting “the cause”, without caring for either graduate or undergraduate students. Of course, this could also to outsiders who I could say have nothing to do with the university and probably don’t give a damn about us, but want to further their own political goals – other unions, politicians and the like. But I think this kind of attack is absolutely pointless. People can be pro-labor without supporting every action of every labor union in every context. And people can be pro-labor and disagree in one particular case.


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 9:45 am

Continuing my response to Chris Bertram:

The University did not categorically refuse to negotiate with the union. It placed two conditions on further negotations — one of which was absolutely right, in my view, and the other of which was absolutely wrong.

The first condition was that negotiations be limited to matters of compensation, benefits, hours, etc., so as to exclude academic decisions such as who is qualified to teach what, and how long graduate students should receive financial support. Contrary to the comments of scott lemieux (above), reserving the latter decisions for the faculty is not just another “management demand”: it is a fundamental principle of university governance. I would contend, in fact, that it belongs to a web of principles that are ultimately epistemological, because they determine how knowledge is constituted in the modern world. (See this post for more.) These principles are non-negotiable, and the University was right to refuse to negotiate them.

The second condition placed on further negotiations by the administration was that the union abandon its demand for a closed shop. This condition was absolutely wrong, in my view. The closed shop is the only means available to unions for solving the problem of free-riders. Without the closed shop, unions can rarely survive — for the same reason that civil society cannot survive without taxation.

Well, you asked for my opinion of the administration’s behavior, and I’ve tried to give at least a partial answer. There is, as the saying goes, plenty of blame to go around. But outsiders are not doing any good by signing uninformed declarations of support for the strike.


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 9:47 am

Jacob’s statement that, in relation to my graduate students, I am an “anti-labor manager” is sheer nonsense. In my view, it shows that he lacks the concept of a university.


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 9:53 am

Jacob is also wrong to claim that graduate students are cheap labor in the sense that they are cheaper than the alternative. Graduate students are more expensive than the alternative: adjunct teaching labor is always less expensive, because it does not involve free tuition in a graduate program, which is a very expensive form of education.

Of course, graduate students like to overlook (or even deny) the value and expense of the education that they receive. In this respect, they sometimes remind me of George W. Bush: like W, they like to overlook the silver spoon in their own mouths.


Chris Bertram 12.09.05 at 10:03 am

Hmm. I’m not sure if I have the concept of a university ….

There are issues here that go well beyond this thread, but it seems to me (and this concerns the way tenure is handled in the US as well) that the idea that faculty should be absolutely authoritative as to who gets to teach (who gets tenure) etc is simply not defensible.

It seems just obvious to me that the opportunities for arbitrary power, bullying and other forms of abuse are such that sometimes there have to be mechanisms in place such that faculty decisions are examined, reviewed and, if necessary, overturned by some tribunal or other mechanism.

Against my view, someone might argue that abuses are rare and that the possibility of such review would make things worse overall. But to reject the idea on conceptual grounds or to suggest than it is inconsistent with rationality or whatever is crazy.


David Velleman 12.09.05 at 10:21 am

To elaborate on my first response to Chris Bertram:

I think that the University was right to take away strikers’ eligibility to teach next semester. Undergraduates have already enrolled for next semester’s courses. I assume that they have already been asked, or will soon be asked, to pay at least a first installment on tuition for those courses. The University owes them an assurance that it is not planning to staff those courses — and has made arrangements not to staff them — with instructors who are currently refusing to perform their duties. That’s why cancelling the strikers’ teaching eligiblity for next semester is an appropriate response.

Insofar as the administration’s sanctions went beyond cancelling teaching eligibility for next semester, they were unnecessary and therefore, in my view, unwise.

(I am now leaving for a weekend conference, so my participation in this thread must end.)


The Navigator 12.09.05 at 11:46 am

Here’s what’s sad about liberal academics like david velleman who are only rhetorically pro-labor (as Phil Ochs once said, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally): he shows a basic contempt for his own grad students. A union is a democratic organization and major decisions are conducted by membership vote – does he really not think they’ll agree to structure their contract in a way that best furthers their education?

If unionized grad students want to ensure that appropriate pedagogical decisions will remain with the school, there is absolutely nothing stopping them with agreeing to keep those decisions there. If a particular bargaining agent was disrupting the educational environment in a manner that seemed intolerable to enough students like Maria in comment #25 above – if Maria convinced enough of her fellow students, say – they could vote that agent out, and choose another one if they wanted.

If you respected the grad students that you’d admitted in consideration of their devotion to the life of the mind and the higher education promotion system, then you’d trust them to pick a bargaining agent that protected the important aspects of that system. But not our friend Dave – he doesn’t trust his own grad students to preserve an appropriate learning environment. They’re either too ignorant, or too selfish and small-minded, to do what’s right, so he wants to make sure they never get a collective bargaining agent.

It’s also sad, by the way, that he apparently thinks he’s pro-labor, when his comments here are dripping with contempt for the concepts of unionization. Why, the students were gerrymandered to win a vote! Dave, you stupid git, are you aware that in some of the hotels where my brother organizes chambermaids, the front desk staff isn’t part of the same bargaining unit? The hotel staff has been “gerrymandered” so that only those who want a union have one – horrors! And even worse – arbitration decisions are made by those with no experience setting up a room-cleaning shift schedule! Better, surely, that the workers have no representation at all, right?


Shelby 12.09.05 at 1:20 pm


Kudos for linking to Powell’s for your book, rather than that behemoth everyone else uses. Beyond that I lack a basis for an opinion on the matters debated here.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.09.05 at 1:23 pm

Not entirely up on this, but when did that ever stop me?

I have very mixed feelings about this, because while I am pro-labor, belong to a union, etc., I think the fundamental problem is that grad students shouldn’t be considered labor. This goes to the question of graduate funding, etc.

I was fortunate enough to have gone to grad school with full funding — each grad student in y department was required to act as a research assistant for one semester and to teach one full semester lecture course of the appropriate survey. Any future teaching was for extra money, and the understanding was that students given extra teaching needed to be making acceptable progress in the program, have good teaching evals and observations from the required class, and be qualified for the course in terms of their fields of study. I taught more than some of my Americanist colleagues because there were not very many Ancient/Medieval people compared to the much greater numbers of Americanists, but I knew people who did Modern Europe who taught as much as I did. In any case, most people in the department (grad and professor) seemed to think that they were treated fairly.

In many departments, especially those where grad students have to compete for funding every year, I undertand the desire for unionization. But even there, if the students complaining about working conditions are on tuition fellowships, I think it’s a weak argument. I don’t think that there is a feasible line that can be drawn, and regularly crossed, between the scholarship student and the employee. I say this in part because I’ve spent a lot of time as contingent faculty. Most of the attempts to organize grad students do not include contingent faculty — their needs and rights are continuously ignored by grad student organizers (and I do think this is in part because grad students are in denial that they might someday be adjuncts — adjuncts remind all of us that not everyone will get a job — let alone the TT job at an R1). As students, grads often have many benefits and protections that are unavailable to the contingent faculty.

In that sense, I would say there is something to be said for grad students choosing to see themselves as either labor OR students, and be willing to sacrifice those things that don’t fit with their stand. But again, I think the real problem lies in how students are funded.


Uncle Kvetch 12.09.05 at 1:48 pm

Most of the attempts to organize grad students do not include contingent faculty—their needs and rights are continuously ignored by grad student organizers (and I do think this is in part because grad students are in denial that they might someday be adjuncts—adjuncts remind all of us that not everyone will get a job—let alone the TT job at an R1).

I don’t think that’s entirely fair. My impression from my time at NYU is that, among pro-union grad students, there was a general sentiment that adjuncts needed a union every bit as much as grad student TA’s did, probably even more. The simple fact is that grad students aren’t in a position to do much about that, beyond offering symbolic support.

Again, it’s not a zero-sum game. The fact that adjuncts are even more exploited does not constitute a valid argument against unionization of TA’s.


Barry 12.09.05 at 2:43 pm

David Velleman: “Jacob is also wrong to claim that graduate students are cheap labor in the sense that they are cheaper than the alternative. Graduate students are more expensive than the alternative: adjunct teaching labor is always less expensive, because it does not involve free tuition in a graduate program, which is a very expensive form of education.”

Yes, because if NYU started using adjuncts to teach, and charged Ph.D. students full nominal tuition, they’d just pay up. It’s not like the majority (perhaps the overwhelming majority) would not be crazy enough to pay several tens of thousands of dollars for a Ph.D.


Rachel B. 12.09.05 at 3:05 pm

I don’t know where I stand on the ins and outs of this particular case, but it’s clearly wrong to demonize faculty members as anti-labour when what they are anti- is the proposition that graduate students are correctly conceived simply and strictly as labour. And it’s naive to assume, as the navigator does above, that a union will preserve the interests of graduate students to have a somewhat guild-like system in which pedagogical interests are fully taken into account. Here’s a concrete example from my institution: we have unionized TA’s who make a decent hourly wage and, as hourly employees, are under strict legal orders not to do anything resembling teaching-related work off the clock. This amounts to official discouragement from expanding their horizons through teaching new or new-ish subjects (because TA’s had better not be devoting masses of hours to course-related readings), and in most cases makes it impossible for TA’s in my department to attend lectures in the courses for which they grade the work: class hours would add up to way too high a proportion of their total allotment. Just think about the implications of that for pedagogy — your undergraduates’ exams and papers (in a philosophy course, say — it’s not so crazy in the sciences) being graded by someone who hasn’t heard any of the relevant lectures. Every professor I know deplores this, and if our undergrads don’t howl in outrage it’s only because their expectations are dismally low. But most of our grad students don’t seem to realize that it’s terrible pedagogy for them too, that they’re actually supposed to be learning how to teach here, not least from pitiless observation of our in-class deficiencies, and that they too are being ripped off. The system tells them to think of themselves, in the teaching context, as labour pure and simple, and so they do. Maybe some universities (maybe even most) are already so far from anything guild-like — so far from treating graduate teaching as a part of graduate education — that unionization can’t make things much worse. But I’m skeptical that it’s likely to improve things at any but the worst run institutions, and even there there will be costs to be counted.


djw 12.09.05 at 3:09 pm

Barry: exactly. NYU’s tuition bill for philosophy PhD candidates is a fiction. Especially for philosophy–if you’re good enough to get into NYU, you’re probably good enough to get funding at an equivalent or slightly lesser school. Who is going to take on that kind of debt in exchange for a slightly more presigious PhD? Not people smart enough to get into these programs.

ADM, all your arguments may be fine and good, but don’t you think that ought to a consideration for the students when deciding whether or not to unionize? At some point, presumably, such arguments were considered and rejected by the students, at which point they become irrelevent. It’s one thing for students to consider such arguments and use them to reject a union, it’s another entirely for the Administration to harp on them after the students have already rejected them.


djw 12.09.05 at 3:20 pm

Rachel, I don’t get your point. It sounds to me like your administration is not willing to pay for the hours TAs need to do their jobs well. It seems to me there’s an obvious solution to this problem. Lectures are 2-3 hours a week? If the administration values good undergraduate teaching, it might be worth ponying up. It’s odd that you would conclude that the root of the problem here is the mechanism that prevents graduate students from being forced to work for free.

As a thought experiment, think about this non-academic labor scenario. The employees at the restaurant are only paid for a half hour after closing time, and the restaurant isn’t getting properly cleaned (and the employees don’t seem to care!). Solution: remove that pesky law that prevents management from locking them in off the clock! Imagining that teaching isn’t work and TAs aren’t employees opens the door to reactionary positions people wouldn’t otherwise dream of taking.


jacob 12.09.05 at 3:36 pm

Re Maria’s comments:

Strikes suck. They’re not fun for anyone. They’re least fun for the strikers, who face reprisals from the employer (as this case amply demonstrates), who don’t get paid, and who have to spend much of the day outside in the snow picketing. They also suck for customers (in this case undergrads) who find their lives disrupted. And hopefully they suck for management.

Contrary to management propaganda, unions don’t like strikes. They’re expensive for the union, it’s bad for members, and if you lose even after a strike you’re really screwed. Thus they’re nearly always the last resort, taken when nothing else works. Again, that’s clearly the case here, where management summarily and unilaterally stopped negotiating in August. GSOC could chose to fold their hands, give up, and go back to work with no protections, or they could strike. Striking was the only way to keep their union.

Sometimes strikes happen. And when they do, people have to chose which side they’re on. If you’re a worker, you either walk the line or you scab. If you’re a consumer, you either cross the line or you respect it. And if you’re anyone else, you either support the strike you you aren’t a friend of labor. You’re either with the union, or you thug for J.H. Blair.

That’s how solidarity works, folks. Once the strike starts, you don’t get to pick and chose what demands you support and which you don’t. You pick a side. And if you’re a friend of labor, if you’re part of the labor movement, there’s only one honorable side to be on.


decon 12.09.05 at 3:53 pm

In one sense the tuition in, say, philosophy Ph.D programs is a fiction. Of course very few people smart enough to be admitted AND fully funded at NYU would pay 20k for the privilege.

But the point is not so easily dismissed. The NYU faculty does devote time and resources to teaching the Ph.D curriculum. There are hard costs involved.

But without tuition remission, the graduate program would dissolve. And those faculty and departmental resources that are devoted to instructing graduate students could be redeployed. How? I look forward to seeing how NYU responds.


Rachel B. 12.09.05 at 3:55 pm

Djw, your comment illustrates what seems to me exactly the wrong assumption here. TA’s are not like employees in a restaurant, in the precise respect that their teaching activity is (or should be, and will be if their department is decently run and cares about graduate education) of direct benefit to them in and of itself, apart from any payment at all. Because they are supposed to be learning how to be professors; so teaching is a part of their education, for which, taken as a whole, they pay the university (in theory, anyway) and not the other way around. If TA’s are asked to sweep the classroom after class, then I think they should unionize, strike and sock it to the administration for as much as they can. But their teaching work is fundamentally different from that: it’s one side (and a pretty damn valuable one, surely, even in a monetary sense) of their apprenticeship in their chosen career. That’s completely compatible with the fact that it’s also an enormous benefit to the university as an undergraduate institution; and I suppose payment to TA’s reflects the recognition that they are probably contributing even more in that respect than they’re gaining from the experience. But waiters are still an irrelevant analogue (unless they’re also apprenticing as chefs) — for a valid comparison you’d have to turn to some field where there’s a similar grey zone in which education and employment overlap (I dunno, a singer interning for an opera company or something). And I suspect that you’d find exactly the same controversies there as here.


djw 12.09.05 at 7:56 pm

You are operating with a set of assumptions I have a very hard time taking seriously. First of all, a great number of jobs have some benefit for the development of the employee. This is hardly unique to academia. And, as you in fact concede, there is significant benefit to the institution as well. Why you would assume that when both sides benefit, salaries ought to be optional is beyond me. The protestations of some NYU faculty notwithstanding, it seems unlikely to me that all or even most of the teaching grad students do there is beneficial for their training. In one story about this, it was mentioned that pre-union, English grad students were often expected to teach four courses a year for 12 grand. What would the added apprenticeship value of teaching two classes per semester, rather than one, possibly be, especially with coursework, exams, and so on? It’s hard to imagine.

But even if it were the case that teaching was only done to the extent it was necessary for training and profesionalization, I wouldn’t agree. There’s a major divide between your thinking and mine, and it probably can’t be solved by argument. To me, being recognized as a worker–with a set of rights and responsibilities that go along with that–adds dignity to sweeping floors to teaching Hegel. The notion that the latter is too noble, or good, or special, or whatever to be considered “a job” doesn’t resonate with me because I don’t think about jobs–any socially neutral to beneficial jobs–that way.

Because they are supposed to be learning how to be professors; so teaching is a part of their education, for which, taken as a whole, they pay the university (in theory, anyway) and not the other way around.

As I and others have mentioned, this is very disconnected from reality. In most disciplines, in most good programs, actually paying for tuition–except maybe for a term or two–isn’t a serious option. Tuition bills and waivers have become a quaint custom in most serious PhD programs, and for good reason.


Sean McCann 12.09.05 at 7:58 pm

Rachel: But their teaching work is fundamentally different from that: it’s one side (and a pretty damn valuable one, surely, even in a monetary sense) of their apprenticeship in their chosen career.

I think others have raised the obvious question about this point–whether this kind of learning is different from on-the-job training in any other trade. But here’s another question, asked in complete sincerity: is there anything at NYU apart from tuition reimbursement and in the way of apprentice training that would distinguish TAs as students from adjunts as temporary labor? My impression is that in most graduate programs at most prestigious schools the idea that TAs are apprentices trained as teachers is a fiction.

Then, too, given the employment market in most fields in the social sciences and humanities, the value of training in the field is not at all damn valuable.


jacob 12.09.05 at 8:55 pm

Re DJW’s most recent comments:
One of the problems that graduate employee union organizers often have (as indeed I know from experience) is running into the attitude of “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do what I love!” There’s such gratefulness for being “allowed” to be a graduate student and progress in the academy that it’s hard to get people to think about how their lives as workers could be better. The thing about this is that there’s not really any good reason that one can’t both love ones job and want to be treated fairly in it. Yes, I love being an academic. I things it’s wonderful that I get paid to do research. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting a fair and transparent way for TAships to be assigned; it doesn’t stop me from wanting my employer to pay for my health insurance. The training I get while I’m here no doubt benefits me, and I’m glad that it does. But in no way does that preclude me from wanting a written, enforceable contract.


Barry 12.09.05 at 10:15 pm

deonc: “In one sense the tuition in, say, philosophy Ph.D programs is a fiction. Of course very few people smart enough to be admitted AND fully funded at NYU would pay 20k for the privilege.”

More to the point, if Ph.D. programs decided to charge this fictional tuition, far fewer people would go into Ph.D. programs. $50K-$150K, frequently on top of undergraduate loans, is just too much, considering the job market. It’s like medical school, if most of the graduates couldn’t get careers as doctors.

“But the point is not so easily dismissed. The NYU faculty does devote time and resources to teaching the Ph.D curriculum. There are hard costs involved.”

Yes, but what would happen if I waved my ‘ceteris paribus’ wand, and made the administration actually act like they speak, and displace TA’s for adjuncts? The majority of Ph.D. students simply wouldn’t be there; I imagine most departments would simply not have a Ph.D. program. The second-tier universities would have much smaller Ph.D. programs, in most (but far from all) departments. The top-tier would probably continue, and they’d still need to subsidize their Ph.D. students – e.g., a liberal arts Ph.D. from Harvard is certainly elite, but tuition costs are well over $50K (for the program, as far as I could tell from their website). Throw in $10K/year living expenses, and it’ll be around $100K. That hurts.

“But without tuition remission, the graduate program would dissolve. And those faculty and departmental resources that are devoted to instructing graduate students could be redeployed. How? I look forward to seeing how NYU responds.”

My guess is that professors in program which no longer teach Ph.D. students would teach more undergraduate courses, especially the ‘service’ courses for non-majors, which bring in the largest chunk of most departments’ budgets.

Since, from my experience, most professors prefer to teach graduate courses, and Ph.D. courses over master’s courses, this would be unpleasant for most professors.


Maria 12.09.05 at 11:52 pm


You’re either with the union, or you thug for J.H. Blair.

I’m not American, so I don’t know who J.H. Blair is, but I take it he’s someone I don’t want to be.

In my actions, I understand that there is no middle ground now the strike is in force – I either cross the picket line or I don’t. However, I am currently a fellow, and have been for the past year, so I’m not in the union. Also, as some of the strikers, I’ve attended my own classes, which don’t have graduate assistants. So, I’ve managed to avoid having to decide whether to stand for or against the union. It would have been a hard choice, and I won’t hypothesize about what I would have done (it would be easy but vacous to say I would’ve gone on strike).

Having said that, I wish the union’s complaints were about something more than its own survival and a misleading accusation of benefit reduction. The insincere way they have treated the reduction in health coverage really makes me mistrustful of its good will in the future.


jacob 12.10.05 at 1:03 am

“They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there/ You’re either with the union or you thug for JH Blair” is a line from “Which Side Are You On?”, a song by Florence Reece. JH Blair was the sherriff of Harlan County, a noted coal-mining area of Kentucky, who, shall we say, harassed unionists. (The link is to the lyrics and a brief summary of the history surrounding the song. I’d say it’s one of the four or five key labor songs in the US. Incidentially, the 1931 struggle known as “Bloody Harlan” also gave rise to the song with which “Which Side Are You On?” is often combined, “I Am a Union Woman,” which is sung to the same tune.)

I’m actually rather heartened by what you write. Velleman seemed to be trying to stake out a middle ground which doesn’t exist. I’m glad that you acknowledge that you can’t be on both sides of the picket line. I’m also glad, incidentially, to hear that you aren’t scabbing.

As for the question of the union being interested in its own survival, I confess I think that a perfectly legitimate aim. Even when not in a contract fight, unions serve a valuable purpose for workers, defending the rights enshrined in the contract, making sure that grievances are heard properly, and mobilizing members for their own sakes and for solidarity with others. I want a union not just because I want a written contract that I or my democratic organization have negotiated, but because I want a structure in which my coworkers stand up for each other on an everyday basis.


ohm 12.10.05 at 2:56 am


If the NYU union has been spending too much of its energy on “its own survival,” surely this is in large part because the administration has refused to continue recognizing it! If anyone is to blame for this particular predicament, it is those who have tried to threaten the union’s continued survival – and not the union itself!


piotr 12.11.05 at 2:50 pm

I am agnostic about the need of a union for TAs — for one thing, TAs form such a transient population that the mechanics of democratic representation may be impossible. At least in sciences and engineering, one is TA one semester and RA another (or several).

On the other hand, is tuition waiver, however real, a form of income? Congress, in its transient wisdom, decided so one year — pushing TAs and RAs into taxable brackets of the income tax. College presidents en masse (and succesfully) testified that tuition waivers do not constuitute a form of income, so we may trust their authority on that matter.

By the way, one year my TA had an operation and I was amazed how lousy his insurance was (because he was operated but not hospitalized, the insurance imposed a very low cap on reimbursement so he owed the hospital several thousand dollars, moreover, there was nothing optional about the operation: one evening he was suddenly writhing in pain, a friend drove him to the emergency room and there doctors decided to operate) Maria, are you sure that faculty and staff have as bad insurance as you do?


Cala 12.12.05 at 1:07 pm

Whether tuition counts as income or not is a bit of a red herring; tuition remission at schools like NYU comes along with acceptance even for the years one is not teaching. It is a tangible benefit of being a grad student at NYU, but not one particularly tied to teaching.

Consequently, I think Professor Velleman is wrong to count it as income, but he’s absolutely correct that having a graduate program incurs costs that NYU has to bear. Claims that no-one would pay for a liberal arts Ph.D. (correct claims, I think) are really neither here nor there; if NYU decided that they wanted to save money, they could easily cease admitting graduate students and pay adjuncts to assist at $3000 a pop.

That said, I’m not really sure what the monetary arguments are supposed to solve. It seems absurd to consider a Ph.D. student, especially at a top place like NYU, as in the same boat as a janitor, even if they make about the same. This isn’t because the Ph.D. student has more moral worth or any such strawman, but because it’s, we hope, a temporary situation.

But I’m not sure why anyone’s bothering to make the argument that they are similar. Who cares? If Ph.D. students cannot organize, does that say anything about the janitors’ rights to do so?

If there are good reasons for graduate students to unionize, they’re probably a) independent of whatever the janitors are doing and b) independent, believe it or not, of the amount of money made. It’s there to balance bargaining power, and that case can be made even if working conditions are relatively tolerable.

Final comment/question: Is there a reason that NYU could not permit a graduate student union and limit its input to non-academic issues? As Tad Brennan pointed out over at Leiter’s, nurses can unionize, and that’s never meant that the union controls how much medication patients receive.

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