Great Minds Think Alike

by Corey Robin on August 25, 2016

In a pathbreaking ruling, the National Labor Relations Board announced yesterday that graduate student workers at private universities are employees with the right to organize unions.

For three decades, private universities have bitterly resisted this claim. Unions, these universities have argued, would impose a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach on the ineffably individual and heterogenous nature of graduate education. Unions might be appropriate for a factory, where all the work’s the same, but they would destroy the diversity of the academy, ironing out those delicate and delightful idiosyncrasies that make each university what it is. As virtually every elite university now facing an organizing drive of its graduate students is making clear (h/t David Marcus for discovering these particular links).

Here, for example, is Columbia:

What if an individual student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining is, by definition, collective in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for explicitly in the contract.

Here’s Yale:

10. What if an individual graduate student disagreed with a provision in the contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?
Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collective in nature. That means that the union speaks for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the agreement.

Here’s the University of Chicago:

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?
Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collectivist in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.

And here’s Princeton:

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining focuses on graduate students as a group, not as individuals. This means that a union would speak and act for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract would apply to all unit members, unless exceptions are provided for in the contract.

Casual readers might conclude that the only thing standardized and cookie-cutter about unions in elite universities is the argument against them.

Or perhaps it’s just that great minds sometimes really do think alike.



Painedumonde 08.25.16 at 2:11 am

Follow the money, follow the money.


Painedumonde 08.25.16 at 2:11 am

Follow the money, follow the money. It’s as simple as that.


Anarcissie 08.25.16 at 2:19 am

Heh. That’s pretty funny.


J-D 08.25.16 at 2:27 am

Great minds think alike, and fools seldom differ.


Billikin 08.25.16 at 3:07 am


Plagiarism for thee, not for me. ;)


faustusnotes 08.25.16 at 3:14 am

I wonder exactly what provision in the contract these universities imagine many students objecting to – the higher pay, the hour limits, the safety rules?

Are these cookie-cutter statements all supplied by the same advisors, I wonder? Are they from a union-busting consultant’s manual, perhaps?


Tabasco 08.25.16 at 3:30 am

Are these cookie-cutter statements all supplied by the same advisors, I wonder?

You can be sure that there is one law firm advising the Ivies + Chicago + Stanford, collectively. Which is kind of ironic. But it is more cost-effective.


efcdons 08.25.16 at 4:01 am

The Obama DOL was trying to pass a regulation requiring “employers and consultants—including lawyers—to report when the consultants give advice to employers about persuading employees on union issues.”
The law was blocked by a federal court judge in…Texas (Surprise! Though it could have been an 11th Circuit judge just as easily I suppose). If the regulation was upheld we might be able to know who has been making a pretty little penny providing grad students such great “advice”.


JimV 08.25.16 at 4:12 am

A recent post at LGM ( ) says that the NLRB decision was due to new appointees by President Obama, and probably would not have resulted from a Republican President’s appointees. PBO seems to have disappointed a lot of people at this site, but I consider him one of the best voting choices in my life, probably the best. That is, the best option I have had. (Unfortunately, you have to vote for a politician.)


efcdons 08.25.16 at 4:21 am

Jim V @9
The Obama DOL and NLRB have done so many great things .Making home health aides eligible for overtime, raising the overtime threshold from $455 a week to ~$850 a week (first raise since 2004), strengthening the rules to prevent the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, strengthening employees section 7 rights under the NLRA to include social media posts as protected concerted activity, and that’s all just off the top of my head.

But the common element is how all of this has happened via unilateral administrative agency actions (well, the NLRB has a board so it’s a little less unilateral). The disappointment (for me at least) has been why this was not his strategy after 2009 rather than waiting until 2014 or so. I guess better late than never.


faustusnotes 08.25.16 at 5:26 am

JimV I saw that post too, and it’s one in a long series that LGM have been doing keeping an eye on Obama’s NLRB and EPA decisions, which seem to be generally excellent.

efcdons, I don’t know if this is actually an Obama strategy as opposed to “the least he can do.” Maybe he was doing it in 2009 too but the full results didn’t flow till 2014? Or maybe he focused on this after he realized that bipartisanship is a myth (doesn’t he read David Brooks or something? Yeech).


Chris Bertram 08.25.16 at 6:57 am

When UK universities have issued threatening statement to staff it has usually followed exactly this pattern of similar or identical wording. The explanation is that they’ve all gone to the same lawyers.


Dr. Hilarius 08.25.16 at 7:30 am

This illustrates what I’ve tried to convey at times here at CT: the Supreme Court is important but a great deal happens at the level of administrative and regulatory agencies. They are dull, often obscure and ill-suited for sound-bite coverage but very important.


Fergus 08.25.16 at 9:08 am

It is pretty funny that someone at UChicago changed ‘collective’ for ‘collectivist’, though.
“That’ll keep the economics people out, at least…”


John Quiggin 08.25.16 at 10:06 am

There’s lots of things wrong with Australian universities but at least (nearly) everyone – academic and administrative staff, tenured faculty and casual tutors alike – is covered by the same union (National Tertiary Education Union). And, while it doesn’t benefit me, the policy of making dues proportional to salary is more progressive than that of most unions.


Corey Robin 08.25.16 at 12:44 pm

JimV and faustusnotes:

It is true that it was Obama’s NLRB appointments that ruled this way. Likewise, in 2000, the first time that the NLRB ruled this way: it was Clinton’s appointments. (And that first ruling was overturned in 2004 by Bush’s appointments). So that’s important.

It’s also important to note why we wind up with NLRB rulings, and the need for NLRB intervention, in these private universities in the first place. And that is the vicious union-busting at places like NYU and Yale, often spearheaded or presided over by people who are closely aligned with Obama and Clinton.

Graduate students at NYU have been fighting for a union since the late 1990s. After the 2004 Bush NLRB ruling—revoking NLRB protection from grad students—NYU announced that it would no longer negotiate with them. NYU didn’t have to do that, it chose to. Then it forced the grad students out on strike, threatened their future employment, and more. The point person in that effort was the university’s executive vice president. A man by the name of Jacob Lew. You might know Lew today as the US Secretary of the Treasury, and before that as Obama’s chief of staff. The other point person was Cheryl Mills in the general counsel’s office. Mills would then go onto serve as Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff while she was Secretary of State.

Or look at the Yale board of trustees. They’ve been trying to crush the grad student union drive there since the late 1980s. Again, the reason why grad students so desperately need this NLRB ruling is b/c the trustees are so willing to do whatever is necessary to stop them. Now if you go to the website for the trustees, the first name you’ll see, I believe, is a man called Josh Epstein. He’s the managing director of Bain Capital, a private equity firm (founded incidentally by Mitt Romney). Epstein was also the very first person at Bain Capital ever to make a donation to Obama, to understand way back in 2004 that he (Obama) was a rising star worth investing in.

Harvard’s trustees are now fighting a major campaign of grad students at Harvard. The second or third name on that board is Susan Carney. Carney was a longtime employee of Yale, working in their general counsel’s office throughout the aughts, when that office was busy issuing memos and edicts as to why grad students should not be allowed to have a union. Carney even served a turn as Yale’s acting general counsel, so she would have been right on top of this issue. She finally left that job when she got appointed as a judge on the US Court of Appeals, the Second Circuit. Guess who appointed her? Obama.

You could spend all morning demonstrating the ties between these union busters in private universities (and the law firms they hire as well) and the Obama and Clinton people and forces in the Democratic Party.

Long story short: the reason we need to elect Obama or Clinton, these liberals tell us, is to make good appointments to the NLRB who will then grant labor rights to grad students at private universities. And the reason we need Obama or Clinton appointments to the NLRB—these very same liberals won’t tell us—is so that they can stop Obama’s and Clinton’s cronies and chiefs of staff in the private sector from wreaking havoc among the grad students.


Mike Huben 08.25.16 at 12:58 pm

Funny how nobody points out that if there wasn’t a union contract, the employee would be bound instead by the contact and policies of the employer. Which would be less favourable to most workers.

What? You want bathroom breaks? Put your diaper on and get out of my office!


efcdons 08.25.16 at 1:12 pm

faustusnotes @11
At least for the DOL rules which only require a notice and comment period, the time for implementation isn’t 5 years. Maybe he needed to wait until after the 2012 election because he thought the GOP could attack him on using the executive and the administrative state to get around “the peoples”” 2010 vote (that would have been spit-take inducing hypocrisy, but when have the GOP had any shame?).

I don’t see the need to re-litigate Obama’s strategic choices and mistakes in regards to Obama himself. But I think it is important to talk about because Clinton will most likely be heading into a similar legislative environment where she will not be able to achieve her policy goals through congressional action.


Trader Joe 08.25.16 at 1:43 pm

While the ruling is clearly a positive and I’m happy for the many grad students that can potentially benefit (for all the positive’s union membership is not a panacea) – Universities aren’t likely to just eat the cost and move on – the Empire will strike back.

It will take years to see how things shake out but it will be interesting to see how the decision ultimately impacts grant funding (many grad positions are grant endowed), grad school tuition (+ general tuition) and even the availability of graduate positions in some disciplines.

The tuition impact might be the most important – I can easily see some universities saying fine – you want guarantee pay, benefit and hours – grad tuition is doubled let us know if you need a loan. It could wind up like working for the company store.


harry b 08.25.16 at 2:07 pm

Just to be clear: how bad are the working conditions for graduate students who work for Yale, NYU and Harvard? For comparison, UW Madison, with a longstanding union contract: the standard offer in my department is a 5-year guarantee of funding, teaching 4-5 discussion sections each semester (so, grading for 80-100 students). Tuition remission is included, and reasonable health insurance benefits. Salary: I’d need to check, but lower mid-teens?? (Actual grad students read this, and can correct me on the salary).

I have to say, I don’t understand why the administrators are so vehement about this: negotiating with a union is annoying, but its not clear how much it will cost (competitive pressure, and the constant demand by faculty for resources to enable them to attract the ‘best’ students seems to be pretty costly already). And compared with negotiating on an individual basis with prima donna faculty, it must be a delightful way to spend time.

A –serious — question. If graduate students come to be regarded as employees of the university, would that give rise to any sort of legal obligation to hire them on the basis of their potential or competence for the actual job? Admitting graduate students for their talent/skill as teachers (which is the job most grad students in the Humanities and Social Sciences have) would be a very radical departure for most departments, and might be quite unpopular with faculty. (And I hope it never happens! My, considerably lower-ranked, department would lose lots of our grad students to Yale, NYU, Harvard, etc, who would then also discover how good they are as philosophers! That would be really bad for both the faculty and the undergrads here, but certainly good for the students, and probably good for the world).


harry b 08.25.16 at 2:09 pm

But Trader Joe — tuition remission/waiver is typically included in the admission package. Most graduate students in traditional academic disciplines do not pay tuition directly.


Corey Robin 08.25.16 at 2:21 pm

Also, Trader Joe: I was involved for about a decade in the early organizing efforts at Yale. In response to those efforts, Yale essentially did a lot of the financial stuff we were asking for at the time: there were no automatic tuition waivers for people who taught; health care for grad students (and their families) was not paid for automatically; teaching salaries were very low compared to places like Wisconsin and Michigan; and so on. Yale was, in the end, more than happy to pony up for that (and given its endowment, it’s easy to see why; these costs are but a drop in the bucket; though at the time, I remember when we suggested that Yale revise its spending rule of 4.5% of the increase on the endowment, the faculty and administration acted as if the sky would fall; they’ve since revised it upward with, from what I can see, zero impact on overall, longterm finances). It was always the power issue that it resisted the most.

I don’t know the answer to harry b’s question about where things stand today at places like Harvard or Yale or NYU. I suspect, given our own trajectory, they’ve gotten much much better b/c of the increasing threat of unionization. (NYU now has a union, by the way; the university voluntarily agreed to it two or three years ago.)

harry b: In response to your last question, I don’t see why the university would be legally obligated to do that unless there was language written into the union contract requiring that. But there’s nothing in the National Labor Relations Act that says that by virtue of unionizing, an employer is then obligated to do what you’re wondering whether the university would be obligated to do. And I doubt any university would ever cede that kind of power into a union contract.


M Caswell 08.25.16 at 2:25 pm

“teaching 4-5 discussion sections each semester (so, grading for 80-100 students).”


I don’t get how one could do coursework or write a dissertation in addition to that much teaching. Doesn’t that amount to a full-time teaching load?


Corey Robin 08.25.16 at 2:28 pm

M Caswell: Yes, that really seemed very high to me. At CUNY, graduate students who are on a full package have to teach one course per semester. It’s not a section, it’s a course, but in our department that means no more than 25 students, and that’s it. I’d be surprised if Wisconsin imposed such an exponentially more onerous obligation.


T 08.25.16 at 2:47 pm

the academy going from a 5 year PhD and a tenure track position to a 9 year PhD followed by an adjunct position tends to favor unionization.


faustusnotes 08.25.16 at 2:53 pm

I’m not surprised by that Corey. I don’t get any feeling that these universities are good actors in the community, but they do seem to be highly valued politically and culturally, so it doesn’t surprise me that the modern Dems are their allies (who is whose crony, exactly?) I guess it’s just another example of the many ways your country is a mess.


harry b 08.25.16 at 2:59 pm

M Caswell and Corey,

That really is what they have to do. It does vary by department, but we are not at all out of synch with the rest of the university (except that many units that do not offer 5-year guarantees to all their incoming students; my department decided to do that nearly 20 years ago because we felt that not doing so was exploitative). This is why I am skeptical that unionization will be costly, and also skeptical that at the elite privates much is to be gained (materially) from unionization (from here, the teaching loads and salaries for grad students at our private competitors look pretty good). And… I don’t think that the faculty/grad student mentoring relationship here is ideal by any means, but the idea that unionization has anything to do with it is frankly bizarre.

We are lucky, in that we recruit a lot of grad students who get overlooked, for whatever reason (sometimes to do with prestige of undergraduate institution, I suspect), by higher ranked departments (hence my fear!). Our students are exceptionally good philosophers, and end up being highly experienced and fine teachers. I gather that their teaching experience is one (but only one) of the explanations of our good PhD placement record.


js. 08.25.16 at 4:25 pm

When I was in grad school (at Pitt), standard TA teaching load was 3 sections, i.e. 60 students. But this was standard for the Philososphy dept., which for various reasons was treated rather favorably by the university. Grad students in other depts. often had 4 sections, so 80 or more students. The 3-section requirement was sometimes replaced by one 35-ish student class, which was seen as roughly equivalent. (In my mind, it was actually less work, but prob only because grading always seemed the most onerous part of teaching, and you do relatively much more of it as a TA.)

All of which by way of saying: Yes, the CUNY requirement seems substantially lighter to me than what I’ve generally considered the norm.


Unlearning 08.25.16 at 4:35 pm

Graduate students are, of course, free to leave and relocate to somewhere with a contract more to their liking.


SusanC 08.25.16 at 5:04 pm

@harryb: The same issue already exist with faculty at research universities — their official job function is mostly teaching, and yet they are mostly hired based on their research publications with scant regard to their ability to teach. Although this has frequently been pointed out as problematic, I’m not aware of anyone ever suggesting this is illegal and/or grounds for a lawsuit.

In the UK universities I’m familiar with, salaried grad student employees are mostly hired to do research, not teaching, so the lack of correlation between research and teaching skills isn’t an issue.


harry b 08.25.16 at 5:18 pm

The reason administrators resist spending more than 4.5% on the endowment is simply that in a period of shock, it is much harder to ride it out. Consider 2007-8; if you have been spending 6% on the endowment, and it is cut in half by events outside your control, suddenly you are spending 12%, and cutting half your spending (even just endowment spending) suddenly, at a time when you are not sure you can increase tuition (because 40% of the wealth of the families sending kids to Yale has evaporated) is difficult. And you might have to cut more if you have liquidity issues (which many endowments did, given that many were invested in high risk instruments). And you can’t expect faculty, or graduate students, to be sympathetic to the need for cuts; indeed you can expect them to be highly resistant. Yale has an unusually successful and committed Chief Investment Officer… but what if he suddenly bit the dust, or was lured away in the midst of a crisis? And not every institution has the same reason to be confident in their CIO.

Good news that nobody will be required to hire teachers for their competence as teachers!!

Someone just pointed out to me a concrete benefit of the decision, with or without unionization: after leaving the employ of an employer you are eligible for COBRA; after just stopping being a student you are not. Maybe lots of other benefits are like this.


Trader Joe 08.25.16 at 5:20 pm

@21 & @22
Harryb – you may have already addressed my fear. I know that tuition remission is a normal part of the package – my fear was that, for example, in exchange for better current wages/benefits the remission might be cut from 100% to say 50%. In effect exchanging a higher pay envelope for probably more borrowing. It sounds like,at UW at least, that’s not what happened which is good to know.

Corey – Unionization is always a power issue, even when it works well.

To both, I appreciate the inside look at what the real pressure points are. My view is one of a father with hopes of soon watching a daughter join these ranks so my perspective is both filtered and dated in some areas.


M Caswell 08.25.16 at 5:30 pm

I think we had 2 sections at BU, and the website for the College of Arts and Sciences still says that fellowship work should be limited to 20 hours per week.


harry b 08.25.16 at 5:41 pm

Yes. I did my graduate work at a private university, and we had just 2 sections a semester (and, very rarely, a full class, which was much more time-consuming; oddly, I taught History of Modern Philosophy to majors, toward the end). We were paid close to what my current grad students are paid, 30 years ago. Its not entirely a public/private divide; some public institutions (CUNY, apparently, but also I know UCLA, and a number of others) are much more generous than we are.

I don’t think tuition is something to worry about. Faculty want the most highly qualified graduate students they can get, so lobby heavily for a good deal for graduate students; and the wealthiest 30 or so institutions are staggeringly wealthy, so competition is intense. The thing to worry about is not the deal she’ll be getting, but whether she’ll be well-prepared for the labour market afterwards. As one of my correspondents commented to me, the irony is that for all but the most successful 25% or so of grad students at these institutions, graduate school is the period in their lives during which they will be paid the most for teaching their discipline. One curiosity is whether unionization will result in pressure to change the way grad students are prepared for the labor market — will they demand that they get taught to be high quality pedagogues, or get a secondary teaching certificate alongside their PhD, eg? I can see faculty being unhappy with that, but ironically administrators might like it!


Corey Robin 08.25.16 at 5:44 pm

harry b: Yes, that’s what they said in 1991, and 1993, and 1995, and 1997, and 1999, as the endowment kept galloping through the roof. They could never afford to pay more than $6000 per year, because of the spending rule, until they did. And they could never change the spending rule , until they did. Even so, they’re at $25 billion today.

One of my favorite justifications, incidentally, for not revising the spending rule, after they went through all the ones you’ve cited here, was, “What if a nuclear bomb landed on New Haven; we’d have to rebuild, right? Where will the money come from?” They really said that.


mds 08.25.16 at 6:05 pm

“What if a nuclear bomb landed on New Haven; we’d have to rebuild, right? Where will the money come from?” They really said that.

Honestly, I wish someone had said that before they decided to spend billions on Bayer’s old West Haven research campus, a place which a retiring Nobel laureate faculty member lambasted in his farewell speech for its zero contribution to Yale’s putative educational mission. Certainly allowed for the creation of more senior executive positions, though, and for a few high-powered faculty to substantially expand their research factories.

… Whoops, by “factories” I of course meant “intimate collegial mentoring environments.”


harry b 08.25.16 at 6:07 pm

That’s brilliant! Did someone point out that if that happened, the endowment would collapse?? Anyway, the terms of many of their gifts probably preclude spending on post-nuclear holocaust reconstruction.

On the galloping 90’s: that was a period of unprecedented endowment growth, but everyone with any sense (i.e. some people) noticed that the equities market in Japan, which had gone through spectacular growth in the 1980s and then collapsed, was flat throughout the period. FWIW, my institution doesn’t have a huge endowment, but even if it did, I would be very cautious about increasing spending from it right now on long-term commitments. Ironically, though, graduate student salaries are relatively easy to cut because there is natural wastage, and you can just freeze admissions if you feel like it. Unlike faculty salaries, which are ratcheted in by tenure (and faculty turnover is much slower).


Corey Robin 08.25.16 at 6:38 pm

“Did someone point out that if that happened, the endowment would collapse??”

Not to mention that if New Haven were Ground Zero of a nuclear blast, you might not want to site your spiffy new university there. And building a university might be, oh, a little further down on your priority list of reconstruction.


harry b 08.25.16 at 6:40 pm

“And building a university might be, oh, a little further down on your priority list of reconstruction.”

That might depend on who you are!


Chris Stephens 08.25.16 at 7:29 pm

I did my graduate work at Wisconsin, so I just thought I’d add my 2cents. If you think about the TA position as a 20 hour a week job, and you spend 5 hours per week (for 15 weeks) running discussion sections and another 5 hours per week preparing (reading) and going to the Professor’s lectures, that still leaves you about 150 hours (plus another 20 hours for “final exam” week) of time for grading over the semester. If you’re responsible for 100 students, and the Professor assigns three exams, then you can probably grade them (at 20-30 min each) in about 100-150 hours. If you’re grading short papers, it is more like 30 min+ per paper). But its doable.

However, the biggest drawback is that students don’t really get the kind of chance to write and rewrite (or write more frequent papers) unless the Professor takes on more grading themselves, or exploits their TA. There were a few Professors who went the “exploitation” route (not Harry!) but I think they’ve since changed their ways (or retired) due to complaints from the TAs. But without a Union, its harder to regulate such things.

It wasn’t all the marking as a TA that helped so much in preparing me as a teacher (though it helped some); rather, it was the opportunity to frequently teach one’s own class of 25 or 30 students (usually Contemporary Moral Issues). It was just as much work as TAing, but more rewarding and better preparation for being a Professor.

It is hard to take a full load of classes (3 grad seminars) while TAing that much, but its not impossible. And the philosophical rewards – once you’re teaching your own class, at least – outweigh the extra time I could’ve spent reading another book or whatever.


CP 08.25.16 at 7:32 pm

Very interesting find. In the early twentieth century, union-busters on both sides of the Atlantic borrowed fairly liberally from one another. Here are a few comparing labor unions to aggressive military forces. Not exactly plagiarism, but similar arguments.

N. F. Thompson, southern-based anti-union activist speaking in 1900:
Organized labor’s “influence for the disruption and disorganization of society is far more dangerous to the perpetuation of our Government in its purity and power than would be the hostile array on our borders of the armies of the entire world combined.”

James Van Cleave, president of the National Association of Manufacturers in 1907:
“Industrial wars, due to the arrogance and blindness of the bosses of some of the labor unions, are a much greater menace to the United States today than foreign wars.”

William Collison, head of England’s National Free Labour Association in 1913:
“modern Trade Unionism is an accursed thing, a greater enemy to this country than any foreign power.”


T 08.25.16 at 7:53 pm

harryb; Corey

A quick question for the current academics. Given that humanities PhDs typically run 8 years, how are the graduate students funded after year 5? Plainly, back when time to completion was shorter this was less of an issue. Would this likely be an issue for the union? Thanks in advance.


engels 08.25.16 at 8:26 pm

David Velleman, Paul Boghossian, your boys took one hell of a beating


Collin Street 08.25.16 at 9:06 pm

The whole point of right-wing policies is to avoid having to think about what other people want. All of them are excuses for or mechanisms to shut one or another group’s concerns out of your consideration, be it “women” or “ethnic minorities” or “your workforce”, so that you can make the best decisions you can, which are the best decisions that can be made.

Which, yeah. No political problems, only mental-health ones.


harry b 08.25.16 at 9:37 pm

Time to graduation is not easily bargained, really. I’d be surprised if there’s much difference between time to graduation in unionised and non-unionised universities. The problems are deep in the institution: we massively overproduce humanities PhDs and they take far too long. Practices concerning post-5th year funding vary a lot by and within institutions. We effectively provide 6 years, but we don’t promise that. There’s increasing pressure from Dean’s offices to reduce time to degree (and it has certainly reduced in my department, partly in response to that pressure), but probably not enough pressure re reducing admissions.

But its something for unions to think about! And to think about how different the Humanities are from the professional schools, and what that means for bargaining about conditions. My sense is that here the focus of bargaining is on benefits, salaries, and the kind of thing Chris Stevens is talking about (which is another reason that I am mystified why administrators make such a big deal about this).


Alan White 08.25.16 at 10:09 pm

Wisconsin, as Harry knows, since 2010 has been an exemplary experiment on the diminished power of unions, especially public unions. (We in UW came *this* close to being able to unionize before we were forbidden to by lawmakers at the last minute.) It isn’t pretty. Wages are not just flat–increased contributions to benefits have cut take-home pay for most public workers. The formerly strongest form of tenure in the country (statutory) has been legislated away to be among the weakest. But at least UW still has it in some form–the destruction of the public teachers union effectively destroyed tenure in K-12.

I also want to chime in with Chris Stevens about the value of TA-ing as fully responsible for a class. After two years of GA–just grading–my institution, the University of Tennessee, offered 3 years of such teaching, one class per semester (30-35 students). It was only after taking on a class that I realized how much I not only loved research in philosophy, but even more the thrill and challenge of teaching it. With such a manageable load, I passed my PhD orals in 5 1/2 years (completing an MA along the way), securing in that last 1/2 year my current position as an ABD, where I have been for over three decades.


rea 08.26.16 at 3:24 pm

For all those wondering why Obama waited until the end of his second term to do something about the NLRB:

The Bush Administration as a matter of policy, left vacancies on the NLRB, so that it lost its quorum.

Obama’s first attempt to appoint members failed due to filibusters in the Senate.

Obama then attempted to make recess appointments to the board–but whether the Senate was actually in recess was litigated to the Supreme Court, and Obama lost.

It was not until 2013 that enough Senate Democrats were willing to threaten to abolish the filibuster that Obama’s appointments were confirmed (in a deal, which led to withdrawal of some of the initial appointments).

So, it’s not exactly that he waited until now to do anything–it’s that he did not succeed until now.


T 08.26.16 at 5:42 pm

harry b @45

Thanks Harry. I was also interested in the effect of longer time-to-completion (TTC) had on the grad student attitude to unionize and whether it varied by department based in part on TTC. If you’re out in 4 years with a good job, it might make you less likely to want to unionize than if the TTC is 8 years. But I guess if the funding is 5 years regardless of completion date it might not matter as much. That’s part of the reason I wondered how grad students were funding years 6-9.

I also wonder if the ruling might have implications for the unionization of athletes as well. Those folks generate big income for the school and the sports faculty. Typically, the football head coach is the highest paid state employee much less university employee.


harry b 08.26.16 at 7:15 pm

Good thought. Anecdotally, the leadership of our TAA tends to come from the social sciences and humanities, I would say, but there are plenty of explanations of that other than TTC.

I don’t know about athletes. The problem with athletics is there is a huge, huge, structure built around it that would collapse if revenue producing athletes themselves were allowed to be paid anything close to what the market would bear… The incomes of football coaches would collapse, and I imagine the whole enterprise would fold up pretty quickly…


Rich Puchalsky 08.26.16 at 11:25 pm

Aren’t some of the descriptions of what TAs go through biased towards the humanities? When I was an astrophysics grad student I taught lots of undergrads, but I got zero training in how to teach anything and I think that an equal effect on the students was pretty much what was expected. The major tests were if I remember rightly machine graded, and I did quizzes occasionally but it took hardly any time to grade them.

After a couple of years being a TA anyone continuing towards a Ph.D. was expected to / automatically got a research grant for the same amount, for which all that was expected was that you’d work on your dissertation research. So even though the standard Ph.D was something like 6 years, people didn’t run out of money. A lot of this kind of thing probably explains the stereotypical lesser enthusiasm for unionization among STEM grad students.


T 08.27.16 at 6:52 pm

harry b @49
Seems that the types of university labor that have become most commodified in recent years are pushing back – grad students, adjuncts, and athletes.

I take a different view on the sports side. The demand is there as shown by the size of the TV contracts and stadium gates. It’s just a matter of how the rents are split. The second best alternative for most coaches, university sports administrators, etc is way way than what they’re making now. And the bid donors will give to the players instead of the facilities. That’s what they used to do anyway, all under the table. That’s why I think the push back on sports is and will be much greater than the push back on grad students. The adjuncts are in the middle.


T 08.27.16 at 7:20 pm

Make that “way way less” and “big donors.”


Ogden Wernstrom 08.30.16 at 8:44 pm

This is old news, but there are times that sports-related donors mix in some anti-labor conditions.
Published: April 25, 2000

The chairman of Nike, Phil Knight, will not make a planned $30 million contribution to help his alma mater, the University of Oregon, renovate its athletic stadium because the university joined a factory monitoring group other than the one he supports, a senior Nike official said yesterday.

Mr. Knight, a billionaire who heads the world’s largest footwear company, has given about $30 million to the university over the last decade, but company officials said he was disturbed that the university joined the Workers Rights Consortium, a student-backed monitoring group.

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