After Columbia

We need an Obama or Clinton NLRB to step in at Harvard and Yale, in other words, because Obama’s and Clinton’s friends and allies, their cronies and chiefs of staff, are preventing workers at those universities from exercising their rights. The reason we need to put a Democrat in the White House is to keep Democrats at bay in the private sector. The reason we need an Obama or Clinton to run the state is to stop Obamism and Clintonism in civil society.

Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester.

Image via Graduate Workers of Columbia University.

On August 23, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling regarding the case of Columbia University’s graduate student union, holding that student assistants at all private colleges and universities were employees and could unionize. The decision reversed the organizing limbo in which graduate student workers had floated since the NLRB v. Brown decision of 2004, which held that students were not workers.

This tremendous decision opens the way for graduate unionization at private universities across the country, where students have been organizing in some cases for decades. We asked former and current graduate student organizers for their thoughts. This is the first of two collections of responses. Read the second here. —Eds

When news of the Columbia ruling reached me, I was preparing readings for the multiple courses I will teach this fall. Texts and emails flew between me and my old comrades, the historians and physicists and philosophers, at my university and elsewhere, who had organized for years to bring about this victory. This September, I begin my second year out of graduate school, my third in a temporary teaching position, and, all told, my tenth year employed by the wealthiest university in the world. I have no idea where I’ll work when my current contract is up.

It’s not supposed to go like this. There was a time when an academic life offered unparalleled security. You enrolled in graduate school, you paid your dues, and you found a job at a different university where, with a handful of publications and the right taste in sherry, you achieved tenure. (“You” were probably the feckless third son of a ruling-class family, someone not to be trusted with the family business.) The indignities of graduate school—low wages, long hours, unpredictable workloads, contemptuous faculty—might be endured, since one knew that a stable life was waiting.

Today, very few graduate students reach the promised land of tenure and tweed. Graduate school has become a decade-long slog toward a vanishing horizon. The academic job market is moribund, thanks to recent hiring trends in higher education. Instead of investing in tenure-track faculty, universities prefer to hire contingent faculty, like me—we now make up three-quarters of college instructors—or to saddle their graduate students with increased teaching responsibilities. In this way, graduate students end up doing faculty-level work for a fraction of faculty pay, under the pretense that they are being “trained” for jobs that don’t exist. They spend seven, eight, or nine years doing full-time work for part-time wages, without any of the protections that clear and binding contracts provide. Still, when possible, lingering in graduate school can be the most rational choice: there’s nowhere to go after, and some work is better than none.

Leading up to and following the ruling, we heard a lot from the universities about “mentorship.” Graduate school isn’t a period of employment, the administrations told us; it is an education, an apprenticeship, a learning experience, a labor of love, a process of guild formation, an opportunity for enlightenment and personal growth, or some other obfuscating and mystifying formula, proffered to convince us that what looks and feels like work is in fact something else—luck, perhaps. But the guild model no longer holds. In the absence of a viable job market, “mentorship” and “apprenticeship” are meaningless. “No Future,” once a wicked slogan of hip theory, is now more like a dirge; there is only the present, a time spent working, not waiting for the privilege to work.

Maggie Doherty


The NLRB ruling marks a turning point in our national understanding of higher education. Graduate students can no longer imagine—if they ever could—that learning and labor are discrete, and adult administrators can no longer deny that their relationship to student-workers is not just parental but managerial. The Bildung model of the “student experience”—its definition as a period in which we cultivate our minds before assuming the responsibilities of adulthood—has been dealt a decisive blow.

This comes, ironically, at a time of amped-up discussion about whether the elite university is, or should be, a “safe space.” In contrast with the image of coddled youth that term often conjures, the NLRB decision proposes a less adolescent, more structural kind of campus protection. University administrators have been very plain that unionization might jeopardize the old, parental kind of shelter. As Yale’s president Peter Salovey remarked in a statement to the media, he’d “long been concerned that [the academic mentoring] relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime.”

In my own time as a member of Yale’s graduate student union, I learned the opposite is true. The more explicit one’s material role on campus, the more engaged one can be with the realities—both logistical and intellectual—of university life. Within every university union is exactly the sort of debate, conceptual testing, and openness to revision that Salovey imagines to be the province of the advisor-advisee relationship alone. Union members simply agree on one key thing: that the ability to think freely is predicated on the ability to seek one’s own interest in material terms. Recognizing this fact does not detract from the university’s mission of cultivating agile and fully fledged scholars but enable it.

There were times when I was conflicted about Yale’s union, and this story (a common one) is crucial to reckoning with such unions’ necessity and significance. There is no point in evading the fact that graduate students do occupy a sometimes confusing position in relation to their larger union communities. It is difficult not to notice, at an Ivy League school, the difference between your life and that of a non-academic university staff member’s, and it is tempting to feel that your relative privilege, regardless of background, makes your joint struggle obscene. But grappling with those difficulties is an essential part of formulating a campus-based “development narrative” that puts bedrock conditions front and center.

Along with the NLRB, Columbia’s graduate workers, and all those who have fought and will continue to fight for such promising outcomes in the adjunct labor force and at the state level, we can take heart that at least one of President Salovey’s predictions will prove true: this decision “presents an opportunity for our campus to engage in a robust discussion about the pros and cons of graduate student unionization.” And as recognizing the pros must precede reckoning with the cons, so, too, must left labor organizing precede the liberal ideal of the classroom.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson


Although we felt certain that the NLRB would rule in favor of recognizing graduate employees as such this week, it was still a shock when it did. After all, we’d been hearing that the decision was imminent more or less since we started grad school some half-dozen years ago.

The struggle felt lonelier back then. But on Tuesday, watching our comrades’ joy and excitement ripple across social media, we were overwhelmed. Since the 2004 NLRB v. Brown defeat, the movement for graduate student unions in private universities has progressed steadily—first at a crawl, now a sprint. Between 2004 and 2014, three campaigns persisted: NYU’s GSOC (recognized in 2014), the University of Chicago’s GSU (begun in 2007), and our own indefatigable GESO at Yale—going strong since 1990, and just last semester chartered as UNITE HERE Local 33. This is, by our count, the longest-running uninterrupted campaign for union recognition at any workplace in the United States, and has to rank up there in US history. In this latest cycle, we have demonstrated majority support to Yale multiple times a year for several years running. We were joined by campaigns at Columbia and the New School in 2014 and by two more, at Cornell and Harvard, in 2015. There are reports now of movements sprouting up everywhere you turn.

The crux of the 2004 Brown decision had been that the relationship of graduate students to the university was primarily educational, and as a result did not fall under the purview of legislation designed to govern economic relationships. What a line to draw—how could anyone who works at a university fail to cross it? In overturning Brown, the Columbia decision states plainly what we’ve argued all along: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.” The decision similarly demolishes, with reference to empirical evidence, familiar arguments that a union of graduate employees would worsen the quality of education, suck up inordinate amounts of valuable time and resources, or pose a threat to the continued functioning of the university. In other words, Columbia rejects the idea that academia is a uniquely un-unionizable industry (an idea that many employers have of their own industries: Target, for example, warns workers that “ if the unions did try to organize our team members, chances are they would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture”).

Pretense prevails among those who run the institutions. Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester. With impressive sophistry, administrators manage to argue that unions would at once destroy academic life and fail to accomplish anything. Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”). The message they’re sending is that change is impossible—that there’s no way to make your voice heard.

To us, then, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the NLRB decision is its explicit recognition of our years of organizing outside the protection of the law, and its argument that this work in itself is admissible testimony for change. Unlike our deans, the federal government has heard our speeches and petitions, and listened to us as adult citizens capable of advocating for ourselves:

It is worth noting that student assistants, in the absence of access to the [National Labor Relations] Act’s representation procedures and in the face of rising financial pressures, have been said to be “fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.” The eagerness of at least some student assistants to engage in bargaining suggests that the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.

When your employer insists that none of your actions matter, it is gratifying to learn that, through years of struggle—sometimes bitter, often seeming fruitless—you have moved the gears of the federal bureaucracy.

The university administration remains a tougher nut to crack. Within an hour of the ruling, the entire Yale graduate school received an email from the university president, Peter Salovey, in which he expressed his grave concern over the potential for collective bargaining to turn the relationship of “mentorship and training” into a supervisor-employee relationship—which would change it, in his opinion, it for the worse. (Never mind that graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades without ill effect, as the Columbia ruling explicitly notes, referencing peer-reviewed academic research. It ought especially to infuriate research workers that an administration composed largely of scholars continues to put forward an argument that is, as the new decision states, “utterly unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the Board’s experience.”)

Yet regardless of his personal feelings, Salovey wrote, we now have the opportunity to “engage in a robust discussion” about grad unionization. He urged us to “embrace the chance to debate this important issue,” and to “conduct this campus discussion in a manner that is proper for a university—free from intimidation, restriction, and pressure by anyone to silence any viewpoint.”

We agree! That’s precisely why for the past several years—not to mention the two decades before that—we’ve been having thousands of conversations with our colleagues about the union. There is a clear consensus about the union among grad employees: we want one. We’ve been asking President Salovey to join our conversation for years, but until now he hasn’t seen fit to take up the invitation.

We have no doubt that many more members of the Yale community will express their views on our union in coming months. But only some of them will do so in emails that the entire graduate school is obliged to receive. Only some of them will express their views to people whose livelihoods depend on their good opinion. And only some of them will feel pressured to stay silent in order to protect their health care.

Perhaps the disagreement lies in our views on what manner, exactly, is proper for a university—and who decides where the bounds of propriety lie. We think that such a momentous decision is not one for university administrators to make. At its heart, our fight has always been about giving graduate employees a say in the future of the universities, where our own future lies. No more ignoring us: it’s our turn to be heard.

Alyssa Battistoni and Gabriel Winant


When we were organizing the grad union at Yale in the 1990s, my friends and I used to make fun of ourselves by saying that whatever action we were planning—a strike, a demonstration, a meeting with the dean—was the most important thing happening on earth. Like the trustees, alumni, faculty, administrators, and students, we had an outsized sense of Yale’s importance. If we could organize a union at Yale, we could jump-start the labor movement across the United States. As Yale went, so went the world.

After I got over my initial thrill upon reading the news that the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that graduate student TAs and RAs were employees, I remembered that joke. And that optimism. Only it no longer seemed a joke. Or so optimistic. Graduate students at private universities won’t determine the fate of the labor movement, but the ruling does reflect larger changes in liberal and Democratic politics.

Defenders of the Democrats were quick to jump on the ruling as a vindication of the election of Barack Obama and, by implication, Hillary Clinton in November. It was Obama’s NLRB, after all, that ruled in favor today of graduate student workers, and a future Clinton NLRB will undoubtedly do the same.

In the run-up to the 2000 election, liberals made a similar claim: Bill Clinton had appointed an NLRB that ruled that graduate students at NYU were employees. Why jeopardize that legacy by voting for a spoiler like Ralph Nader? And then, after George W. Bush’s NLRB overturned the Clinton NLRB decision in 2004, liberals blamed Nader.1

They had a point. But not as much as they thought. Or think.

In 2001, in the wake of the Clinton NLRB ruling, graduate student workers at NYU organized and won a union and negotiated their first contract. After the Bush NLRB reversal and the expiration of that contract in 2005, NYU declared it was no longer bound to recognize or negotiate with the union. The university tore up the contract, forcing the grad students on strike, and then threatened them with denial of future employment. The workers were defeated, their union destroyed.

The “point person” of that effort, according to the union, was Jacob Lew, NYU’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Today, Lew is Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury. Before that, he was Obama’s Chief of Staff. Another person involved in that union-busting campaign was Cheryl Mills. A key defender of Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings, she would go onto serve as Hillary Clinton’s Chief of Staff at the State Department.

It’s not just NYU. When the clerical and technical workers at Yale—many of them women—were organizing their union in the early 1980s, they consistently sought the support of prominent feminist and liberal Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was a member of the Yale Corporation (its board of trustees). Norton refused to speak in favor of their efforts, even through a bitter months-long strike in 1984. In DC and across the nation, Norton spoke out for the economic rights and opportunities of women and women of color. At Yale, she presided over the denial of those rights.

The very first donation Obama ever received from Bain Capital, the private equity firm co-founded by Mitt Romney that has donated hundreds of thousands (if not more) to Obama over the years, was from Joshua Beckenstein, the firm’s managing director. Beckenstein is also the first name you’ll see if you go to the website of the Yale Corporation—the very institution that has been fighting unions for nearly a century.

Thanks to Barack Obama, Susan Carney sits today on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She also sits on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, which is aggressively contesting the grad union drive there. Before joining the Second Circuit, Carney worked for ten years in the General Counsel’s office at Yale.

As education and health care assume a greater role in the US economy, and workers in universities and hospitals organize, the face of union busting changes. It’s no longer Big and Little Steel, breaking heads and voting Republican. It’s provosts and professors, and trustees from start-ups and hedge funds, intimidating grad students and donating to Democrats.

We need an Obama or Clinton NLRB to step in at Harvard and Yale, in other words, because Obama’s and Clinton’s friends and allies, their cronies and chiefs of staff, are preventing workers at those universities from exercising their rights. The reason we need to put a Democrat in the White House is to keep Democrats at bay in the private sector. The reason we need an Obama or Clinton to run the state is to stop Obamism and Clintonism in civil society.

What was it the old man said? “Far from abolishing these differences” of rank, occupation, education, and property, the liberal state “only exists so far as they are presupposed; it is conscious of being a political state and it manifests its universality only in opposition to these elements.”

Corey Robin

  1. See, from this period, “Left in Shambles” and “Thanks again, Ralph!”

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