An Awesome Burden

Downplaying the importance of compensation as an issue for grad unions, as even some union professionals do, limits the sense of who has a stake in this struggle.

Graduate labor activists can’t afford to treat thinking as part of our professional development and building our unions as something else.

Photograph by Mike Steele.

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 second of two collections of responses. Read the first here. —Eds

Last week’s NLRB ruling is the best news to hit the academy in a long time. The industry I work for—call it “higher education”—has received a badly needed dose of intellectual clarity. By insisting that there is no fundamental difference between graduate students at public and private universities in terms of the work we do, the ruling cuts through the nonsense that has kept us apart from each other and the public we’re meant to serve.

The distinction between public and private universities has always been a dubious one. Harvard University, our nation’s oldest, wealthiest, and most private institution of higher learning, was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in what we might now call a public-private partnership. My own graduate institution, the University of Chicago, was founded in 1890 on land donated by a department store magnate and has enjoyed the privileges of its tax-free status ever since: it sits on hundreds of acres of untaxed prime urban real estate and manages a $7.5 billion endowment with no tax burden. One recent study estimated the tax relief on this endowment at $19,300 per student, in contrast to the $7,500 in federal, state, and local dollars spent on each public student at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign. Consider how much an elite institution like the University of Chicago rakes in each year in federal research grants and other public financial aid, alongside the (untaxed) millions from its generous donors, and you start to see how well it pays to serve the public good without the pesky oversight or accountability faced by actual public universities.

Meanwhile, those public universities—where four out of five Americans get their degrees—have gone in two directions. One is down the tube, and the other is toward crypto-privatization. The University of Michigan, liberated from the vicissitudes of state budgets by its large endowment, now gets less than five percent of its funding from the state of Michigan. Yet the institution’s status as a nominally public university is what allowed its graduate students to unionize back in the 1970s, winning solid wages and benefits in return for their work, the likes of which their private-school peers could only dream of.

For decades, private universities were still thought to be a better deal for securing a job in academia, because their wealth furnished graduate students with stipends to support research with minimal teaching. But then even private universities began expanding their undergraduate intake. Someone had to lead all those sections, grade all those papers and problem sets, and mentor all those kids, so private universities began relying on graduate students for this work in the same way that public universities always had. The University of Chicago now “incentivizes” its advanced graduate students to teach by saddling them with a $784 penalty in quarters when they decline the privilege.

With last Tuesday’s NLRB ruling, the secret is out: all graduate students are worker bees, even those of us who go to fancy schools. The fact that we do the same kinds of work reflects the deeper fact that our institutions are fundamentally the same, despite the growing resource gap between struggling public universities and well-heeled private ones. And the long-overdue recognition of this fact means we can finally join forces to fix what ails the institution of American higher education as a whole.

For starters, unions enable us to fight for higher wages—not only for ourselves, but for our fellow university workers. My university employs over 15,000 people in the Chicago area. Every one of them should earn a decent wage. Anything less is a violation of the sacred trust placed in this wealthy institution by its non-profit charter.

Another way grad student unions can serve the public good is by standing up for our students. In Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson recently suggested that the “higher education cartel” was the only thing standing between taxpayers and the savings to be found in replacing history professors with Ken Burns documentaries. The funniest part is the notion of a “higher education cartel” powerful enough to block such measures. Now that the graduate students and non-tenured adjuncts who provide most college instruction are able to unionize, we are that much closer to realizing the dream.

Alas, elite university administrators don’t see it this way. After turning their backs on less well-endowed peer institutions and overlooking the staggering workloads, heavy debt, and steadily dimming prospects for tenure-track employment that all of us face, they are forced to confront the prospect of their own graduate students unionizing, and thereby eroding the distinction between elite and non-elite.

My university’s president, Robert Zimmer, has averted his gaze from the struggles of public universities like Chicago State, just a few miles south of Hyde Park, which can barely keep the lights on. Now, as graduate students at home are on the verge of organizing, he regrets the threat that unions may pose to “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences.” Elite institutions have had recourse to the same anti-union boilerplate for decades; what’s changed is that the broader infrastructure of higher education is now crumbling around their ears. Our professors freely acknowledge what our administrators can’t: unionization may be what saves our profession.

In fairness to our administrators, crafting an effective anti-union campaign is no easy task. Ironically, it’s precisely the kind of task that graduate students are best equipped to do ourselves. We know best how to push our own buttons. Here’s how: convince us that everything we need is already provided to us, and that any shortfalls are ours and ours alone. Persuade us that graduate school is not “the real world,” that the rules are different here, and that this is a good thing. Insist that what we do is not really work. Normalize life without routine dental care. Treat childbearing as an eccentric choice that should necessarily involve great sacrifice and struggle. Discourage structural thinking and collective action. Subtly reinforce our feelings of intellectual irrelevance and political impotence while intoning that what we do is meaningful. Continually remind us of the likelihood and ignominy of failure and reinforce the notion that our sole path to salvation lies in exceeding the achievements of our peers. Convince us that there are almost no good jobs left, and insist that we are powerless to stop this trend. Help us identify with those few who have succeeded in winning tenure and distance ourselves from the many who have not.

These are proven tactics, which graduate students have been deploying effectively for years as obstacles to self-organizing. The only question now is whether recognition from the NLRB will be enough to help us see ourselves for what we are: the collective future of higher education. An awesome burden, to be sure, but I think we’re up for it.

—Madeleine Elfenbein


The NLRB decision will spur new labor organizing among graduate students across the US. This moment loomed large in many of our imaginations, of course, when we revived organizing at Columbia over two and a half years ago. And yet what we’ve been engaged in more or less constantly since—talking to coworkers, setting up meetings, speaking quietly with our faculty, looking for common cause with undergrad and community activists, et cetera—all feels rather remote from the stately functioning of the federal bureaucracy in reversing the Brown precedent. When news of the decision reached me I felt emotional, sure—a bit as one does when someone who had been very sick for a long time had finally died. A release, as they say.1

The extent to which our unionization campaign, and campaigns like ours at other private universities—Yale, the New School, Cornell, Harvard, NYU—have succeeded over the past several years even without the legal blessing of NLRB is significant. The growth of our organizations, even in the absence of recognized bargaining rights, has shown that grad students are serious about grassroots organizing.

Graduate students face particular challenges in unionizing. The structure of grad school—the shared condition of our employment—makes high turnover in our workforce the reality. As a working PhD student, if you’re good at what you do, you expect to leave your current job. If you’re bad at what you do, you also expect to leave your job. This means that the activity of organizing—figuring out who the other workers are, getting in contact with them, understanding what others care about and making oneself understandable, establishing shared expectations and developing one another’s trust by meeting them, all with a view to getting ready to act and to react collectively—never really stops. This may in fact be a good thing. It puts pressure on the democratic ideal: it is so much work to organize grad students that it’s fairly impractical to do it effectively except with quite a high level of participation from all concerned. So when we succeed—for instance, during our card drive at Columbia—it’s because we remain committed to transparency, inclusion and a strong version of participatory decision-making.

For grad students to do the hard work of organizing ourselves is rational. To appreciate that, we need to extend our time horizons and to enlarge our circles of solidarity—to see ourselves as part of a struggle for a more just university that reaches considerably beyond the edges of the traditional bargaining unit. If we want the next exciting period in the graduate labor movement to endure, I think that our movements have to start getting much more explicit about both of these things.

First, we need to be able to see ourselves as future adjuncts. Contingent faculty already have the right to unionize; one of the most important implications of the Columbia decision is that their struggles at private universities will become a lot easier. The precarious nature of adjuncts’ work is well known—but the “difficulty” of the tenure-track job market is the direct result of the reallocation of positions in an expanding market for higher education. Yet it’s still not easy for many graduate students to identify with the future losers in this unequal system of academic employment. At institutions like my own, graduate students and their faculty advisors alike tend to deal with the anxiety created by the job market by adopting something like the neurotic posture of the early Calvinists, pretending that a fundamentally unobservable but nonetheless very real quality of individuals will account for their fate post-PhD. Intellectual merit is of course what we are trained to care about. As academics it is kind of our thing. Applied to ourselves, it provides a pleasing justification for one’s presence at an elite university in the first place. But we need a better way of talking about career outcomes.

Grad union activists also have to cast our gaze backward: we need to begin considering our (potential) coworkers at the moment before they decide to start PhDs. Who can afford to be an academic worker in the first place? The issue can’t be addressed without tackling the spread of contingent positions, postdocs as well as adjunct instructors—but it begins at the graduate-student level. Downplaying the importance of compensation as an issue for grad unions, as even some union professionals do, limits the sense of who has a stake in this struggle. It gives far too much credence to the idea that because PhD students come from privileged backgrounds, our demands for better, more secure, contractually protected employment are invalid. That argument, though flawed, is self-validating.

Third, we need to expand our solidarity to encompass the many others who make today’s universities run smoothly, profitably. Some are already recognized as workers, with established collective bargaining agreements—we can learn a lot from them. Others are not: for example, student athletes. The NLRB ruling stands to help their unions be recognized too. The efficacy of the football players’ proposed strike at Mizzou shows how powerful alliances with these workers can be—again, even when their work goes unacknowledged. The football players’ very threat of nonparticipation did what a great deal of impressive campus activism could not alone: it called into question whether the university was in fact what it professed to be—in this case a liberal, public institution and beloved home of Missouri Tigers of all races and creeds—and brought about a rapid change in institutional behavior.

Unionizing is going to demand dedication and political seriousness; graduate organizers are every day developing the habits that go along with that. (This in itself should be exciting, for those who care about the universities of the future.) The point here is that it is also going to require critical thinking.

The notion that habits of political introspection have nothing to do with labor organizing has been a hallmark of American business unionism in its less illustrious moments. This message has sometimes been broadcast to today’s graduate organizers, to encourage us to take on the canonical tasks of front-line organizers while leaving strategy, tactics, and process to the experts (and have been met with the formation of reform caucuses like Academic Workers for a Democratic Union within the UAW). It is not helpful.

Graduate labor activists can’t afford to treat thinking as part of our professional development and building our unions as something else. We need to be actively critical in order to dispatch the mythology around our work and relationships at today’s universities, and to replace it with something better. These myths have made an egregiously exploitative system of academic labor seem natural. They’ve made it possible for universities to make a show, in order to attract alumni donations, of protecting the diversity of academic viewpoints, while actively eroding the economic basis for that ideal.

We also need to think creatively about organizing over the longer term. Union contracts no doubt made the conditions of adjunct work far more tolerable, but even in the biggest public university systems they have not been enough to preempt or reform the two-tiered system (witness the recent contract approved by CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress). It may take more than the same strategies, even pursued on a larger scale, to dismantle it.

What’s the point of organizing academic labor? (Other than the fact that more and more of our jobs put us in a downwardly mobile working class?) Administrators at private universities use our work—intellectual merit!—to justify what are effectively business decisions: appeals to alumni on the basis of the needs of intellectual freedom, incursions into neighboring communities on the basis of research needs, union busting framed as robust campus conversation. Like the Mizzou football players, we can at least revoke the moral and intellectual mandate that our work is providing.

—Alix Rule

  1. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official views or position of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW. 

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

October 2, 2013

Soon Free Cooper Union had more Twitter followers than Cooper Union itself.

November 29, 2016
Bright Lights
November 13, 2016
Enter Trump
May 2, 2016
May Day