The Triumph of the TA: Graduate Students and the Future of Postindustrial Labor

Alma tell you how it is

On Tuesday afternoon, I got the most welcome news I’ve gotten in a long time. In a 3-1 vote, the National Labor Relations Board reversed a Bush-era decision that denied graduate student employees at private universities the right to unionize.

This news might seem both trivial and esoteric.  After all, the wording of the last sentence implies an exceedingly narrow and likely small slice of the overall workforce—that’s the esoteric part. And the fact that it has to do with, to a significant extent, PhD students at the likes of Yale, NYU, and Columbia—well, we are not exactly talking about an eleven-year-old toiling in the dark Satanic mill of yore.  Such students might seem privileged and undeserving of the right to raise a voice of complaint against the conditions they teach and research under.  Indeed, as Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy once said, “We’re not the best people, but we’re not the worst—graduate students are the worst.”

grad students are the worst

But the decision is neither irrelevant nor a mere legal win for a small interest group.  It marks a watershed in the fight for representation by the workers who make our postindustrial institutions work.  Columbia has a history in this regard, having fought and then lost the battle of its clerical workers to organize in the 1980s (led, in part, by the fearless Maida Rosenstein, who also helped CU graduate students in their fight for a union).

Nurses, public employees, teachers, and even journalists have led the way in recent years in fighting for the union representation that will allow them to negotiate for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.  It almost goes without saying, but this is especially salient with the decline of formerly unionized manufacturing industries and the relentless assault on public employees unions by Republicans since 2010.

A little background is in order: graduate student employees include teaching assistants (TAs), who typically grade papers and lead discussion sections for professors who do most of the lecturing but little of the grunt work; instructors, who design and manage their own classes alone; and research assistants (RAs), who work in the laboratories of professors in the sciences. (The science profs go on to publish acclaimed papers, win big grants, and even license technologies developed in their labs for commercial use.)  All of these students are lured by the professional possibilities that come with getting into a prestigious institution and working with a famous professor on their research.  But they often work for tiny stipends and paltry benefits, and some—especially in the sciences—work long hours with the fate of their professional careers in industry or academia hanging at the whim of their adviser.

I knew little of these realities when I got into Columbia’s History PhD program. I was just through the roof about the incredible chance I’d been given to go to a premier program in my field—and they were going to pay me to do it!  Of course, the stipend was to the tune of $17,000—not a princely sum in Manhattan in the early 2000s, but I was more than happy to make it work.  I was a TA, and I did a panoply of truly odd jobs on the side (filing donations for the Mumia campaign, teaching labor history to union electricians on Long Island, helping research and ghostwrite a book) to get by.


But soon after I arrived, I learned about the campaign of GSEU—the Graduate Student Employees Union, which was affiliated with the United Auto Workers.  Coming from a union family and having a politically left bent in general, I was ready to sign on.  It made sense to me that we should have some say in what we get paid and what kind of benefits we would get if we were receiving a pay check to teach, grade, and research.  After all, why not?  Isn’t that everyone’s right?

Well, the NLRB under Bill Clinton had ruled so in a 2000 decision that opened the door to unionization by graduate student employees at private schools.  Student workers at NYU, Yale, Penn, and Columbia fought hard to sign up members and get recognized, but university administrations uniformly responded with the same message: graduate students are apprentices, not employees, learning to master their craft while working under an expert professor.  Some pay might exchange hands, but it was fundamentally not a job.

Of course, graduate student employees at public universities like the University of California and even the University of Texas (!) had enjoyed representation for years, despite the fact that their contractual work arrangements appeared to be little different.  Graduate students at Columbia even had an election to vote on whether to have a union or not in 2002, but the university sued to have the votes impounded, pending a decision by a labor board staffed by the George W. Bush administration with anti-union lawyers.

storming out of Low

Despite our best attempts, the decision came down the wrong way, and the votes at Columbia were never counted—despite the fact that soon-to-be-Governor David Paterson certified that we had signed up a majority of graduate student employees on union cards.  If card-check representation were respected in the United States, as Democrats sought with the failed Employee Free Choice Act, that alone would have been enough to secure us a union.  But the predictably anti-union Bush administration made our cause hopeless.

I feel I should say a few things about why graduate student employees should be organized in the first place. Here they are:

Bread and butter issues. These are pay and benefits, particularly healthcare. Before I came along, Columbia had a reputation for admitting a large cohort of PhD students each year, but only providing “funding” for a few—which means, in essence, that many had to pay full tuition with no stipend for living expenses.  Once GSEU started organizing, the university began raising stipends and improving benefits, moving toward a “full funding” model for graduate students in departments like History—in other words, they would only admit people they could provide with tuition remission and some kind of stipend and benefits.  We can debate correlation and causation, but it looks to me like the administration decided to improve conditions for their graduate students in order to head off unionization. I was the inadvertent benefactor of the union movement when I got my stipend to join the History Department.

Working conditions. This is a bit more complex, but it has to do with something very simple: if you are an employee, and you have a contract, what is reasonably and legitimately expected of you?  I’ve heard horror stories of professors forcing their graduate students to babysit their kids, water their plants, or perform all manner of menial tasks not tied to their legitimate responsibilities in the department.  If you were supposed to teach a class of X but they give X+50, do you get paid any more?  A union contract could provide a grievance procedure to deal with these problems, rather than forcing employees to depend on the munificence and judgment of their employers to decide what is fair and unfair. My own folks organized a union at their parts manufacturing plant in North Carolina, and knowing that they could not be capriciously fired at the drop of the hat for no reason instilled in them a new confidence in the workplace. This factor may not be as tangible as pay and healthcare, but it matters a lot—especially for student workers who are paid little and feel vulnerable at their beginning of their careers.

The bigger political economy. I had next to no grasp of this dimension until I started organizing fellow employees lab by lab, classroom by classroom. But it rapidly came into focus: the so-called “academic job market” has been disastrous for most of the time since the 1970s, as universities routinely turned out more PhDs in the humanities, social sciences, and even hard sciences than business, government, or academia could absorb.  And why shouldn’t they? In graduate students, academic departments get a smart, eager, and mostly young workforce willing to work for table crumbs, in the hope that a stellar academic career lies ahead of them. If they don’t achieve that, who cares?  We got cheap labor to grade our papers and run our labs, all the while padding the salaries of administrators and celebrity professors. If they were gullible enough to come, then why not take advantage of them?

I did not realize it at first, but this was the leading edge of the low-wage economy that has taken over academia in recent decades, where the vast majority of classes are not taught by old-school tenure-track professors, who enjoy the privilege of job protection to hone their research expertise, but by sweated adjuncts and graduate students who teach hundreds of students a year for poverty wages.  If PhD students could organize, they could demand better pay and working conditions and limit the incentive for universities to flood the market with graduates who faced abysmal employment prospects—indeed, a likely continuation of the hard-working penury of grad school.

This situation is not particularly great for undergraduate students either, who are going into debt to finance an education while being taught by instructors who can barely pay the rent while shuttling from one classroom or campus to another without even an office to meet with them in. An adjunct might earn anywhere $1,400 to $5,000 a class at many schools, patching together a meager income while working at numerous institutions and teaching hundreds of students.

This was in the NY Times. Apparently they looked for the guy who most looked like he had just overturned a car in the West Bank
This was in the NY Times. Apparently they looked for the guy who most looked like he had just overturned a car in the West Bank

Anyway, that was my take on the urgent need for graduate student employees to unionize.  Like Uber drivers or online freelancers in the “gig economy,” we are all facing a crisis of casualized labor, diminished opportunities, and relentless competition with each other.  If we could change this one small piece of the overall picture, we could begin to change the rest.

Indeed, adjuncts at many institutions have worked hard to organize against remorseless odds in recent years.  I remember a professor I had at UNC-Charlotte long ago, who was not technically a “professor” but a long-term “lecturer”—basically an instructor with an MA who was perennially rehired each year, but enjoyed no guarantee of employment from one semester to the next.  She once tried to encourage her fellow lecturers and adjuncts to organize, but most were so scared of incurring the wrath of administrators and losing what little work they had to even consider it.  People spoke in hushed tones.  It was ridiculous.

I now teach at a public university in a state where both faculty and graduate student employees are forbidden by law to organize.  Throughout much of the South, public employees are officially barred from unionizing, while many other private sector workers, in factories and stores and offices, are prevented from doing so by pressure from an overwhelmingly anti-union establishment.  In the NLRB’s new ruling, we see a glimmer of hope that labor can make up ground among the people who teach our college students, research our new discoveries, and write our histories of the future.  For the rest of us, we have to work and wait—biding our time.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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