Publication Date

May 1, 1997

For more than 20 years the labor movement has been in a state of decline, as union membership receded from a post-World War II high of about 35 percent of the workforce to about 15 percent in 1997. Moreover, in the popular culture unions have become associated with lazy, overpaid employees and corrupt "big labor bosses." Yet there have been signs of renewed vigor in the labor movement in recent years, as corporate profits rose dramatically while wages remained flat. In 1995 the membership of the AFL-CIO elected new leaders, who promised and delivered a far more activist approach to unionizing. For some in the academic community, the promise of a renewed and vigorous labor movement has proved inviting.

Last year, Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia (UVA) labor historian and author of The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, began organizing a series of “teach-ins” with the labor movement. In November 1996, the first such teach-in was held at Columbia University and drew a crowd of more than two thousand, with hundreds standing outside the Low Memorial· Library. Historians Eric Foner and David Montgomery participated with such public figures as theologian Cornel West, philosopher Richard Rorty, and feminists Betty Freidan and Barbara Ehrenreich, among many others. They teamed up with union leaders including John Sweeny, elected to the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995.

Drawing on the language and methods of the civil rights movement, the purpose of the teach-ins is to begin a process of rapprochement between the labor movement and the academic left—a relationship that disintegrated in the 1960s. It is, Lichtenstein says, the "birth of a new alliance and a new social movement." It is also an attempt to reconnect the current labor movement to the legacy of the civil rights movement, which has fared much better in the popular memory.

In an article published shortly after the Columbia teach-in, Lichtenstein compared the renewed activism of the AFL-CIO under President Sweeny to that of 1930s labor leader John L. Lewis. Both, in his view, used setbacks under prevailing political administrations as an inducement to more vigorous organizing. In the 1930s Lewis opened the door to the left, and Lichtenstein said he hopes that the contemporary labor movement will similarly aid progressive social causes. Whereas the labor movement of the 1930s was racist and sexist, he noted that Sweeny is counting on an insurgency lodged deep within "Latino, Asian, and black communities, or among the white working-class youth whose expectations have been so diminished during the last two decades."1

This year the movement has continued to gain momentum with teach-ins at UCLA, Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Brown University, the University of Washington, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the University of Virginia, and Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia. The teach-ins are bringing together academics, social critics, and labor activists in an attempt to raise the consciousness of college students, other faculty, and campus employees.

A Teach-In at UVA

One such teach-in, held at the University of Virginia this past March, demonstrated the energy and vitality of this effort. Faculty from a number of departments participated with historians Nelson Lichtenstein, Julian Bond, and Ed Ayers. Feminist social critic Barbara Ehernreich, consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader, and a number of regional union organizers and AFL-CIO officials joined them.

In his introduction, Lichtenstein invoked the memory of another historian, C. Vann Woodward, who in the fall of 1954 delivered a set of lectures that became the Strange Career of Jim Crow. Though Woodward’s work on the history of racial segregation and discrimination has been much revised, its “one great point which can be of enormous use to us … [is] that we live in a world of constant change and what we so often think of as the traditional, legally sanctioned and economically rational patterns of deference, oppression, and defeat are really not so ancient or uncontested … that if devised by human hands in one generation can be dismantled just as rapidly in another.”

Elaborating on the same theme, Ayers argued that the changes brought about by the civil rights movement furthered the reputation of the university, and he urged a continued "broadening and deepening" of the changes for the benefit of all the members of its community. The University of Virginia's "rapid ascent into national visibility and respect did not come until its doors were belatedly opened to black Americans and female Americans. The benefits came with remarkable suddenness," said Ayers. But as racial and gender integration helped build a better university, the working people who make the university work "have not shared proportionately in the rising bounty and glory of this university … the checks of the people who do much of the work here have not increased accordingly."

Julian Bond, himself a civil rights activist and now a lecturer in history at UVA, made the historical connection between the civil rights movement and the labor movement most explicit. He cited a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention in which King proclaimed "the unity of purpose between the labor movement and the movement for civil rights." According to King "our needs are identical with labor's needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security; health and welfare measures … that is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor."

Other speakers elaborated the connection between the civil rights movement and the current round of unionizing. Barbara Prear, chair of the University of North Carolina Housekeeper's Association, said, "I think it's a human right that we all may have a livable wage." Nader and Ehrenreich supported the charges of increasing inequity, fleshing it out with a host of statistical data about rising corporate profits, and declining income standards. During the course of the evening, enthusiasm grew and the applause became more frequent.

None of the speakers, however, matched the energy and intensity of the final speaker, Richard Trumpka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Trumpka played up the division of interests between workers and corporate managers and detailed a long list of management violations against workers who have lost their jobs or faced physical intimidation or abuse for their unionizing efforts. There was a consensus among all the speakers that a solution to these ailments will require great efforts on the part of workers themselves.

Graduate Student Unions

Graduate students were among the most interested and involved participants, reflecting the recent trend toward graduate student unionizing. When one graduate student asked Trumpka about these efforts, Trumpka answered with such an enthusiastic "Do It!" that it nearly knocked over the questioner. The long running battle by graduate students at Yale University seeking to win official recognition for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) is just one of many in recent years.

Since 1969, when the Teaching Assistant Association of the University of Wisconsin became the first graduate student union to win collective bargaining, 11 more schools have joined the ranks of the officially organized. At the same time organizing efforts are under way at numerous other universities. Last November, students at three of the University of California schools—UCLA, San Diego, and Berkeley—staged week-long strike to support the unionization efforts. The Berkeley campus is already affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), but participated to support the other campuses. According to Tamara Joseph, an organizer for Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions in just the past four months they have heard from 20 new campuses that want to start unions. And this past February, 27 students at about 30 different universities staged a "National Day of Action," consisting of leafleting, teach-ins, demonstrations, and all rallies.

Graduate student employees have aligned themselves with a number of different unions. The unions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Milwaukee the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon, and the University of Kansas have all joined with the American Federation of Teachers. At Rutgers, the students joined an existing faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors. Students at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Lowell have aligned with the UAW. Recently, students in the State University of New York system have teamed up with the Communication Workers of America. And just this year at the most recently organized school, the University of Iowa, the students have joined forces with the United Electrical Workers (UEW).

This spring at the University of Iowa, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) climaxed a three-year battle by winning a recognition election. They also won health-care benefits, a grievance procedure, and protection against overwork. But the drive was about more than just improving their own lot. According to Jonathan Kissam, a graduate student in the history department and a COGS organizer, "students at the University of Iowa" were impressed with the UEW's "commitment to the democratic rank and file." The UEW is one of the largest public sector unions in Iowa and has organized workers in many other occupations. This spring the COGS organizers continue their efforts to reach all 2,600 eligible members. In addition, they are attempting to build a strong grassroots organization among custodians, bus drivers, jailers, dispatchers, and employees of the local co-op grocery store.

During the campaign, the students found that many faculty members were supportive of the effort. H. Shelton Stromquist, chair of Iowa's history department and himself a union organizer while studying under David Montgomery at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, publicly supported the drive to unionization. Other members of the department were also supportive, Stromquist said, and he does not believe that the unionization should affect relations between students and their faculty advisers. Moreover, the newly won health care benefits may well be of some benefit in attracting better students.

But if some faculty were supportive, the university administration was less excited. Although there was not a "poisoned atmosphere" that has existed at other universities, the administration still organized a "Vote No" committee, and, according to Kissam, spread misinformation about the union during the campaign. However, the administration has generally been cooperative since the COGS victory.

Nevertheless, the prospects for graduate student organizing seem mixed. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the first school to win recognition, the administration tried throughout the 1980s to break the union, at times even refusing to negotiate. Although the union has survived, and indeed brought about significant reform, it has not necessarily won a complete victory. Graduate students in the history department still struggle with too few assistantship lines to support their numbers, and this is a problem that they have preferred to work on outside of the union structure.

Graduate student employees at state universities have often had the benefit of being covered by relevant state laws that allow unionizing. This has not been the case for students at private universities, who are covered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Since 1972, the NLRB has agreed with most university administrators that the work that students perform is part of their education, and therefore they cannot be considered employees. This, however, may be changing. Last November, the New England regional director of the NLRB ruled that Yale University acted improperly when it punished teaching assistants who participated in a grade strike. Yale has appealed the ruling, and as of this printing, is awaiting another hearing, scheduled for April 14.

What the future holds for a revived labor-academic coalition is still uncertain. Although there has been a spark of interest in the labor movement and graduate students have made impressive gains in recent years, it is impossible to' predict what their long-range prospects might be. For many new Ph.D.'s, it now appears that graduation will bring only part-time, low paying, adjunct positions. And in the current political atmosphere even full-time faculty members have suffered numerous attacks on the institution of tenure. In an era in which a renewed celebration of capitalism has taken hold, the reformulation of the academic-labor coalition will be at the very least challenging. Perhaps, however, the hostility may serve to drive the two groups closer together, and ultimately make them stronger.


1. Nelson Lichtenstein, “Renewed Vigor of AFL-CIO Recalls Labor Unions’ Rebirth in the 1930s,” Sacramento Bee (November 17 1996).

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