Publication Date

November 1, 1999



When you hear the term "graduate student radicalism," you probably picture angry protestors gathered on a college campus in the late 1960s. By then, graduate students had spent a decade within the civil rights and antiwar movements and had helped to form organizations like Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They had also developed a stinging critique of the modern university. Critical of the university's collusion with the corporate world (especially in the areas of research and development) and America's "war machine," students—graduate and undergraduate alike—saw themselves freeing the university from these oppressive demands. Berkeley's "Free Speech Movement" captured their anger, as did the campus protests and teach-ins against the Vietnam War.

One important event in that turbulent decade stands out. In 1967, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, many of them participants in the antiwar protests, formed the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA)—the first graduate student union in the United States. TAA's members faced an increasing teaching load, low pay, no healthcare benefits, and poor working conditions. In addition, TAA members wanted control over the courses they taught. On this issue in particular, graduate student employees joined forces with undergraduates, who were also engaged in efforts to alter the balance of power within the university. In 1970, TAA members went on strike and ultimately negotiated a contract that included job security, a grievance procedure, and healthcare.

This successful move symbolized more than just a union victory for academics. It also made clear that these students no longer thought of themselves in simply New Left terms—as "oppressed" (Paul Goodman's label) or as "cogs" (Mario Savio, leader of the free speech movement, used this term). More important, they had ceased thinking of themselves as "apprentices" training for membership in a guild. Instead, they believed themselves to be modern-day employees, just like other employees, hired to perform a task. As one TAA leaflet asked: "Is there real difference between ourselves and the man in the factory?" This question signaled a change in the graduate students' relationship to the university.1

Since 1970 the question of graduate students' ambiguous relationship to the university has become more pertinent. In fact, as graduate student radicalism declined during the 1970s and 1980s (there were no significant strikes like the one at Wisconsin in this period), the university became more like a modern corporation and a much meaner employer. The most obvious sign has been the "downsizing" of the academic labor force. Seeking lower labor costs and greater flexibility, the university has hit upon a solution—the use of part-time and temporary laborers to teach the bulk of the courses. This solution is not surprising and is consistent with the general trend towards casualization and the emergence of a temporary workforce. According to Ernst Benjamin, director of research for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), tenured and tenure-track faculty together made up only 35 percent of the academic labor force in 1993. Between 1975 and 1993, adjunct faculty grew four times (97 percent) more than full-time faculty (25 percent) and now make up more than 33 percent of the academic labor force. Similarly, by 1993 the number of non–tenure-track, full-time faculty appointments increased by 88 percent, and now constitute 14 percent of the total academic labor force.2 In 1993, 18 percent of all faculty appointments were graduate student employees. Taken together, these numbers are staggering—65 percent of the academic labor force is off the tenure-track, a number that is sure to increase in coming years as tenure-track appointments continue to be a thing of the past, and as the corporate nature of the university becomes more of a reality.

Responses to the increased use of graduate students and part-timers have taken different forms. Professional associations like the AHA have issued reports documenting the increased use of graduate students and adjuncts for teaching. Perhaps the most well known of these is the statement from the Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty. This statement came out of a fall 1997 conference jointly sponsored by 10 organizations, including the Modern Language Association (MLA), the AHA, National Council of Teachers of English, and the AAUP. In addition to an overview of current academic labor practices and a discussion of the pros and cons of using part-time faculty, the statement includes policies and guidelines for good practice, as well as an agenda for implementation and compliance with these recommended practices. The recent Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment has a similar form, but limits its assessment and recommendations to language and literature programs.

These reports always sound evenhanded in their treatment of the problem. While arguing against overuse of part-time faculty and graduate students, the associations straddle a thin line. On the one hand, they want to recruit new members (which requires graduate school training); on the other, they want to criticize the bleak prospects for future members. The results are obvious: numerous reports with no power behind them, seemingly fulfilling a professional obligation on the one hand, while passing for "action" on the other. In fact, the associations stand helpless against the trends of academic downsizing and increasing graduate student teaching loads.

This isn't to say that disciplinary associations should not be a place of activism. However, for these associations to be effective advocates for changing academic labor practices, they must be responsive to the needs of graduate students and graduate student employees. In the case of the MLA, graduate students have recently gained more power through the Graduate Student Caucus (GSC). In recent years, the GSC has grown to over 5,000 members and now represents nearly one-third of the total membership of the MLA. At the December 1998 convention, the GSC took control of the agenda. The organization presented ten resolutions to the MLA delegate assembly; seven passed, one was withdrawn. Two of the GSC's four candidates for election to major committees were elected. As a result, graduate students in the MLA now have seats on powerful governance panels, and perhaps most important, the MLA will collect and publish data on the salaries and working conditions of part-time faculty and teaching/graduate assistants in departments of language and literature. The ability of the caucus to unite the concerns of graduate students, full-time faculty, part-time and non–tenure-track faculty has allowed them to develop a radical critique of not just academic labor practices and the changing nature of academic careers, but also the MLA's own inability to respond to the crisis in a substantive manner. In doing so, it has forced the organization to take action.

But disciplinary associations can only go so far in addressing the academic labor crisis. That's why the recent responses of graduate student unions represent such a welcome and necessary departure. At a time when college and university administrators and state lawmakers are engaged in the systematic restructuring of the academic labor force, organization and collective bargaining are the most important ways for graduate student employees and part-time faculty to guarantee a say in the terms and conditions of their employment.

While it was certainly not alone, Yale can be credited with putting the organizing of graduate student employees back on the map. An Ivy League institution seems an unlikely place for a union campaign, yet we should not be surprised, given the amount of teaching graduate student employees are responsible for at Yale. In March, the Graduate Employees Student Organization (GESO) at Yale published a study entitledCasual in Blue: Yale and the Academic Labor Market. The study claims that tenured and tenure-track faculty perform only 30 percent of the classroom hours for undergraduate instruction. Graduate students and adjuncts are responsible for the other 70 percent. The study also points out that the number of teaching assistants at Yale has nearly tripled over the last 20 years, a phenomenon that is hardly unique to Yale and that lends credence to the argument that the expansion of graduate programs has resulted in a reserve pool of cheap labor.

GESO's 1995 grade strike and showdown with the Yale administration received national attention. It also reignited the debate heard at Wisconsin in the 1960s about whether teaching and graduate assistants are employees or student-apprentices, teaching while completing their degrees. This was especially the case because GESO affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. Such an affiliation between academics-in-training, and dining and clerical staff, the argument went, was not appropriate. As a result, this job action had virtually no full-time faculty support, and participants were threatened with firing and non-reappointment, as well as other forms of disciplinary action

In an effort to smother graduate student unionization, the Yale administration made the apprentice argument to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB, however, ruled in a landmark decision in November 1996 that graduate students who teach at private institutions are, in fact, employees with workplace rights. This decision not only helped the unionization effort at Yale, but other private schools as well, most noticeably New York University where, after a successful card drive, graduate student employees filed for an election in the spring.

The Yale situation is indisputable evidence of how unfriendly the academy is toward organizing and unionization. Yet, GESO became a model for organizing campaigns across the country. While graduate students at Yale continue to fight for recognition and students at NYU and the University of Minnesota await election results, a more recent battle has been fought—and won—in the University of California system. The UC system is notorious for its overreliance on graduate students for undergraduate instruction. As part of a campaign for recognition this past winter, student leaders at UC argued that the 9,000 graduate student employees working on UC campuses were responsible for 60 percent of all undergraduate instruction.

Responding to low pay and overwork, graduate employees on all UC campuses stopped working on December 1, 1998, in an attempt to guarantee union recognition and the right to collective bargaining. UC President Richard Atkinson maintained the now familiar position that graduate student employees are primarily students, that their work is part of their education and training, and that collective bargaining would disrupt the collegial relationships between graduate students and faculty.

After one week of the strike, the state legislature initiated a 45-day cooling off period that would return striking employees to work for the fall term and guaranteed that talks with the administration would begin within ten days. Those talks were given a boost when on December 11, the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ruled that UC teaching assistants, readers, and tutors are employees with union rights. In its decision, PERB argued that California's Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act "presents a framework under which the pursuit of academic excellence, the free exchange of ideas, the preservation of academic freedom, and collective bargaining all co-exist and complement one another." This supports the points made by union leaders at UC and throughout the country that quality undergraduate instruction is enhanced by giving those upon whom that instruction is becoming increasingly dependent a voice in the terms and conditions of their employment and, in doing so, it states definitively that collective bargaining strengthens the educational enterprise by affirming its essential elements.

Despite PERB's ruling, the UC administration initially refused to yield. After an unsuccessful appeal, however, Atkinson agreed to abide by the results of the March election at UCLA (the first of the UC campuses to have such an election following the strike). In that election, graduate student employees voted three to one in favor of union representation. With much media attention, these students have shown that history of graduate student radicalism—the sort pioneered by Wisconsin students during the late 1960s—is alive and kicking.

Of course, some see the struggles at Yale and UC as exceptional struggles at exceptional schools. But recent elections have also been won at the University of Iowa and Wayne State University. As of this writing, elections are currently underway at the University of Minnesota, NYU, Oregon State, and Temple University. At the University of Illinois, state labor law has prevented recognition despite overwhelming membership. Other schools that have shown an interest in card drives include the University of Georgia, University of Washington, and Purdue University. The Coalition of Graduate Employees Unions was formed in 1996 to serve as a network for graduate employee activists. Though this might not yet be a "movement," it certainly has signs of becoming one.

Clearly, the modern university increasingly uses its graduate students like employees—as sources of labor, pure and simple. Therefore, we believe the struggles of Yale and UC students should be seen less as exceptional and more as indicative of what should be done by others. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these struggles (as we're sure some must), we encourage students to take heart from them. Even if you're not sure that you (or your fellow students) are ready for a union, start collecting some numbers and asking some questions: what percentage of the courses at your institution are taught by graduate students? What percentage of students in your department are getting full-time, tenure-track positions upon graduation? If you find something disturbing, why not write a letter to the editor? Why not start discussion groups on your campus about the state of academic labor? And, perhaps, if you feel ready, why not contact a union organizer about organizing your campus? No matter what you decide, you should realize that you are not alone. Graduate students elsewhere have woken up and realized that they are being treated poorly by the modern university. Something can be done about it.


1. The TAA leaflet is quoted in Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 160. For more on the strike, see Steven Zorn, “Unions On Campus,” in Academic Supermarkets, ed. Philip Altbach, et al. (San Francisco: Jossey-Boss, 1971) and Daniel Czitrom, “Reeling in the Years: Looking Back on the TAA,” in Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, ed. Cary Nelson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

2. "Declining Faculty Availability to Students is the Problem—But Tenure Is Not the Explanation" American Behavioral Scientist 41 (1998): 718–37.

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