Publication Date

January 1, 2001

Perspectives Section


A recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision promises major changes in interactions between graduate-student teachers and administrators at private universities. But this is not the only change afoot in labor relations in higher education. Teachers have also been forming unions, developing coalitions with other university employees, and devising "codes of conduct" for university labor relations.

The sweeping NLRB decision, issued in November, challenges private universities' traditional stance that graduate-student teachers are not university employees and are therefore not entitled to organize unions and bargain collectively. The NLRB held that graduate assistants at New York University (NYU) are employees with a right to form a union if they so choose. This is a definitive ruling with broad implications for all private universities.

Colleges and universities are increasingly dependent on nontenure-track teachers, who are usually poorly paid and enjoy few benefits and little job security. These teachers—graduate students and part-time and temporary faculty—are finding mechanisms for improving their working conditions, but they confront different challenges.

For graduate students, the trick is to be categorized as employees, a move many universities are unwilling to make. In contrast, no one doubts that adjuncts are employees. For them, the difficulty is in organizing a group of workers who have minimal job security, enjoy few institutional ties, and are easily replaced. Academic labor questions are further complicated by the fact that labor relations in public and private universities are governed by different laws.

At Yale University, graduate students and administrators have clashed intensely over graduate students' unionization efforts. Carlos Aramayo, a history graduate student and organizer at Yale, heralded the NLRB decision as "huge." "The ruling reaffirms what we've been saying for the past 10 years," he said. "The work graduate teachers do in the classroom is real work, meaningful work. We're employees, and we should be recognized as employees." While Aramayo hedged on how the union would now proceed, he said the general sentiment was "full steam ahead toward [union] recognition. We'd love to be second, after NYU," he said.

For its own part, the NYU administration, supported by administrators at other prestigious private universities including Yale and Columbia, has fought the graduate students' effort and disagrees vehemently with the NLRB. Well aware of the case's wide implications, the university maintains that graduate assistants are "clearly students" and that, according to spokesperson John Beckman, "Whatever responsibilities they have are secondary to their position as students." Graduate students' teaching positions are "part of their financial aid package."

The NLRB ruling is not subject to appeal, however. NYU graduate students authorized a union in November, and federal law requires that employers must bargain with legally elected unions. Whether—and when—the administration and the union will begin bargaining remains to be seen. As of early December, NYU had indicated that it might refuse to comply with federal law, a move that would invite a lawsuit by the NLRB. Beckman saw the election of the union as a no-win situation. "There will no doubt be substantial disagreement if we ultimately choose not to bargain . . . [but] even if the university were to proceed with bargaining, the expectation of some silky smooth road after that is illusory," he said.

The university maintains that the quality of education is more jeopardized by graduate employee unions in private schools than it is in public schools, where many such unions already exist. Beckman said laws governing labor relations at public universities prohibit strikes or exclude such "academic issues" as curriculum and grading from the collective bargaining process. The federal laws governing bargaining in private universities provide no such protection, he said.

Eric Foner, who is active in the effort to connect unions with the academy, said the bottom line is that NYU must comply with the law. "There are always debates about the legitimate scope of collective bargaining," he said. Aramayo, at Yale, said the "academic issues" about which NYU claimed concern were "not the kind of stuff we've ever asked for from the university." Instead, he said, graduate students have consistently sought "better pay, more equitable pay, better child care," and other such improvements.

The first graduate student unions formed at public universities in the early 1970s. While the number of unions has grown steadily in the past 10 years, graduate-student teachers at public schools still wage protracted battles to be recognized as employees and organize unions. In early December, the University of Washington agreed to recognize its graduate employees' union, averting a strike by hours. The union and the administration will now press the state legislature to enact laws governing the collective bargaining process. Students seeking to form a union at Temple University were encouraged in October when Pennsylvania's Labor Relations Board ruled that the state's graduate-student teachers should be defined as employees. The union plans to hold an election this spring. In Illinois, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling classifying graduate students as employees. The case now goes before the state's Educational Labor Relations Board, which will determine which graduate students will be represented by the new union.

Part-Time Faculty

Part-time faculty do not have to make a case that they are employees. But their working conditions—limited job security, part-time employment often at multiple institutions, and their growing numbers—make union organizing a challenge.

A report released last month by a consortium of 25 scholarly associations including the AHA details the extensive—and increasing—use of adjunct teachers in humanities and social science departments nationwide [see Robert B. Townsend, "Summary of Data from Surveys by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce," Perspectives, 38:9 (December 2000), 13–19]. Data collected in the broad survey indicates that history departments employ more full-time, tenure-track faculty members (at 53.2 percent of faculty members) than do other disciplines. Still, the survey’s data substantiate what many teachers and students have already observed: part-time faculty do an extraordinary amount of the teaching in today’s institutions of higher education.

The study found that the average per-course salary of part-time faculty members is $2,480. Most part-time or adjunct professors have no benefits, are not eligible for pensions, and have little job security. And at an average pay rate, they must teach about four classes per semester to earn a $20,000 annual salary. Liesl Orenic, a part-time history professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, said her students are often shocked to hear how little she makes. She said, "I had a student a few years ago say, 'That's a Christmas bonus!'"

In dense urban areas, part-timers cobble together a living wage by traveling across town, often working at several schools simultaneously. The Boston chapter of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor is working to construct a network of activism among part-time faculty in the Boston area. Gary Zabel, a philosophy professor and the organization's co-chair, said faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Boston began their organizing efforts by pressing the existing faculty association to emphasize part-time teachers' need for guarantees of a living wage and fair treatment by employers. In 1998, part-timers won guaranteed benefits and a per course minimum salary of $4,000.

The sheer density of colleges and universities in metropolitan areas—Zabel estimated that about 10,000 part-time
faculty members teach in the 58 institutions within a 10-mile radius of the center of Boston—may make a geographically specific approach particularly useful in organizing highly mobile adjunct faculty members. In Chicago, local ties promoted energy and enthusiasm for organizing among part-time faculty. When part-time faculty at Columbia College organized a union and won average raises of 64 percent per course in their first contract, their counterparts at Roosevelt University—a few blocks away—took note and decided to unionize, too.

Part-time faculty at Roosevelt voted to form a union last spring and are now in the process of bargaining for their first contract. According to Illinois Education Association organizer Tom Suhrbur, part-time faculty at Roosevelt teach 60 percent of the courses. Starting pay for part timers is $1,700 per course; few Roosevelt part-timers make more than $2,000 and none receive benefits.

Orenic, who is chair of the Roosevelt part-time faculty's negotiating team, described a two-track system that divides part-time from full-time faculty in almost every way. Although better salaries are the adjuncts' first concern, they are also bargaining about governance, promotions, and academic freedom. Part-time faculty want "a voice in our working conditions" in areas such as designing curriculum and participation in faculty meetings. The Roosevelt part-timers have also met with representatives of the AAUP, which represents the full-time faculty there. This nascent connection marks the first "formal relationship between full-timers and part-timers," Orenic said.

In contrast to university administrators who think unions threaten the quality of higher education, Orenic and others involved in labor activism believe the increasing use of part-time, "casual" labor damages students' educational experiences and is a negative result of universities' growing emphasis on the financial bottom line. Orenic pointed out that poorly paid part-time faculty cannot be adequately accessible to students and are hard-pressed to form intellectual ties with their peers. Furthermore, she said, as the percentage of part-time faculty increases, the work of administration and advising falls to a shrinking number of full-time faculty, making their work more difficult.

Josh Freeman (Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center), a history professor and activist, connects growing employment of part-time faculty to other issues of concern to full-time faculty such as university governance and "the tendency to require disciplines and departments to be profit centers, to sustain only enterprises that have some fiscal advantage to the institution."

Broadening Claims

Freeman and other activists have focused expansively on universities as employers of clerical, custodial, technical, and other workers—as well as teachers. Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a New York-based group with a far-flung network of supporters, seeks to make labor questions relevant to universities "in the broadest possible way," said Freeman, one of the group's founders. In November, SAWSJ hosted about 350 people at a New York City meeting in which graduate students, part-time faculty, and service and construction workers all testified about working conditions in higher education institutions.

Drawing on the highly successful student anti-sweatshop movement, SAWSJ wants to look "not just at people making athletic gear in east Asia, but also at the person who's cleaning up at the cafeteria down the hallway," Freeman said. He thinks this unified approach to academic labor should "force faculty to think of ourselves as workers and laborers." At Yale, graduate student activists have done this by working in a university-wide union campaign encompassing hospital workers and unionized clerical, technical, and service workers.

In some cases, activists have asked universities to sign "codes of conduct" applicable to employees throughout the institution. This model was used
effectively last spring by Wesleyan University undergraduates, who worked with janitors to push for a code of conduct for service contractors at the university. Wesleyan’s code, which went into effect in the fall, provides for a board to hear complaints of code violations and calls on the university to terminate contracts in cases of noncompliance.

Codes of conduct can work symbolically, even when they cannot be enforced. They publicize labor issues and provide, in the words of Eric Foner, "moral and sometimes tactical support." A coalition of workers at the University of Massachusetts at Boston is now publicizing a charter of "university workers' rights." Also, SAWSJ has just published a set of university fair labor standards that encompasses "all employees, including service and maintenance workers; clerical and technical workers; security personnel; faculty and professional staff; full-time, part-time, and subcontracted employees; and adjunct instructors and graduate-student employees."

Especially at public schools, employees' ability to organize unions is contingent on local labor laws and lawmakers. Elected officials have frequently been active in supporting or, in some cases, thwarting unionization efforts. The California state government assisted bargaining between the newly formed graduate student union and the University of California system last spring. Graduate students organizing at Temple University received support from the Philadelphia City Council, which called on the university to recognize the union. "In light of Temple's receipt of millions of dollars of public funds and tax exemptions," the city council stated, "it is important that Temple fulfill the public policy embedded in state law to bargain in good faith with the designated representatives of all of its employees."

While public institutions have a clear mandate to use public funds in a manner compliant with state laws, institutions ostensibly funded privately are not so accountable. Yet New York State Assembly member Edward Sullivan pointed out that almost all private colleges and universities receive public funds and suggested that private institutions could, in fact, be held to similar standards. "We as citizens have standing to ask them what they're doing with our money," said Sullivan, who chairs the assembly's committee on higher education and has been a part-time professor at NYU. He has proposed a bill that would encourage New York's private colleges and universities to abide by federal labor relations laws. Institutions convicted of violating such laws would stand to lose a certain category of state funding, unless they could demonstrate that public funds were not used to violate the law.

Freeman said SAWSJ hopes to move in this direction. "We'd like to ask funding agencies—foundations and state and federal governments—whether they want to really provide money for institutions that don't meet standards" like the ones set out by SAWSJ. Citing a law requiring campuses to report crime statistics in order to receive federal funds, Freeman said, "Just the way providing a safe campus is currently deemed a prerequisite for support from the federal government, providing a decent working environment should also be" such a prerequisite.

Organizing in History Departments

The AHA has established codes of conduct of its own. It has published guidelines on professional conduct and proper treatment of part-time employees, as well as a resolution in favor of graduate student employees' right to organize unions.

Kate Bullard, a history student and co-president of the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Illinois, said history was the first university department at Illinois to pass a resolution supporting students' right to organize; seven or eight other departments later followed suit. The faculty "see how difficult it is for us to balance the ever-growing workload with our own graduate work," she said.

Whereas graduate teaching assistants in history formerly taught two sections, two times per week, the standard format has now shifted so that they have four separate sections they see once per week. Teaching assistants teach the same number of sections, but have twice as many students. Additionally, Bullard pointed out, the students have half as much time in small-group settings where they have opportunities to participate in discussion and work on writing skills.

At Yale, Aramayo said, the history department has the strongest graduate student involvement of any of the university's large departments. "We have tried, I think successfully, to forge a real dialogue with a lot of the faculty members." He said he talked with his adviser "openly and freely about the union," and his adviser agrees that "the union movement is an important part of the future of the future of the academy."

Foner, who said graduate students at Columbia might try to organize a union there, maintains faculty should not be in the business of encouraging or discouraging student organizing. If graduate students do opt for a union, he said, faculty should support them and try to persuade colleagues and administrations to respect their rights. He said, "I do think professors should make absolutely sure that no penalties or retribution are meted out."

While historians may be no more labor-minded than their peers in other disciplines, some use historical insights to understand contemporary situations. Orenic, a labor historian who has researched airline baggage handlers, said labor history made her aware that she was legally protected from retaliation when she became active in forming a union at Roosevelt. Foner said in the context of U.S. labor history, university resistance to unions created a sense of déjà vu. Although unions have bolstered U.S. democracy, Foner observed, “employers have fought unionization with every weapon and argument they could muster. Every employer in the country thinks it shouldn’t be subjected to collective bargaining laws. [Anti-union universities] are no different from John D. Rockefeller.”

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