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Can Graduate Student Teaching Survive?

If graduate students don't want to find themselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” collective action will be essential.

Photo Credit: Linda Goldstein, IIT Tech News via Wikimedia Commons


Here’s a familiar story from about a decade ago: a pair of political antagonists conduct an increasingly bitter election campaign, ending in frustrating indecision. Disputes pile up over the legitimacy of the balloting process, and government officials are called in to intervene. Finally, a federal panel, boasting a majority of Republican appointees, shuts down the vote-counting outright, yielding a conservative victory.

This is, of course, Bush v. Gore in outline. But the presidential election was not the only disputed vote around the turn of the millennium to get resolved in this way. Parallel events played out on the campuses of several private universities in the early 2000s. Graduate students organized themselves to win union recognition, and Republican appointees and university administrations conspired to quash the effort, ultimately preventing the counting of ballots in union elections on several campuses.

In 2000, the Clinton-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board, ruling on a New York University case, extended organizing protections to graduate students at private universities. (At many public institutions, graduate students had long been organized, thanks to the protection of friendly state laws.) The board stated that because “graduate assistants perform services under the control and direction of the Employer” and “are compensated for these services by the Employer,” their relationship with their university is “indistinguishable from a traditional master-servant relationship.”

Soon after the ruling, NYU graduate students petitioned for an NLRB-supervised election, won, and negotiated a contract with their administration. Peers at other institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Tufts, and Brown, picked up the torch, petitioning for elections on their campuses, too. While the issues leading students to organize varied somewhat among campuses, common grievances were poverty wages (at Yale—one of the best-paying universities around—the most a graduate student at the time could hope to make was around $15,000 per year), poor health benefits, a career track unusually hostile to women, a weakening job market, and general lack of say over the increasingly corporate structure of universities. It was around this time that, in an episode of The Simpsons, Bart put on a fake ponytail and said, “Look at me, I’m a grad student—I’m thirty years old and made $600 last year.” Ever decent, Marge reprimanded, “Bart! Don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.”

After the NLRB elections went forward, hostile administrations at Penn, Brown, Tufts, and Columbia requested the immediate impoundment of the ballots, banking on the support of President George W. Bush and his new appointees. They guessed right. The NLRB complied with their request and seized the ballots, preempting any election results pending the outcome of the universities’ appeal. In 2004, the Republican appointees reversed the initial NYU decision on graduate student bargaining and shredded the still-uncounted votes.

Armed with the new ruling, NYU’s leadership stopped bargaining with graduate students after their contract expired in 2005, leading union members to vote overwhelmingly to strike. The administration whittled down union numbers by threatening to blacklist graduate students from future teaching work on campus—their main source of income—and to interfere with visa approval for international students. The union brought pressure to bear from Democratic politicians close to organized labor, turned to civil disobedience, and finally physically occupied campus buildings. All this failed to convince NYU’s administration, and within a few months, the union—the only one ever won by private university graduate students—had been broken.

The string of campus defeats presaged the wave of austerity and corporatization currently straitening university life and driving the growing “crisis of higher education.” The opening act in the current cycle of austerity conflicts nationwide—the Wisconsin capitol occupation of early 2011—occurred at the intersection of these stories: it was members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the graduate student union at Wisconsin, who initiated the occupation. Indeed, the current crisis of higher education has many of the hallmarks of the larger crisis of American economic inequality and stagnation. As with almost every other institution in American life, the university is increasingly characterized by the upward distribution of wealth and power.