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Scholars’ Rights: Graduate Students Seek to Unionize

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

new_school_labor_union_otu_imgWriting for The Nation, Michelle Chen laments a recent ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that rejected an attempt by graduate student instructors at The New School to unionize. She notes that despite performing what appears to be “labor” by most measures, graduate student teachers and researchers are considered to have “an academic, rather than economic relationship with their school.”

Chen addresses the flaws in this logic:

[A]lthough they taught, researched and performed administrative tasks in exchange for the school’s financial support for their studies—even when working on a regular schedule with a designated hourly wage, under a supervisor—that labor wasn’t work, but rather, simply a privilege of their academic experience. This realm, supposedly, is one of scholarly discourse, not labor and capital.

Incidentally, this logic is perfectly convenient for a wealthy private institution that absorbs millions of dollars annually in grants and hyperinflated tuitions. Inconvenient for the doctoral student struggling to juggle teaching and research on fast-food wages.

The precedent relied on by the NLRB was set in 2004 following a similar claim at Brown University. The New School graduate students, however, argue that their circumstances are different:

[W]hile Brown students’ stipends did not vary based on whether they ‘performed research and teaching tasks… at The New School there is no evidence of such equivalent payments made to non-working students, despite some very limited scholarship grants.’ So students depended more heavily on their labor to earn financial aid or funding.

Moreover, one subset of the workforce, course assistants, ‘do not regularly perform any teaching or research tasks’ and primarily undertake ‘administrative’ duties. Since there’s not much academic merit vested in their jobs, why don’t their duties count as real work? That their institution’s most prized asset is so poorly compensated shows academic logic defies common sense.

The regiaonal director’s ruling is not the end of the road, apparently, and the would-be union members will seek to have the ruling overtunred at the national level. Chen believes that the decision will say a lot about how we value education in America:

[I]deally, the true value of an education isn’t measured just as a consumer product on the labor market, but as a reflection of how much society values the people producing it. Without collective bargaining rights, higher education can’t measure up to its full potential.

 — Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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1 Comment to “Scholars’ Rights: Graduate Students Seek to Unionize”

  1. William Eaton says:

    The New School case is, unfortunately, only one half of the bad news out of the NLRB; the other being the Northwestern football players’ union: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/sports/ncaafootball/nlrb-says-northwestern-football-players-cannot-unionize.html?_r=0 (We have outlawed slavery, but not college athletics?)

    Can one, wishing to be hopeful, view these cases in the context of the history of the American legal system, always at least a half step behind the times. So that the current “no’s” announce “yesses” soon to come? This may be just wishful thinking on my part.

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