The recent National Labor Relations Board decision granting graduate students at private colleges and universities the right to unionize takes me back to 2000, the last time the NLRB ruled similarly (3 to 2). I was a first-year Ph.D. student at Tufts University at the time, excited to be pursuing a path in literary and critical study.
Not long after that historic NLRB decision bore its first juicy fruit—an epic 2002 contract for the unionized grad students at New York University—we began a campaign at Tufts as well. The NYU contract had shown that it was possible for graduate students to receive not only increased stipends across the board but also free health care and other crucial benefits. Moreover, it demonstrated that unionization could win graduate student teachers, TAs, and researchers respect that had previously been denied them. Professors from NYU were quoted in the news as saying how the new contract was actually improving their relations with students—that the respect and decent pay afforded grad students was making it possible to do a better job in general.
Along with a collection of other humanities departments, English became the hub of the organizing for our union effort. We went with the acronym ASET, the Association of Student Employees at Tufts, and affiliated with the United Automobile Workers—cool folks with experience from NYU and other grad student campaigns.
Why did English become the hub of our organizing committee? It wasn’t because we were the worst-treated or the worst-paid graduate students. As we came to learn, grad student lecturers and TAs in departments like drama or art history were paid just a fraction of what we were receiving for similar work, while some research assistants in the sciences were working far longer hours—40 or even 60 hours per week— for little more pay than we got. Indeed, the gross inequities that became apparent when we started talking to people and gathering union cards from beyond our own departments became yet another impetus for organizing.
It wasn’t because we were a bunch of intellectual radicals, either—although a few of us were, and a few more would become radicalized through the work of the campaign. More crucial, I think, was the fact that it was clear to all of us in the English department that we were teachers, providing the same type of work, delivering the same courses, and awarding the same grades and credits that both adjunct and even some tenure-track professors were. The idea that we weren’t employees—that we were simply “apprentices,” as the private universities were then arguing—was clearly bogus. (I credit many of our English department faculty for treating us collegially as well, which helped to reinforce the notion that we were, in a sense, colleagues—albeit junior ones.)
I found while organizing in other departments that grad students who didn’t have that experience of teaching their own courses were more likely to be sucked into the ideology of apprenticeship—even though their labor was just as essential as ours was. So there would be discussions and arguments.
But it was never just about ideology. There were barriers to organizing that weren’t mainly about ideas: the fear of retaliation from hostile faculty, cynicism that students couldn’t really change things, plain old workload exhaustion, and backgrounds of privilege that buffered peers from caring too much for the fate of others.
People offered plenty of passive support. They would sign a card and maybe agree to vote for a union if given a chance, and of course they would gladly accept its benefits. Who wouldn’t want free health care? But for many of those folks, taking that next step to get actively involved was not on their agenda—they were busy as heck, after all. Many of our supporters saw the union as a kind of third-party representation that would do stuff for them—not as a community organization of which they themselves were an essential part.
A related and perhaps even greater barrier we encountered was that many grad students had a willingness to live in poverty for the promise (perhaps some imagined it as a guarantee) that at the end of their three, five, or seven years of study, training, and research—and playing nice with their advisers—they would be rewarded with well-paid, secure, and honorable positions as tenure-track faculty members. They assumed they’d become an assistant professor at an institution—if not of their choice, then at least on earth and in this lifetime.
Looking back, I can see that even I was subject to that way of thinking at times—budding Marxist intellectual and reader of Marc Bousquet though I was. Thus, borrowing $10,000 or $15,000 a year in living expenses for several years to supplement inadequate pay for teaching was something I didn’t think twice about. I figured I’d be making $70,000 a year before too long. Wasn’t I “wicked smaht,” like all my professors told me? Given that, the six-figure debt load I was saddled with—undergrad loans from a private college plus several years of grad student living expenses—would not be too much to bear.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. At least in the early 2000s, the myth that we’d all be able to land that tenure-track job still had considerably more purchase than it does today (although even back then those who studied the trends closely knew better). I remember walking down the hallways at Tufts, confident that, in the near future, I would be like my professors, those well-dressed scholars whom I was wowing with my insightful comments in grad seminars. I would not be like the adjuncts teaching the intro classes and sharing offices and occasionally kicking the copy machine in despair. I would have an office all to myself … with my own starry-eyed grad students lined up around the corner.
Of course, graduate education is in various ways designed to encourage grad students to see themselves as the future tenured star professor—not as the “lowly” adjunct. (Who were those people, anyway? And did they do research or write or have, you know, ideas? I’m sure that they did, and do. But we ambitious grad students did not want to find out.)
Yet the reality was that the vast majority of us were not going to be landing tenure-track jobs in the near future—certainly not unless we were willing to move to Timbuktu or Dubai. Indeed, to multiply the tragic irony, as graduate students accepting low pay and a lack of benefits, we were effectively—if for the most part unknowingly—helping to undermine the future of our own profession, making it possible for universities to staff classes without investing in solid full-time (let alone tenure-track) positions. We were helping our own longed-for full-time tenure-track jobs to disappear. In effect, to use the vulgar term, we were scabbing on our future selves.
Of course, we could only do this because we were all, each of us, convinced we were sitting on winning lottery tickets—or, more precisely, scribbling one at night in the form of our beloved dissertations. And we could only maintain that illusion because we kept our distance from those abject adjuncts.
I’ve come to see this disavowal of the adjunct as a major weakness, one that we failed to take on adequately in our grad student organizing back in the day. That alienated way of (not) thinking cut us off from the reality of our situation, from our colleagues and our own likely futures. It was the antisocial underside of the belief that we had a merit-based path to a solid middle-class life. This individualist outlook in turn discouraged people—at least at a place like Tufts—from fully recognizing either their exploited status or their collective potential. We consoled ourselves with the (debt-buffered) fantasy that these low wages were temporary and that our best bet was to go it alone. Certainly we could hold our breath for a few more years, right?
Don’t get me wrong—most of the grad students that ASET was able to reach were in favor of joining the union. In 2003, our committee collected hundreds of union cards and held an election, which we think we won—at least, according to our internal polling. We never found out for sure, because Tufts followed the lead of Brown and NYU and filed an appeal with the NLRB claiming that we were “apprentices, not employees” and therefore should not have been able to have a union vote in the first place. Alas, the ballots were boxed, pending the appeal. And after the Brown decision came down in 2004 (with a Bush-appointed board flipping 3 to 2 against our rights), they were destroyed.
Our union campaign didn’t cease immediately. Throughout 2004, we kept working to hold things together, aiming our efforts at putting community pressure on the administration to recognize the union voluntarily. We used moral suasion, we wrote op-eds, we held rallies. The administration even made some adjustments and some concessions. Stipends in many departments were raised, and some grievances were addressed. It wasn’t a total loss.
But it was a loss nonetheless. To compel the administration, we probably needed something like a work stoppage (or a plausible threat of one), backed by support from community allies. But we hadn’t laid the basis for that kind of militancy. In our more immediate focus on merely gathering cards and winning votes, we ducked the difficult yet necessary work of pressing our peers to see themselves as having genuine power, power that stemmed not from the NLRB but from ourselves: our social networks, our labor, our principled arguments, and our solidarity with other university workers. Rather than dig a firm foundation, we built on sand. Stripped of NLRB backing, ASET/UAW collapsed into history.
Looking back on it now, I wonder if we should have made the argument for unionizing in deeper terms from the get-go, in more radical and existential terms, instead of lulling our peers with the assurance that all we needed to do was vote and the NLRB would do the rest.
Grad student organizers today should not make our mistakes. Even as they surge to take advantage of this terrific legal opening, they would do well to place their faith not primarily in the NLRB but in themselves—including their future selves (those contingent faculty)—and in their honest community allies.
One thing that makes the recent NLRB decision exciting is that it seems like grad students today—at least the ones that I know—may be less caught up in the individualist and meritocratic fantasies that many of us still had in our heads in the early 2000s. Facts that used to be the property of activists and experts are now widely known: Most graduating Ph.D.s won’t be landing tenure-track jobs (pending major structural change); most university teaching is now done by contingent faculty; most of those contingent faculty, unless they have the protection of a union, are exploited, expendable, and often crammed in a shared closet-office. And also this: Contingent faculty across the country are now unionizing in droves and winning contracts and respect that might just make being one of them not such a bad thing after all. (Here I should mention the lecturers at Tufts, who have recently won a union and a solid contract, inspiring further adjunct organizing across the Boston area.)
With such long-disavowed specters assuming flesh and blood among us—I speak as one of them—a legally rejuvenated grad student labor movement might become something much more exciting than it was a decade ago. No longer floating meritocratic fantasies on bubbles of debt but instead embracing its fighting future, this new wave of organized grad students might just help change everything.