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An Academic Defense of Grad Student Unions - An Open Letter to Columbia Provost John Coatsworth

As a proud Columbia alum (College '69) and an officer of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) I was excited to learn of the NLRB's decision last week. However, I was shocked and, frankly, disgusted to read your condescending and arrogant message to the campus community. As one graduate student put it, your letter 'simply encourages graduate workers to eschew this newly right, like telling workers management will look to their interests.'

A December 2014 protest by Columbia grad students seeking union rights.,Inside Higher Ed

Last week the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in the Columbia University case that student employees at private universities have the right to organize unions to bargain collectively over the terms of their employment.  The lengthy and carefully argued ruling overturned a 2004 decision in Brown University that denied such rights because student employees "are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university."  That decision reversed a 2000 NLRB ruling in New York University.  The issue decided in Columbia was not whether student employees, primarily graduate student teaching and research assistants, are "primarily students" but that "[s]tatutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the [National Labor Relations] Act does not reach."

In response to the ruling, Columbia provost John Coatsworth, an historian of Latin America, wrote a letter to the campus community, which argued that "the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace" and that "graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers."  The letter went on not only to challenge the legitimacy of the NLRB ruling, but to all but urge Columbia student employees to reject collective bargaining in favor of "productive dialogue" with the university administration. 
The following open letter is in response to Coatsworth's communication.

Dear Provost Coatsworth,

As a proud Columbia alum (College ’69) and an officer of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) I was excited to learn of the NLRB’s decision last week in the Columbia University case to overturn its previous 2004 ruling inBrown University and return to the standard previously adopted by the board. While I wish that Columbia had agreed voluntarily to recognize and negotiate with its graduate student union before things came to this pass, as did New York University, I understood Columbia’s unwillingness to do so in light of the unfortunate Brown precedent.  However, I was shocked and, frankly, disgusted to read your condescending and arrogant message to the campus community that quickly followed the board’s decision.  As one graduate student put it in the pages of the Columbia Spectator, your letter “simply encourages graduate workers to eschew this newly regained right in our own purported best interests” which “is akin to management telling workers not to agitate for collective bargaining rights, because management will look to their interests.”

Although your letter acknowledges that “those eligible to vote in the election will weigh for themselves the potential benefits and drawbacks” of unionization, you make clear that Columbia’s administration will fight such efforts to the end. You write: “For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.”

A non-academic third party?  Really?  Do you somehow actually believe the repeatedly discredited shibboleth that unions do not represent their own members but only “outsiders?”  When Columbia and its student employees reach a tentative agreement — and, trust me, you will be compelled to do that — such an agreement will have to be approved or voted down not only by Columbia’s administration but by members of the union local concerned, that is to say, by the very student employees you so disingenuously claim to value.  Are these students somehow a “third party?”  Or do you contend they are “non-academic?”

As a veteran of the events of 1968 at the Columbia campus, when the university administration invited the New York City Police Department — certainly a “non-academic third-party” — to run riot on the campus, indiscriminately beating and assaulting students and faculty members, protesters or not, I find this declaration ironic at best.  To be sure, much water has passed under the bridge since then, although at least one dear friend of mine still bears the scars of that “third-party” involvement.  Looking to the present, however, it still seems that Columbia is more than welcoming of some third-party involvement in academic affairs.  I am referring here, first and foremost, to Columbia’s own Board of Trustees, which other than President Lee Bollinger includes not a single academic — no Columbia faculty member, no prominent scholar from another institution, no student (of course), not even an alum who might also be a scholar — but instead a slew of corporate officers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and bankers.  Do you really think people will believe that involving a small union local of graduate student employees in the decisions that impact their working lives poses more of a threat to the independent academic life of the campus than might the power and influence of such “non-academic” and “third-party” trustees?  Or, perhaps, it is precisely because those trustees overwhelmingly come from management in their own spheres of activity that Columbia is so resistant to granting its student employees the fundamental civil right to bargain collectively?  And perhaps that is why, in the words of two graduate students active in organizing at Columbia, also writing in the Spectator, your administration “didn’t blink at paying exorbitant fees to retain one of the largest anti-union law firmsin the country, Proskauer Rose.”  Apparently, in your mind such a firm doesn’t count as a non-academic third party.

Let’s be clear: this is not, as you suggest, about the education and training of graduate students, but about how they support themselves and what the university gains from their employment.  As the NLRB ruling put it, “There is undoubtedly a significant economic component to the relationship between universities, like Columbia, and their student assistants,” noting that “on average, private nonprofit colleges and universities generate a third of their revenue from tuition.” Importantly, the board threw out the Brown argument that the instructional character of graduate student labor made it not-labor, offering this explanation:

The fact that teaching may be a degree requirement in many academic programs does not diminish the importance of having students assist in the business of universities by providing instructional services for which undergraduate students pay tuition. Indeed, the fact that teaching assistants are thrust wholesale into many of the core duties of teaching — planning and giving lectures, writing exams, etc., including for such critical courses as Columbia’s Core Curriculum — suggests that the purpose extends beyond the mere desire to help inculcate teaching skills.

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Your letter refers members of the Columbia community to a website where they might find FAQ’s and other information about the decision and the union drive.  Although the site does include a link to the NLRB’s opinion, which you and others at Columbia should read with care, on the whole it is hardly a neutral site.  This website was obviously prepared before the decision and bears striking similarities to information disseminated by other Ivy League universities.

Looking at the site, I find this FAQ: “Many state universities have unions. Wouldn’t it just be the same here?”  Here is Columbia’s answer:

Not necessarily. There are two reasons why comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that insulate academic decisions from the collective bargaining process; that is to say, there are protections in the applicable law that prevent unions from involvement in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of student unions in higher education, and therefore does not prevent explicitly union involvement and contractual bargaining over academic matters. Second, state labor laws typically prohibit strikes.

This is misleading at best.  For the fact is that many state labor laws have no such provisions and there — indeed, everywhere — unionization has had no demonstrable negative effect at all on academic freedom or the educational process.  It is telling that your site — and your letter, for that matter — offer not a single concrete example, not a shred of quantitative or other data, in support of your arguments.  However, the most thorough scholarly study, based on survey data collected from PhD students in five academic disciplines across eight public U.S. universities, has demonstrated that

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.
This is recognized as well by the NLRB in its recent ruling:
The experience of student assistant collective bargaining at public universities provides no support for the fearful predictions of the Brown University Board. In the words of one scholar, “[t]here appear to be no major disasters that have arisen because of [graduate-student] unions,” and examples of collective bargaining in practice “appear to demonstrate that economic and academic issues on campus can indeed be separated.”

With respect to academic freedom, the AAUP’s amicus brief in support of the Columbia students, cited directly in the NLRB ruling, pointed out that unions, through collective bargaining agreements, often promote the cause of academic freedom:

Local AAUP chapters have successfully established explicit guarantees of academic freedom in their collective bargaining contracts. Some chapters of unionized faculty refer to the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and quote it extensively in their collective bargaining contracts. Other faculty collective bargaining agreements to which an AAUP chapter is a party incorporate the language of the 1940 Statement to define academic freedom. These contracts make promises of academic freedom legally enforceable.

By contrast, Columbia’s attempt before the NLRB to argue the position you uphold was remarkably short on specifics.  As the NLRB  pointed out,

Although Columbia presented the testimony of an academic economist to address this study, its expert simply maintained that the study could not “rule out harm or benefit” to the faculty-student relationship from collective bargaining. When the best analytical evidence offered by Columbia suggests merely that neither harm nor benefit from collective bargaining can be ruled out, the dire predictions of the Brown University Board are undercut.

But let me be a bit more specific and personal.  After graduating from Columbia I moved across the country to enter graduate school in history at the University of California at Berkeley.  Among Berkeley’s attractions, then and now, was its stellar reputation as one of the most highly rated History departments (and graduate schools more generally) in the country; its high ranking then and now was above Columbia’s.  At the time, we did not have a graduate student union, although many of us were seeking one.  But those who followed us did win this right and for some time now graduate student employees at Berkeley have been represented by UAW Local 1865.  And guess what?  Berkeley has retained its stellar reputation, its academic independence, its top faculty and highly talented graduate students, as well as its academic freedom, the presence of that union — which, by the way, is the same union now seeking recognition at Columbia — notwithstanding.

I assume you know our fellow historian Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who was previously at Columbia.  Dirks has faced imposing challenges at Berkeley — a major financial crisis, sexual harassment scandals, and various incidents of administrative malfeasance — but none of those problems has ever been attributed to the existence of unions among student employees or, for that matter, among the non-tenure-track faculty, who are represented there by the American Federation of Teachers.  Dirks certainly has never complained about this, nor have any faculty members that I know.

Of course, you too were once a graduate student.  Indeed, I am told that at the University of Wisconsin in the early ’60s you were something of a radical firebrand, an advocate of those supporting a “worker-student alliance.”  We’ve all changed since those days, I know.  I certainly have.  But it is one thing to abandon the arrogant idealism of youth for a mature and tolerant realism.  It is quite another to betray the basic principles that those of us who came of age in the ’60s have long upheld.  And here I should also condemn your betrayal in this matter as well of the principles of dispassionate scholarship, based on empirical evidence and logical reasoning, not ideology and craven self-interest, that we historians uphold as professionals.  Isn’t that what you have done?  For the fact of the matter is this: Columbia’s arguments about unionization have absolutely no basis in evidence or logic.  The concerns you raise have been shown, time and again, to be totally specious and animated only by ideology or interest.  They are designed, as your own graduate students put it, solely “to plant doubt and misinformation and ultimately interfere with graduate workers’ democratic decision—and right—to unionize.”

As an historian, as a scholar, as an educator, and as a veteran of the ’60s, you should know better.  Shame on you.


Henry Reichman (CC ’69)

First Vice-President and Chair, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, American Association of University Professors