An Open Letter to Alan Brinkley



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Dear Alan:

I hear from my sources that you are in a difficult spot right now: that when you were just a professor in the history department you were sympathetic to graduate student unionization, and now you find yourself the official voice of the Columbia Board of Trustees’ anti-union policies. I’ve read the Columbia Spectator interiview. And though I sympathize with your dilemma, I’ve come to the conclusion that so long as you keep your position—one, the other, or both of your positions, I mean: your position against GESU, or your bureacratic position as provost so long as its duties require you to oppose graduate student unionization—I stand against you. I’ve enjoyed your company so much in the few times we’ve met that it pains me to say that I would have a hard time enjoying your company now. But you are now on the other side from me in a struggle over what kind of society America should become.

I feel compelled to speak because of my unusually privileged position. Since I write for the marketplace, I don’t have to worry about the esteem of university colleagues for professional advancement. But it’s an esteem I’ve sought out nonetheless, because even if the public is willing to call anyone who writes a book of history a “historian,” I didn’t really want to call myself one until I had earned the respect of the history professors I respected. I cultivate relationships with academics because I want to challenge myself to rise to academia’s standards. Its standards, it generally seems to me, are more honorable than that of the commercial world; except, in situations such as the one that the Columbia administration finds itself now, when it surrenders to the standards of the commercial world--by, say, fighting unions with the aggressiveness of a factory owner in a right-to-work state.

Remember a few years back when you were good to allow me to join you and several other Columbia professors and graduate students at a dinner for a visiting scholar, and the subject turned to the Columbia grad students’ organizing drive? One of your colleagues, another prominent scholar of liberalism--and, one would think, a liberal--made the by-then familiar point (call it the Eli Yale Shuffle) that unionization was a good thing for everyone except graduate students, who really are the blessed of the earth.

I told this professor he was saying the exact same things a benevolent but anti-union employer like Barry Goldwater used to say: that unions are hardly necessary where the workplace relationship is not just one of boss and bossed, but also one complexified by trust, familiarity, respect, even monitorship. I noted that since I was the only one present who had been a member of a graduate student union (during two years in the American culture program at the University of Michigan), I had some standing to personally confirm a general principle every fan of the Wagner Act would understand: that by formalizing a relationship that otherwise would have otherwise been grounded in the whim of the employer, the presence of a union seemed to increase, not decrease, the measure of trust between professors and graduate students at the University of Michigan.

I don’t know if you agreed with me that night or not. I thought then that you did. I do know, however, that you understood the argument in its every particular--because you helped explain it to your colleague when he chose to act obtuse.

Are unions bad for some kind of workplaces and not for others? I really don’t care to argue the point; to try to change your mind. That would be an insult to your intelligence. You understand the argument I would advance better than I understand it myself. That’s the tragedy of the thing: you--and that other guy, both scholars of the rise and fall of the New Deal order--taught me the argument. You say it doesn’t apply to graduate students. I respect your right to take that position. But that choice must have consequences.

Last fall I joked to you than as the the occupant of a chair named after Allan Nevins, who never won a Ph.D., now that you were provost you should revive Columbia’s finest tradition and begin offering professorships to people who also don’t have Ph.D.'s, hint hint. I hereby withdraw my mocking self-invitation--until such a time as Columbia agrees to negotiate with Graduate Student Employees United. If I want corporate values, I’ll stick with the conglomerate that owns the company publishing my book.

Rick Perlstein

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    More Comments:

    Nancy Tann - 5/15/2004

    When I was a grad student, I needed part-time work. Seeing the meager salaries of grad assistants led me in another direction. While I think the folks should be allowed to unionize, they also have a choice in whether to do it or not (hopefully.)
    If profs are going to lean that heavily on them, these people need to be justly compensated.

    Gregory Dehler - 5/8/2004

    The real problem for the graduate teaching assistants in any history program today is not the question of unioninzation, but the fact that there are almost no jobs for them when they do graduate.

    mark safranski - 5/3/2004

    Mr. Perlstein is correct to skewer the hypocrisy of Columbia's liberal professoriate - somehow I doubt they'd take the side of Wal-Mart or Caterpiller in a labor dispute or contest the rights of sweatshop laborers in Maquilodoros or overseas Nike factories to organize.

    But the entire framework of university opposition to grad student unions isn't a free market economics theory but a romantic appeal to medieval guilds with apprentices and journeymen who learn their craft at the feet of the master. It's as ridiculous a claim as the one they make about most of their football and basketball players being " student-athletes" instead of subminimum wage employees of professonal minor league teams.

    If grad students are to carry the teaching load of adjunct and associate professors - a bad idea since they are seldom qualified to teach at the undergraduate level - then they should be paid a professional wage comparable to what the going rate in local secondary public school districts for new, inexperienced, teachers. That plus the costs of benefits and tuition might persuade trustees of the value of expanding tenure track positions for real professors - which is what the parents of undergraduates are paying tuition to receive in the first place.