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Liberalism and the Columbia Strike

This week graduate students at Columbia staged a strike to protest the university's refusal to negotiate with GSEU (Graduate Student Employees United). An election was held two years ago to decide whether to join the union. Columbia immediately referred the matter to the National Labor Relations Board before the votes were counted. Historian Alan Brinkley, now provost, has been the public face of the university during the strike (President Lee Bollinger has been on a trip to Asia).

This page includes statements by Alan Brinkley, Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, and David Montgomery.

Alan Brinkley (Interview with the Columbia Spectator, April 21, 2004)

Ady Barkan:If we ignore the legal question about whether graduate students are workers or students, because clearly there's disagreement within the legal community on that, why should the Administration oppose the unionization? If graduate students want representation, what harm does it do the University if graduate students have a union?

Alan Brinkley: All I can do is tell you the official University position, which is that the relationship between [professors] and teaching assistants is a complex, intellectual, educational, collegial, and also work-based relationship. And the position of the University, from the beginning of this issue three years ago, has been that the presences of a union mediating this relationship--the union in this case the UAW which has no previous experience, until NYU, within the academic world other than representing clerical workers--would somehow corrupt this relationship.

Ady Barkan: But how do we reconcile that with the evidence that, for example, four years ago The Chronicle of Higher Ed[ucation] cited that ninety percent of faculty members at unionized schools saying it didn't inhibit their relationship, and at NYU there having been no tension, or at least none that's come to the surface. I understand that that's the Administration line, but what evidence do we have for that?

Alan Brinkley: Well we don't have very good evidence one way or the other, I think. And probably the most relevant evidence is NYU, because that's, first of all, the only private university in the United States that has a union that I know of, and it too has a UAW union. And I have mixed reports about NYU. I can't characterize--I'm trying to find out more--how the union has done at NYU or how the faculty feels about it. I do concede that there are many unionized campuses, mostly state universities, in which things seem to have gone well.

Ady Barkan:. A year ago in class I asked you, perhaps unfairly, for your opinion on student unionization, and you said you wouldn't oppose a graduate student union. And I'm curious whether your experience as a champion of liberalism, (or not, perhaps this is a separate issue)...I mean, is your personal position at odds with that of the Administration?

Alan Brinkley: Well, I can't answer that. I'm a great supporter of unionization. I think that the decline in unions is one of the great catastrophes of our recent economic life. I think there are many areas in economic life in which unions can play a constructive role, do play a constructive role, play an invaluable role. On this campus, we have lots of unions--we don't have unions for students. I don't know what else to say.

Jesse Lemisch (Speech read at a rally of students picketing Columbia on April 21, 2004)

Columbia's conduct is so low-down, sleazy, hypocritical. I have two points to make: first, about how grotesque it is that Columbia has a high-priced law firm that specializes in union-busting; second: I want to talk about liberals in the Columbia administration who, on their own turf, forget their liberalism .

First point: Columbia's lawyers against the union in 2002 and, I'm told, still today are Proskauer Rose. Proskauer boasts on their website:

Proskauer's 160-plus Labor and Employment lawyers provide unmatched breadth of expertise capable of addressing the most complex and challenging labor and employment issues faced by employers.

Get that: 160 lawyers are after your TA's.

Proskauer goes on to boast that their "160 lawyers are based in New York, Boca Raton, Newark, Los Angeles, Washington and Paris," and that they deal in such areas as: "collective bargaining"; "reductions-in-force and other corporate restructurings"; "employee discipline and discharge"; "delicate employment situations, such as allegations of sexual harassment...."

It wouldn't be surprising if Proskauer charged 400-600 dollars per hour. This seems to me an egregiously immoral use of your tuition money. I hope that you will demand that Columbia act more like a university and less like a corporation, and sever this sleazy connection.

Second point, about liberalism here: Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley are known as liberals -- but certainly not when it comes to GSEU. This kind of disconnect often happens in universities, and it's worth your thinking about as you read your way through your courses: What does it mean when abstract doctrines are ignored at home? Bollinger and Brinkley are liberals until they find themselves challenged on their own turf.

Another example: In 1968, after Columbia called in the police to bloody the heads of so many Columbia students, Richard Hofstadter, perhaps the leading liberal historian of his day, spoke against the students in a classic case of blaming the victim. That year, while honorable people were attending a counter-commencement, Hofstadter spoke, at Grayson Kirk's shambles of an official commencement, about the threat to liberalism that he saw as coming from the bloodied students -- get that, not from the cops, not from Kirk, but from the students. If Bollinger and Brinkley are liberals, then let them act like liberals -- unless liberalism means hypocrisy.

Maybe liberalism does mean hypocrisy: when Columbia appealed the 2002 union election here to Bush's National Labor Relations Board, they knew quite well that the NLRB would impound the ballots, and two years later the ballots would still be locked up. Is this democracy? It sound like Florida to me. Columbia is in symbiosis with the retrograde labor policies of the Bush administration. Is this liberalism?

In conclusion: I know the people in GSEU, particularly those in my field, history. They are some of the best young people around: bright, devoted to their teaching and doing spectacular work under difficult conditions. I agree with the chant on the picket line: Columbia's stalling is appalling, and it must stop: let's stop it!

Staughton Lynd (Message he asked Jesse Lemisch to read to protesting students on the picket line)

As May Day approaches, I express my solidarity with striking graduate students at Columbia University. My father Robert S. Lynd was a professor of sociology at Columbia for approximately thirty years. I was briefly an undergraduate at Columbia, and then in 1959-61 studied there and received Master's and Doctor's degrees in American History.

Columbia has a checkered record in dealing with dissent. The great American historian Charles Beard was forced out of his position at Columbia during World War I because of his opposition to the war. During the occupation of Columbia buildings in the late 1960s, faculty and administration failed to condemn the savage use of police in quelling the rebellion.

It is especially unfortunate that Columbia faculty -- including distinguished historians -- have failed to join you on the picket line. Yours is hardly a violent disruption; on the contrary, you seek to uphold and enforce rulings of the National Labor Relations Board to the effect that under federal labor law graduate students are 'employees,' with a consequent right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection -- like picketing -- and to form and join unions. I applaud my longtime friend and colleague Jesse Lemisch for picketing with you. Were I in New York City I would be at his side.

David Montgomery (Letter to Alan Brinkley, April 20, 2004)

Dear Alan:

It is high time for the administration at Columbia to obey the law of the land and sit down to negotiate with the union formed by its teaching assistants and research assistants. Two years ago a clear majority of graduate students made their choice for a union in an NLRB election.

They followed the procedure created by the New Deal in its finest hour to determine a bargaining agent chosen by employees with which the employer is legally obliged to negotiate terms of employment. Columbia's administration has taken refuge behind the myth that those who teach sections and carry out research for the university are not employees and counted on a federal government determined to do all it can to create a "union free America" to let Columbia, and the Bush administration, evade the intent and the letter of the law. By forcing the graduate employees to strike for recognition, you have done precisely what Senator Wagner sought to avoid: resorted to the law of the jungle. Columbia today can be a better citizen than this.

David Montgomery
Farnam Professor of History Emeritus Yale University