Liberalism and the Columbia Strike

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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

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More Comments:

Robert Cruickshank - 7/19/2004

I intended to note that graduate student unions at both UC and UW are UAW-affiliated.

Robert Cruickshank - 4/26/2004

Alan Brinkley's comments on UAW experience within the academic world are interesting. First, he claims the UAW has no experience in academia, aside from NYU and from representing some clerical workers. But in the response to the next question he qualifies that by noting NYU is "the only private university in the United States that has a union that I know of". For some reason the experiences of the UC system and the University of Washington (the institution I am affiliated with as a graduate student) do not count in Brinkley's estimation. Is the difference between public and private schools so large that the experiences of two major West Coast institutions can simply be ignored?

Jesse Lemisch - 4/25/2004

I think Jonathan Dresner is prccisely correct in his intelligent critique of the limited argument in the Lichtenstein/Freeman letter to Bollinger. Having said that, I think it is the best vehicle available for those at institutions with TA unions. After signing the L/F letter (or not signing if at non-unionized universities), supporters of recognition of GSEU at Columbia might consider writing directly to Provost Alan Brinkley(ab65@columbia.edu) and/or President Lee Bollinger (Bollinger@columbia.edu), cc to me (utopia1@attglobal.net), with permission to send on the union and to publicize.

Jesse Lemisch

Jonathan Dresner - 4/24/2004

That's what they say they want: people who can speak from experience that "unionization in no way impedes or diminishes the quality of the teaching and scholarship that takes place at any level of instruction or research."

What I don't understand is why this limited argument is the best to be made. Instead, why not argue that a unionized graduate teaching body would be a draw for the best students, who want the camaraderie, security and respect that collective bargaining brings. Why not argue that graduate students, like tenure/tenure-track faculty with their senate (or union, for some of us), like administrators with their little boardroom meetings, like undergraduates with their student government, that graduate students deserve to choose the institutions that best represent them and their unique interests in the academy.

It seems like such a petty argument, but then, it's a petty objection that's being raised.

Jesse Lemisch - 4/24/2004

Dear Friends:

As many of you may know, the graduate teaching assistants at Columbia
University have been on strike since April 18. They are demanding that
Columbia drop its appeal of an NLRB-recognition election held two years
ago. While the appeal awaits resolution, the ballots remain uncounted and
the union unrecognized. We are asking faculty members who work at
universities that engage in collective bargaining with graduate teaching
assistants to join us in appealing to the President of Columbia University
to allow the ballots to be counted and to abide by the results. We want to
emphasize to the University that we know from our own experience that
collective bargaining with graduate student teachers does not harm higher
education institutions.

If you would like to sign this letter, please send an e-mail, as soon as
possible, to jbfjbf@aol.com, with your name, title, department, and
University. This particular letter is meant for those at universities that
have recognized graduate student unions, so please respond only if you fit
into that category. I am sure our support will mean a great deal to the
striking students and perhaps help nudge Columbia to recognize the labor
rights of its graduate students.


Joshua B. Freeman, Professor of History, Queens College and the City
University of New York
Nelson Lichtenstein, Professor of History, University of California at
Santa Barbara

Lee Bollinger
Columbia University

Dear President Bollinger:

We appeal to you to end the current conflict between Columbia University
and its teaching assistants union. We urge Columbia to withdraw its appeal
of the two-year old National Labor Relations Board supervised recognition
election in which the graduate students participated, allow the votes to be
counted, and abide by the results. We all teach at universities where
graduate students engaged in instructional activity belong to recognized
collective bargaining organizations. We have found that such unionization
in no way impedes or diminishes the quality of the teaching and scholarship
that takes place at any level of instruction or research. Collective
bargaining with graduate student teacher unions is not uncharted territory;
it currently takes place at some two-dozen major universities in the United
States (and a similar number in Canada). In some cases, it has been taking
place for decades.

For three-quarters of a century, federal and New York State labor laws have
recognized that workers themselves must decide whether or not they want to
engage in collective bargaining without interference by, or reprisals from,
employers. Whether unionism serves the best interests of graduate student
instructors is an issue that they themselves should be allowed to decide.
If they have chosen collective bargaining, we can assure you, from our
personal experience, that Columbia still will be able to carry out
effectively its many functions and serve its constituencies well.
Unionism is not a threat to higher education. Denying graduate students
fair treatment and basic rights can only diminish our community.

Sincerely yours,

Joshua B. Freeman, Professor of History, Queens College and the City
University of New York
Nelson Lichtenstein, Professor of History, University of California at
Santa Barbara

cc: UAW Local at Columbia University

Michael Green - 4/23/2004

Is the author of the first comment the same David Horowitz who thinks all professors who disagree with him are communists? If so, doesn't he know that workers of the world are supposed to unite?

Jonathan Dresner - 4/23/2004

And graduate students have none of the protections you cite.

Van L. Hayhow - 4/23/2004

There is nothing that prevents professionals from unionizing.

david horowitz - 4/23/2004

If professors want to join the working class, they should give up (or be made to give up) the privileges and protections -- e.g., tenure -- that were originally demanded and eventually given to them on the grounds that they are professionals.