Blogs > Cliopatria > On the Columbia Strike

May 2, 2004 7:07 pm

On the Columbia Strike

The major academic news from New York the last few weeks has been the decision of Columbia’s graduate students to go on strike, around three weeks before the end of classes. I’m skeptical of academic unions in general: I’ve taught at two non-unionized institutions (Arizona State and Williams) and one unionized school (Brooklyn); the pay, benefits, and working conditions were far superior at the non-unionized institutions. (Admittedly, the leadership of the CUNY union, which also includes adjuncts and staff members, spends much more time on either political activism or issues relating to adjuncts than the economic needs of the full-time staff, so perhaps the CUNY experience is atypical; any type of merit pay, for instance, is forbidden by our contract.)

It’s always seemed to me that the situation of professors is more comparable to that of doctors or lawyers than to auto workers or service employees. Flexibility and merit are the hallmarks, in the ideal anyway, of the academy. Also, we have a direct, personal relationship with and obligation to our students, as doctors do to their patients or lawyers do to their clients. Just as it would be unethical for a doctor to go out on strike the day before a patient’s operation or a lawyer to go out on strike a day before a client’s case opened, so too would it be unethical for a professor to go out on strike in the middle of a term.

That the Columbia graduate students decided to strike shortly before finals is only one reason why I find their actions so unpalatable. The graduate-student unionization movement as a whole seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of graduate student teaching, which is far more comparable to being a medical intern than to being an auto worker. Graduate students who serve as teaching fellows are not hired because they are the most qualified employees for their positions: in some cases, especially for those who have not previously taught, they are not qualified at all. They are hired because, as part of their education, they need training in teaching, so they can eventually get a full-time teaching position—even candidates with wonderful dissertations will have a hard time getting tenure-track jobs with no teaching experience. A mutually beneficial relationship exists between the universities, which can staff courses for less pay than a full-time instructor would demand, and the graduate students, who can obtain the experience necessary for them to earn a full-time position.

If Columbia wanted to be vindictive in this instance, it would launch a fundraising campaign to increase the number of full-time faculty with the sole purpose of eliminating the need for any graduate teaching at all. Of course, this approach would harm the school’s graduate program, and would be impractical. But another alternative does exist: an anti-unionization movement has sprung up among graduate students, Graduate Students Against Unionization, whose members have had the courage to put the university’s students' welfare ahead of their own short-term needs. To the extent possible, the university should work with the leaders of the GSAU, since, if nothing else, one thing is clear: the graduate students who abandoned their students midway through the term have lost the moral high ground in this debate.

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David Lion Salmanson - 5/4/2004

Just to clarify, the contract stipulated that each department had to provide teacher training to new GSIs. This training could take many forms including workshops in which participants were paid for their time, but most departments opted for a one-credit course because it was the cheapest option.

David Lion Salmanson - 5/4/2004

Either there is an implied contract in graduate education or there is not. If there is, graduate shcools are not keeping up their end of the bargain. What other recourse do graduate students have to enforce this implied contract?

The right of free association is an important part of academic freedom. If students freely choose to join a union, why is this wrong? If they freely elect to have a union (as they apprently did) isn't it mere parternalism to tell them that they do not know their own best interests? In most cases we are talking about people in their late 20s and older, some with families and kids. These are people who understand their own self-interest well and are seeking to protect it through rational action. Why is this wrong?

Robert KC Johnson - 5/4/2004

Joining a union constitutes a protected act under academic freedom? That seems a bit of a stretch. I agree Columbia is playing hard ball--and for good reason--but they are acting within the letter of the law.

The point you raise about a Michigan grad students union forcing curricular changes reinforces my fears--these are decisions that should be academic ones, not part of a union-management relationship.

David Lion Salmanson - 5/3/2004

It is precisely the lousy state of the tenure-track job market that makes graduate students want unions. Back when one had a reasonable shot at getting a tenure track job, the sacrifices of graduate school were less of a problem and your comparison with medical education more valid. However, in today's job market, the bargain between universities and graduate students have broken down and graduate students are used as cheap labor with little or no prospect of future employment. Graduate students have become little more than a cheap labor pool.

I would be willing to buy the rhetoric about apprenticeship in regards to teaching that is not the model in place in most graduate schools today. At Michigan, for example, TAs are now called Graduate Student Instructors because they teach unsupervised. If Universities actually were involved in teaching people how to teach, your rhetoric of apprenticeship would make sense. But for the most part, folks are just put into the classroom.

Singificantly, at the unionized University of Michigan, it is the graduate students and the union that have forced departments to add courses (usually one credit) on teaching so that graduate students have some idea of what they are doing. The departments and university had no interest in supporting teacher training unless forced by the union. Even when TAing supervision usually consisted of one classroom visit (maybe) and a weekly meeting usually of about 20 minutes to discuss the content of that week's lectures. No lesson planning, no tips on how to run a classroom, no actual mentoring of teaching. (One professor's some total of teaching advice in a semester: "Don't sit on the desks".)

At Michigan, we had health insurance, which forced the Ivy's to follow suit, and made a wage that while hardly lavish, meant that one did not have to go into debt when teaching. When a fellow GSI got sick in the second week of the term and I picked up her sections I got paid for that extra work.

Graduate students should get paid for work they perform. Having a union guarantees that right. The fact that undergraduates are currently caught in the squeeze is unfortunate. Enough time has passed since the election that the strike is clearly a last resort. If Columbia cares as much about undergraduate education as you think they do, they will settle with the union shortly. It is the administration that holds the cards here. Remember this is not a strike over wages but a recognition strike. Freedom of association is part of academic freedom. This is a strike to defend academic freedom.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/3/2004

My point on a strike to protect academic freedom (and, it would seem to me, such a denial would have to be extraordinary) was that, in such a case, the extreme denial of academic freedom would already have destroyed the institution's education. That's not the case with wages.

Everyone who enters the academy knows going in that we're not going to be millionaires. If we want the right to teach students, then it comes with some responsibilities.

Agree with you entirely on the lousy state of the current tenure-track job market.

Ed Schmitt - 5/3/2004

On your last point you suggest that the denial of academic freedom is more morally offensive than the denial of fair wages, and you suggest that such a strike based on the latter would hurt students. While there is ample room for debate on which would be the greater injustice, surely a strike based on the former would hurt students as much as on the latter, wouldn't it? I think you may be right that conditions for graduate students have not changed as dramatically as the situation for adjuncts, but what makes the whole situation more of a pressure cooker than ever for both groups is the continuing lousy state of the tenure-track job market.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/2/2004

OK, but if our primary role is not teaching (and scholarship), then what is it?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

This presumes that our primary role is teaching and that our primary relationship is with our students. You may be right about this as an ethical ideal, but I am not sure about this as a practical matter. The existence of administrative apparatus over us, rather than an umediated connection, suggests to me that the analogy is just not strong enough to come to such a unilateral conclusion.

Jonathan Rees - 5/2/2004


You write:

"I’ve taught at two non-unionized institutions (Arizona State and Williams) and one unionized school (Brooklyn); the pay, benefits, and working conditions were far superior at the non-unionized institutions."

I think this has a lot more to do with the financial state of the City of New York and the economic status of your students than it does the effectiveness of your union.

Jonathan Rees

Robert KC Johnson - 5/2/2004

I'd disagree here--I don't think there's much evidence that the working conditions of grad students have deteriorated noticeably in the last 20 years or so. (There seems to me an enormous difference between grad students and adjuncts in this regard.) In some ways, the reverse is true: the History Department, which I know best, instituted a major financial aid reform package around seven years ago that guarantees all PhD students stipends for a four-year period, and admits only students that it can finance. It made this change, of course, not out of the goodness of its heart, but to be competitive and attract the highest quality graduate students to the program.

The Columbia grad students--and comparably organized groups, like Yale or NYU--offer an inherently contradictory position. They want more money--but they still want to be guaranteed their fellowships, which are awarded for academic reasons. There are lots of adjuncts in New York City: if Columbia treated its teaching fellow positions as market-oriented rather than as fellowship awards, most of these positions should go to adjuncts with PhDs--since their qualifications, on paper, are superior to those of early grad students. Then, of course, we'd have rallies that the university was mistreating its grad students.

Finally, there is to me a moral issue here. While I can imagine issues in the academy that would justify a faculty strike during the term (such as administration attempts to deny academic freedom by dictating classroom content, etc., that would directly affect the quality of education), I cannot envision ever thinking that an academic strike over wages would be justified, because of the direct harm such a strike would cause to students.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/2/2004

KC, I think all of us would, instinctively, much prefer to think of ourselves as professional people and much prefer to avoid unionization, much less a strike. The fact is, however, that working conditions, particularly at the bottom end of the profession, have deteriorated fairly dramatically. The question, then, is what to do about that. I simply don't see much, if any, evidence that administrators or the influential tenure, have any inclination to swim against the tide of that deterioration at the low end. In fact, contributing to it appears likely to them to position the institution more competatively in the marketplace for students. That is a terribly short-sighted judgment, but there seems to be little awareness of how short-sighted it really is. Given all of that, and the fact that it is foolish to avoid applying pressure where the pressure points are, somehow your arguments against the graduate instructors' striking near the end of the academic year seem misplaced.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/2/2004

I would agree that the legal and medical professions are also changing. To me, however, one central aspect of any union is the right to strike. Just as I cannot imagine lawyers and doctors reconciling a strike with the ethical obligations of their profession, so too can I not imagine professors doing so.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

The comparison to doctors and lawyers is interesting, but doesn't necessarily help your case as much as you think. The changing organization of medical corporations, increasing medical specialization and changing health insurance organizations is eroding the personal connection between doctor and patient considerably. The Bush administration push for centralized, computerized medical records is part of that process.

Lawyers, as well, have seen changes in their profession because of Do-It-Yourself legal packages, the internet, and the rise of large-scale referral networks. The changes are slower than in medicine, and less sensitive to most people, but they are real.

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