This spring, graduate students at New York University made history when they won recognition for the first graduate student union at a private university. To accomplish this feat, students had to overcome the political and legal opposition of virtually every elite school in the country. In a series of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, arguments opposing the union were voiced not only by NYU’s own administration but by those of Yale, Princeton, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Boston University, the American Association of Universities, the American Council on Education, and the Council on Graduate Schools. In a series of landmark rulings, the Labor Board rejected the arguments of these scions of higher education and opened the door to a new wave of organizing on the nation’s campuses.
The fact that the entire organizational leadership of elite higher education mobilized against the NYU union indicates what was at stake in this fight. In fact, though, the NYU decision was only one of several recent decisions that have marked a sea change in academic labor relations. In the past two years, officials in California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have issued rulings similar to that in the NYU case, invalidating the claims made by administrators for the past two decades. These rulings have helped to spur an unprecedented boom in graduate student organizing. Within three months of the NYU union’s winning recognition, unions were voted in by lopsided margins at both Temple University and Michigan State University, a majority of graduate students at Columbia and Brown petitioned the NLRB for an election, and new organizing drives were announced at Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania. These activities come on the heels of what is already a fast-growing movement. Since 1995, the number of graduate student unions in the country has grown from ten to twenty-seven, and an estimated 20 percent of all graduate employees are now covered by union contracts—a level comparable to the most highly organized states in the country and 50 percent above the national norm.
The Economic Function of Graduate Students in the Corporate University
Although the legal decisions have been important, the recent boom in organizing activity is primarily a reaction to dynamics within the university itself. The traditional ideal of college education pictures a setting that is specifically outside the rat race—an opportunity to explore ideas, make friendships, and develop a sense of one’s self in ways that are not possible amid the dog-eat-dog pressures of commercial life. However, for the past thirty years, universities have moved progressively away from this community-of-scholars model, fashioning themselves instead in the image of private corporations. Rather than pursuing the romantic vision of the classroom as an encounter between seasoned scholars and ...
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