Donald Trump has become an utterly polarizing figure in American society, forcing people and institutions throughout the country to answer an old question: “Which Side Are You On?” Will they resist or collaborate? Will they reject his agenda wholesale or legitimize the illiberalism of his policies, make their peace with his authoritarian statecraft, perhaps even try to win some advantage from his retrograde politics and those he appoints?
Encouragingly, many have stiffened their backbones and shouted no to the Trump agenda. The California legislature is on the verge of declaring the state a “sanctuary” in defense of its immigrant population; support for Planned Parenthood has become a rallying cry for those defending abortion rights and health care for the poor; and in Congress no Democrats supported last month’s Republican effort to gut Obamacare, even as support, in Congress and across the country, grew for single-payer, universal health care. At Disney and Uber, high-level executives revolted when their CEOs joined a Trump business advisory group, forcing their resignation.
Nowhere has this rejection of Trump’ extremism been more steadfast than on the university campus, especially at those elite, historically liberal institutions populating the coasts. At the University of California, where I teach, President Janet Napolitano has made clear that UC will protect undocumented students; Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are among seventeen schools joining a lawsuit against the Trump administration effort to ban immigration from Muslim countries. And in a joint opinion piece published in the Boston Globe, law school deans from Harvard and Yale declared the president “an enemy of the law and the Constitution” for his Twitter attacks on the judiciary.
Unfortunately, top university officials at Columbia and Yale have chosen to crack this wall of resistance. They have found in Trump an ally in their longstanding efforts to resist graduate employees’ efforts to unionize. They are ready, in other words, to collaborate—a word I do not use lightly. From their presidents on down, university labor-relations officials are hoping that Trump and the people he will soon appoint to the National Labor Relations Board will weigh in on management’s side and against those who are exercising their democratic right to organize and bargain with the school.
In December and February, graduate employees at Columbia and Yale, respectively, voted to unionize. These workers, some of the most precarious on the university campus, had been enfranchised by an August 2016 ruling of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—a ruling delayed some years by Republican filibusters of Barack Obama’s appointees, but finally issued in the last leg of his presidency. In response, the two university administrations have only dug in their heels, throwing up every procedural hurdle they can find to impede the democratic will of their workers.
Let’s take a closer look at Yale, where I happen to have a lot of friends. There, graduate teachers voted to unionize in eight of nine department-level NLRB elections held in February. Two months later, the university administration has not agreed to negotiate, referring to two of the department-level votes as “too close to call” and using them as a pretext to stall on the rest. (On average, the union won by a margin of more than three to one.) Instead, Yale intends to contest the 2016 NLRB ruling allowing the election to happen at all, and has engaged in obvious delay tactics to lengthen legal proceedings as much as possible—the oldest trick in the employer’s book. By filing motion on top of motion with the NLRB, Yale runs out the clock until Obama appointees are replaced by Trump appointees. This way, the university gets to say that it “respects the process” and look like a good-faith actor while it is busy sabotaging the workers’ chance to exercise their rights.
This kind of maneuvering doesn’t come cheap. Yale is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Proskauer Rose, which a law-firm rating service has called the “800-pound gorilla of labor relations.” One of Proskauer’s key attorneys, Zachary Fasman, who specializes in fighting unionization at universities and other public institutions, is reportedly under consideration as a Trump nominee for one of the currently vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board. But Yale executives have no reason to worry should he not make it. All the other potential appointees will be just as committed to distorting the law against academic workers and in favor of university administrators.
Such a gambit would not seem out of place at, say, Wal-Mart—in fact, I wrote a whole book on how the retail chain does just this kind of thing. It is remarkable at a place like Yale. In the 2016 election, Yale employees gave $448,723 to Hillary Clinton and only $3,580 to Donald Trump. The university’s deputy provost recently urged Yale community members to join the April 22 March for Science. It is a quintessential bastion, in other words, of elite liberalism.
Decades ago, people like today’s Yale administrators would likely have felt some sense of duty to deal with the union. While university administrators might have found it inconvenient to respond to organizing, they also would have understood it as an obligation of the broader beliefs they espoused about how society should work. They couldn’t support New Deal liberalism for away games while opposing it at home.
Today, with the New Deal order receding into the history books, the university feels no such obligation. It has gone to the opposite extreme, dealing in bad faith and ultimately enrolling itself in the agenda of the Trump administration. If Yale gets its way, Trump appointees will again disenfranchise its workers and the university will be free to dispose of the union however it likes.
In addition to being hypocritical, this is a profoundly shortsighted move on Yale’s part. Academia, like the rest of American society, is undergoing intense economic stratification—a process that is the source of the graduate union movement in the first place. When elite liberals like Yale administrators join the attack on organized labor, they aggravate the conditions that brought us a Trump presidency.
Without a strong union movement, social inequality is bound to grow and illiberal ideas to flourish. All those Midwestern blue-collar workers who voted for Trump? When they were still organized into strong trade unions they voted for liberals, not because union bosses told them to, but because the lived experience of trade union life, with its periodic collective struggles, taught these men and women that a democratic and inclusive social politics was possible and necessary.
Indeed, it would not be possible to imagine Trump’s ascent without the collapse of unions. Labor’s decline has both loosened the ties between blue-collar voters and the Democratic Party and, what’s worse, cleared the way for unequal social policy at the national level. Inequality has eroded trust in the political system. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, and simple political abstention have occupied the space vacated by the Democrats. This is the basic formula for a President Trump.
On many university campuses, we already feel the sting of this new atmosphere. It is therefore hard to imagine what would be in the better long-term interest of American universities than a revitalized labor movement. Today, the new frontier for unionism puts the kind of jobs generated by the university front and center. On the one hand there are all those low-wage service and care-work occupations, including staff in hospitals, research institutes, administration, cafeterias, and child care centers. And on the other, are those in the professions and in technical employment: teaching and research assistants, contingent faculty, and librarians at places like Yale, as well as all those employed in Silicon Valley and its offshoots, plus the newly proletarianized in professions such as law, medicine, media, and finance.
At Yale and Columbia, and indeed across our country, nonprofit and progressive employers must choose. They can abandon the values on which their institutions are built and throw in with Trump, reaping the whirlwind that will result from the accelerating cycle of inequality and political reaction. Or they can swallow their pride and begin doing the work of rebuilding a more democratic, equal society. This work has to start somewhere—where better than at our universities?
Nelson Lichtenstein is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.