Unions: The Jedi Master Fallacy

As a follow-up to my last post, and the comments thread thereon, I thought it would be useful to provide a kind of summary of the various arguments that otherwise-leftwing-academics come up to in order to argue against graduate student unionization. Obviously, the hostility of right wing academics to unionization is easier to explain.

(1) The Jedi Master Fallacy. My very strong impression, which will no doubt be vigorously contested, is that most arguments against TA/RA unionization stem less from a coherent set of arguments, than a semi-inchoate sense that giving organizing rights to Jedi Apprentices will lead to a Great Disturbance in the Force. The obvious rejoinder to this is that professors are not Jedi Masters, and that there is nothing inherent to the balance of the universe that is likely to change if grad students have the right to organize. The obvious counter-rejoinder to this is no, no! we have lots of truly excellent reasons, look see! Dealing with these truly excellent reasons, in no particular order …

(2) The True Life of the Mind. Academics are devoted to the true pursuit of knowledge, and gain immaterial benefits therefrom. This may be disturbed by the intrusion of grubby material considerations such as ‘money’ and ‘working conditions’ into relationships that should surely be subordinated to purely intellectual concerns. There surely is something to the claim that academics, including TAs and RAs, get some benefits from pursuing knowledge – that is why many, perhaps most, of us are in it. But, for most of us well established professors, it is rather easier to pursue this life since we are doing so from a position of relative comfort and stability. Few professors e.g. would be willing to endure genuine material privations to pursue knowledge for its own sake (there are a few virtuosos and saints no doubt, but hardly enough to make the system work). And the numbers of professors who care more about salary raises and parking spaces than disinterested intellectual inquiry is rather higher than one might like. In short – I don’t think that professors can reasonably demand ideals from TAs/RAs that they themselves would have great trouble living up to.

(3) The Laboratory Leviathan. Here, the presumed claim is that the kinds of intense collaborative environments that characterize e.g. research labs require good working relationships if they are to work. This is best provided by allowing the principal investigator effective carte blanche – so that when someone pisses the PA off, they need to leave, if necessary with forcible encouragement, lest they poison this precious relationship. This set of claims is recognizably a version of Hobbes’ argument for absolutist rule in Leviathan. And it is subject to all the problems thereof. Most simply, it ends up being a pretty nice deal for the absolutist ruler, but not so much for his or her subjects (there is some incentive for the ruler to look to the interests of the ruled, but not very much). More generally, the literature on trust and collaboration, as I read it (I am a participant in these debates, and hence not disinterested) would seem to me to suggest that collaboration works better in a system where hierarchical subordinates do not live in fear of being canned summarily if they do something to annoy the boss. Protections against this certainly may be a nuisance for the boss, but the argument that they are likely to undermine collaboration seems to me a weak one.

(4) We Are Obliged to Screw You by the Forces of Ruthless Competition. A variant of (3) which emphasizes the competitive nature of the research environment, scrabbling for grants etc, and how this limits the choices available to PAs, forcing them to require 80 hour workweeks and such. You can make this argument – but if you want to make it, it is equally, if not more true for companies in the private sector, which typically face even harsher competitive pressures. If you seriously think that this is a viable claim, you have to either come up with an account of how research labs face even tougher competition than small private sector firms, or line up with the US Chamber of Commerce hacks. Which will then oblige you to come up with a compelling account of how respecting workers’ rights invariably hurts quality etc, which (in my, again doubtless subjective opinion), is a quite tall order, especially given that lots of labs (just like lots of firms) seem to thrive quite nicely in countries where they are obliged to recognize rights.

(5) Cos We Are Too Jedi Masters! Or, at Least, We Are Masters with Apprentices, Who Should Be Humble So That They Can Learn from Our Tutelage By Working. This is, to be blunt, an ideological confection. The idea that guilds used to do right by their apprentices in the good old days is, as best as I can tell from a reading of the history, fiction. Abuses of apprentices, and indeed journeymen were rife in history. The nub of truth in this argument is that students can learn by doing, and later put those skills to good use. But workers learn by doing in pretty well any workplace you can mention. Again – it seems to me to be hard to make a good argument that academic labs are somehow unique in this respect.

(6) Will No-One Think of the Students? Usually applied to TAs rather than RAs, and used to suggest that the victims of graduate student organization efforts will be the unfortunate students taking courses. Seen in its most fully-fledged form in the last outbreak of this debate on CT, where David Velleman proposed that the appropriate solution was to terminate all the brutes. Again, rather difficult for any leftist to maintain without giving up on organizing rights wholesale, since labor action in any sector usually ends up inconveniencing customers/clients/end users.

I imagine that some commenters will disagree with these characterizations of the relevant arguments, or come up with new ones. But I can’t for the life of me see how one could be generally on the left and in favor of organizing rights, without extending that set of principles to the academy. The justifications that I’ve seen for drawing distinctions, arguing that the academy is Truly Special are pretty remarkably underwhelming, and seem to me to be a variety of forms of special pleading on behalf of a case that isn’t actually that special. This isn’t necessarily to doubt the sincerity of those doing the pleading – it’s easy to believe in the worth of social arrangements that you are used to and that (perhaps in some cases) benefit you – but belief on its own does not make people’s arguments good or convincing.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.