Would Academic Life Collapse if Grad Students Could Bargain?

Now that the National Labor Relations Board is considering the question of graduate student unionization again, we’re beginning to see people write pieces suggesting that academic life would collapse if graduate students had bargaining rights. If there’s any use to this particular one (by Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard), it’s that it conveniently bundles a few of the bad arguments together.

According to Gartner:

If the NLRB chooses to overturn Brown it would fundamentally change the academic environment at universities. In an amicus brief submitted by a group of nine universities (the remaining seven Ivy League schools, MIT, and Stanford), the schools explain that unionization would force universities and professors to negotiate everything from class size to the content of the syllabus.

This is nonsense. It presupposes that the ‘academic environment’ at universities has hitherto been untouched by bargaining, grievances and disputes between labour and management. As it happens though, professors, among other groups of people to be found on campus, are university employees. Certainly, many of them are doing their jobs because they love them, but they are also doing their jobs because they are being paid for them. If you don’t believe this is true, ask them if they would be willing to do their work for free, and see how far it gets you.

This means that their interests inevitably often clash with the interests of management (or, if you prefer ‘administration’), who might often prefer e.g. that they do more things that are remunerative for the university at lower pay. To be clear, the management may sometimes have a point – but so too do employees. That is why administrators and professors bargain with each other, to reach some kind of mutually acceptable result.

Of course, as with all bargaining relationships, bargaining power matters. This is why some of the bargaining that happens in universities happens one-on-one. Tenured professors in high prestige institutions often have a fair amount of personally specific bargaining power – it is hard to fire them, and, especially if they have outside options, they may prefer to strike individual bargains for self-interested reasons than to bargain collectively. Professors in less well endowed institutions – especially those without tenure and in non-tenure line positions – are more likely to want to bargain collectively, since this enhances their strength vis-a-vis the administration. So too, graduate student instructors would plausibly prefer to bargain together than individually, because their strength will surely be enhanced by so doing.

None of this should be exactly surprising: academic institutions are human institutions, in which people have interests that regularly clash with each other. In other words, they are not (or not only) preserves of disinterested scholarly inquiry, but also riven with disputes over who gets what. It seems odd that an entire class of individuals should by fiat be prevented from exercising their bargaining power.

The universities’ fears are not unreasonable; unionization would subject many academic decisions relating to the terms and conditions of graduate student “employment” to collective bargaining or “effects” bargaining. As the universities’ amicus brief outlines, even a situation as simple as a professor changing the grading structure of an exam could become the subject of a grievance or negotiation.

Something that may come as startling news to Mr. Gartner – issues such as class size, grading structures and so on are currently subject to bargaining between professors and the university administration, either informally or formally. These issues are covered by collective bargaining in many universities. Perhaps even more shocking to his delicate sensibilities – professors can sometimes be ever so slightly self-interested in how they bargain over these questions. So far, the academic and teaching missions of institutions with collective bargaining do not appear to have collapsed.

It may also not be apparent to Gartner that a “situation as simple” as a professor changing the grading structure of an exam might impose a lot of extra work on the teaching or grading assistants who actually have to administer or grade the exam. They might, strange as it seems, have an interest at stake.

The proponents of unionizing graduate students often point to certain studies and NYU’s voluntary recognition of a union, as proof that unionization actually improves the academic experience. However, this argument fails to acknowledge the disastrous protracted negotiations at NYU, in which the graduate students threatened to go on strike and disrupt the entire university.

The horror! People threatening to go on strike and disrupt the entire university! Yet again, it’s almost as if they might have interests to defend or something! In contrast to professors, who of course would never threaten to go on strike for fear that the academic mission might be temporarily compromised.

Not only would the introduction of collective bargaining disrupt the academic freedom of professors and universities, it would also negatively impact the university’s educational relationship with graduate students. In Brown, the Board noted that the adversarial nature of collective bargaining would drive a wedge between graduate students and their teachers.

“[W]hile teachers and students have a mutual interest in the advancement of the student’s education, in an employment relationship such mutuality of goals ‘rarely exists.’”

Essentially, introducing collective bargaining to the university setting would force educators to negotiate academic decisions with unions and follow a rigid contract, rather than create individualized educational experiences for students. As stated in a brief for the Employment Law Alliance’s Higher Education Council, “not only are such decisions inappropriate in the collective bargaining context, the very nature of such an adversarial, economic relationship could undermine the fundamentally academic nature of the relationship between faculty and their graduate students.” Thus, it would be contrary to Board precedent to place the economic relationship between graduate students and universities ahead of the educational relationship.

This is bunk and folderol. I spent two years teaching in the University of Toronto, where graduate students were unionized. I didn’t see one whit of difference between the mentoring relationship between professors and their Ph.D students there, and the relationship in my current institution. Like many relationships, the professor-graduate student relationship involves some interests in common and some interests that clash. When it works, it’s just fantastic for both parties, but it doesn’t involve some sort of numinous and mystical sacred and spiritual bond that would be disrupted by external bargaining institutions. To claim that it does is sheer ideology.

The blunt fact of the matter is that universities rely extensively on teaching assistants to help run large classes. These TAs benefit to some degree from teaching – but no more than do ordinary employees, who learn some of their skills on the job. They also have needs and interests, which universities and indeed individual professors may sometimes be loathe to recognize, because recognizing them might be costly or inconvenient.

When I was at U of T, collective bargaining with graduate students was sometimes a pain in the ass for professors and for the administration. That’s in the nature of things. The administration is sometimes a pain in the ass for professors and for graduate students. Professors are sometimes a pain in the ass for graduate students and for the administration. Different people have different collective and individual interests, and these interests sometimes clash with each other. That’s why people deserve the means to express their interests and negotiate on their basis. The frequently repeated suggestion that the university is somehow so ineffable an institution, and the teaching assistant-professor bond so rarified that neither could possibly withstand graduate student collective bargaining rights is wrong, and obviously so, to anyone who has worked within a university, where intellectual inquiry and economic self-interest are commonly, indeed typically entangled. In fairness, Gartner very obviously may not have worked in a university, and so can’t be fully held to blame for his ignorance if so. However, similar arguments are advanced frequently and consistently by people who should (and sometimes, I suspect, do) know better.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

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