Labor Costs and the Life of the Mind

On August 23, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that graduate student workers at private universities may unionize and bargain collectively. The ruling ended a twenty-month wait for Columbia graduate students, who had petitioned the NLRB in late 2014; it comes a year after NYU became the only private university in the country with a graduate union contract, when its administration decided to bargain of its own accord rather than waiting on federal say-so. Unionization drives have since quickened across the nation as student workers intensify their efforts—Yale grad students have been attempting to organize since 1990—or begin them in earnest.

Columbia University. Photo: Aditi Shah.

Philip A. Miscimarra, in the lone dissenting opinion on the Board, worried that the decision would alter “the relationship between university students, including student assistants, and their professors and academic institutions.” Columbia—alongside Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale in an amicus brief—argued that the 2004 Brown University Board decision being overturned ought to stay in place, as the student-institution relationship is indeed primarily academic and thus outside the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) purview. But the Board decided that even if this were the case, the question of primacy is here not important: an economic relationship with an employer is itself enough justification that grad students are covered by the Act, regardless of whether it is the primary relationship or not. Meanwhile, “the union cannot discuss any purely academic issues,” according to Graduate Workers of Columbia member Olga Brudastova. “They won’t affect the curriculum.” Besides potential work stoppages—the cost of doing business with labor organizing—the academic side of graduate workers’ lives should remain largely unchanged.

Extracurricular questions, however, do indeed seep into academics, as revealed at the end of summer, when administration at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus locked out its professors for twelve days. (The administration and professoriate have since signed a short-term contract and extended negotiations.) It was the first-ever academic lockout in American history, according to The Nation.1 With the professors’ union contract set to expire at the end of August, the administration, fearing a strike, quietly began to fill teaching positions in advance of the coming school year. Replacements were hastily hired to teach, resulting, to some bemusement, in inexperienced administrators preparing to instruct yoga and ballet classes. Students were upset, especially grad students, some of whom had come to the school to study with specific professors forced briefly into unpaid sabbaticals.

Columbia University. Photo: Aditi Shah.

The professors charge that the university’s president, Kimberly Cline, has been cutthroat in her structuring of the school’s finances, laying off staff in droves, spending unreasonably frugally, and failing to address a pay gap between LIU campuses. They see this lockout, naturally, as a further betrayal. But as university educators continue to organize in force across the country (adjunct professors as well as graduate workers), the fact of the lockout is not entirely surprising, even if it is unprecedented. This is what labor activity looks like: in some cases the deal gets done, and in some cases there are strikes and lockouts. The strength of labor organization on campus lies in the possibility of collective action; the risk is work stoppages. “The labor act itself was designed to anticipate an adversarial positioning between two parties,” points out Duke labor scholar Dan Bowling. “It uses terms like ‘economic warfare.’ It’s peace through strength.”

When the work stops, of course, students’ academic experiences will suffer. But while student workers are being educated by their employers, their relationship with their universities is in fact becoming more pointedly “economic” besides. Schools lean heavily on graduate workers to teach; as Mark Oppenheimer wrote in the New Yorker in August, “as jobs in the professoriate have disappeared, graduate students have become an indispensable source of labor, without whom undergraduates simply could not be taught. They have become workers, not for their own sake as apprentice-learners but because their schools need them as casual labor.”2 This mirrors the national proliferation of non-tenure-track instructors—the share of contingent, non-tenure track faculty has increased to around two-thirds of the professoriate nationally.3 With student costs ballooning (to great media fanfare) and increasing disparities in pay between an administrative and tenured upper class and an at-times hand-to-mouth contingent workforce, universities are being run increasingly like corporations.

Graduate student-workers find themselves doubly in jeopardy. While in school, they are being asked to shoulder sizeable teaching and research responsibilities, universities’ bread and butter. Afterwards, as a reward, those who hope to enter the academy face an increasingly bleak job market likely to relegate them to precarious and poorly paid adjunct work. Where a tenured professorship was once “dangled to keep you working in conditions that might be otherwise untenable,” says Duke Ph.D. student and organizer Bennett Carpenter, now “people are looking around and saying ‘hey, after I finish this degree I’m not necessarily going to have a full-time job at Berkeley, I might be working as an adjunct in a very similar situation to what I have right now.’ I think that makes people more aware they can’t live under these conditions.” Thus graduate work is not a gauntlet to be endured with a pot of gold awaiting, but a gauntlet that spills into another gauntlet—congratulations on that diploma! The fact that grad workers are being educated does not change that financial calculus.

Implicit in the universities’ reluctance to pony up is the assumption that, because these students are learning and Doing What They Love, economic concerns are sidelined. “In this post-industrial knowledge economy,” Carpenter says, “work relationships become more confused and indirect. There’s a lot of things we’re told we do because we love them, as opposed to doing because they’re labor. We’re still having to figure out what it means to organize in the terrain of the new economy.” As Miya Tokumitsu wrote in Jacobin in 2014, “[do what you love] may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?”4 Noting that “nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia,” Tokumitsu continued:

Columbia University. Photo: Aditi Shah.

“emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to the most vicious exploitation and harms all workers […] Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern—people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth.”

The undercompensation for socially desirable work, meanwhile, excludes from these opportunities “the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages.”

The NLRB ruling is a corrective step. Graduate workers are students; they are also, definitively, workers. Allowing these students to bargain (if they so choose—they may of course decide that collective bargaining is not in their best interest) lets them move toward greater security in their extended meantimes. Universities have pivoted to attempts to discourage students from organizing now that they legally may, using largely the same reasoning that they employed in the Columbia case. Whether they are heard remains to be seen, but administrations seem to be building castles in the sky: available evidence from public schools suggests that student worker unions lead to higher levels of professional and personal support for their members, better pay, and no harm to academic freedom.5 (The prevalence of grad worker unions at public schools also begs the question of what fundamental difference ought to preclude them on private campuses.) Last year, NYU’s portentous agreement with their Graduate Student Organizing Committee saw pay raises for graduate workers and more robust healthcare coverage; in one of the most expensive cities in the world, these changes matter. Across town, a threatened strike of professors and graduate workers in the CUNY system led to back pay for thousands, a reminder that labor action can fit the academy.

Conservative lawmakers nonetheless reacted to the Columbia decision with ideological vitriol. Senator Lamar Alexander (R) Tennessee called the decision a “shameless ploy to increase union membership rather than a genuine attempt to help students.”6 He is right in the sense that this victory for labor may well resonate beyond those most immediately affected. As theirs is necessarily a temporary position, labor consciousness among graduate students means that they emerge into their future lines of work and study with a sense of the power of collective bargaining. While many academics sympathize with, even romanticize, the labor movement, “It is a different experience to have been in a union, especially if you helped organize it yourself,” says United Auto Workers organizer Maida Rosenstein, who works with the NYU and Columbia graduate students. “So potentially it means a whole generation of people know again about unions. People don’t know about unions because people haven’t been in unions!”

Reuters has pointed out that union membership in the United States is becoming increasingly white-collar.7 As the workforce transitions from manufacturing, blue-collar work—the traditional redoubt of labor sympathies—toward whatever the hell everybody is doing in a service economy, it comes as no surprise that workers advocating for themselves would look different than they have in times past. Bowling, the Duke law professor, believes that universities are not the most natural fit for NLRA-sanctioned labor organizing, as the law was designed in 1935 with industrial workplaces in mind. “That said, should it evolve?” Bowling asks. “Sure, it should evolve over time.”

The university has become a flashpoint of white-collar organization, Rosenstein says, “because we’ve lost our manufacturing base in this country, and so there’s no options for people except to go to college, because people can’t choose another life, which they used to be able to do. So everybody has to go to college, and it’s become more like a business,” with students treated increasingly like consumers, and high-paying ones at that. “And you’re going to find ways to cut your labor costs.” Now, on every type of campus, those labor costs are able to fight back.


  1. Deb Schwartz. “Classes Start at LIU Brooklyn on September 7—But Faculty are Locked Out. The Nation. September 4, 2016.
  2. Mark Oppenheimer. “Graduate Students, the Laborers of Academia.” The New Yorker, August 31, 2016.
  3. Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey. “The Changing Academic Workforce.” Trusteeship Magazine, May/June 2013.
  4. Miya Tokumitsu. “In the Name of Love. Jacobin, Winter 2014.
  5. Sean E. Rogers, Adrienne E. Eaton, and Paula B. Voos. “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay.” ILR Review, Volume 66, Number 2, 2013.
  6. Colleen Flaherty. “NLRB: Graduate Students at Private Universities may Unionize.” Inside Higher Ed, August 24, 2016.
  7. Kate Duguid. “U.S. labor unions look increasingly white collar.” Reuters Breakingviews, August 25, 2016.


Samuel Feldblum

SAMUEL FELDBLUM is an armchair philosopher pondering getting out of his armchair.