Fighting On: Institutional Context

Even without legal status, by acting collectively as a union, graduate student workers won greater structural agency. And barely a year later, union struggles have intensified at every major private university across the nation: Columbia (still!), Harvard, Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, along with many others – including USC. Every one of the aforementioned institutions has been caught acting in ways ranging from unethical to illegal, a trend that has been roundly condemned by scholarly associations. These universities burn through millions in legal fees in order to challenge election results in court, buying time as they hold out hope that the Trump Administration’s conservative National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appointees will eventually come to management’s rescue. Setting aside the realization that our progressive-posturing, democracy-and-diversity-loving institutions are collaborating with the Trump Administration at the expense of their students – and given what we already know about the false educational and financial threats posed by graduate student workers – the question remains: Why? Why would USC waste resources upholding anti-democratic values that betray their own civic mission when the hypothetical losses that supposedly made them necessary are unfounded? At some point, it becomes unrealistic to see the arrangement as being about anything besides power and control.
We already know that USC harbors hostility toward unions on par with its elite institutional peers because we are not the first employees to attempt unionizing here. Last year, USC’s non-tenure-track faculty in Dornsife tried to hold an election that was thwarted by the efforts of Provost Michael Quick to sabotage the vote by violating federal labor law. In the Los Angeles Times coverage of the NLRB investigation, it was reported: “USC undermined the possibility of a free and fair election by giving raises to some non-tenure-track faculty at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences just before the vote in January [2016]. University officials also threatened that faculty members would not be welcome on the Academic Senate or other university committees if they voted to form a union.” This hostility is not new. Since the ‘90s, USC has fought bitterly against its janitorial, housing and hospital workers, respectively, when they sought a measure of dignity and security as employees by unionizing. More recently, in just the last few months of 2017, the administration has become aware that its clerical workers are trying to unionize and sent a menacing letter to them intended by provoke fear by deploying vague misinformation in threatening overtones.

Students AND Workers – Our Fight in a National Context

Since the 1960s, graduate workers have struggled for the right to unionize. But while those of us at public universities eventually won that right, those of us at private institutions have almost always been denied it. The first decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to block our status as workers came in 1974. Almost a quarter-century later, in a landmark 2000 decision against NYU, graduate employees provided a brief that paved the way to unionize – which many did – only to have it revoked again just four years later in an NLRB ruling against union organizing at Brown University. Finally, the rights of graduate employees to form a union at private universities were formally restored by the NLRB on August 23, 2016, when the NLRB formally ruled against administrators at Columbia University. The NLRB stated explicitly that they saw “no compelling reason – in theory or in practice – to conclude that collective bargaining by student assistants cannot be viable or that it would seriously interfere with higher education,” affirming that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees entitled to the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act.”
The back-and-forth had to do with the question of the “primary relationship,” that is: Are we students laboring primarily for our own educational benefit or primarily workers providing services to an employer in exchange for compensation? The 2016 Columbia University decision was different for its acknowledgement of a rather simple point: This is a false distinction because, in practice, we are fully and clearly both. For years, administrations’ arguments against graduate unions hinged on the spurious claim that having them would erode the educational relationship between students and their advisors by allegedly inserting a harsh union bureaucracy into the middle of something which requires more delicate navigation. Given the nature of intellectual collaboration, this argument went, graduate working relations and conditions are more effectively regulated by the entrenched professional norms of the Academy, which maintains itself through a culture of collegiality and mutual respect. Administrations also claimed the move would adversely affect their institutions’ bottom lines, leading to fewer graduate students they would be able to admit and fund.
Existing research on graduate unions in public universities has long shown this to be false, but private non-profits remained obstinate that their situation was not comparable. Then, in 2013, three years before the Columbia University decision – and in response to years of unrelenting collective pressure by student organizers – NYU agreed to re-recognize their graduate union (having decertified the agreement they made before the NLRB’s Brown ruling in 2004), becoming the first private institution ever to voluntarily do so. Subsequent studies on the aftermath showed that, indeed, neither NYU’s bottom line nor its student-faculty relationships suffered as a result of collective bargaining. In fact, the relationships had by some measures improved – a (not surprising) consequence of having more clearly defined and fairly negotiated workplace expectations. This research become pivotal in convincing the NLRB in 2016 that denying graduate workers’ basic rights was clearly no longer empirically or theoretically justifiable.