Harvard's teaching assistants: new powers but more questions

With landmark ruling, private universities are about to find out if their working graduate students will unionize.

Karen Matthews/AP
Ian Bradley-Perrin, left, and fellow graduate student Olga Brudastova are active in the campaign to unionize teaching assistants at Columbia University in New York. On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in their favor.

For the past two years, Sean Wehle has been – by his own admission – sitting on the sidelines and watching a landmark fight between his university and his fellow graduate students.

On Tuesday, the graduate students won, as the National Labor Relations Board ruled that those students at private universities have the right to join unions. Depending on who you ask, the ruling could give graduate students benefits commensurate to their increasingly important role in the functioning of a university, or it could trigger a sea change in the academic environment, turning the flexible and personalized higher educational process into a transactional and combative one.

Mr. Wehle, who is in the third year of an Art History PhD program at Harvard University, is largely pleased with the 3-1 NLRB decision (pdf), not least because he will be a teaching assistant (known at Harvard as a “teaching fellow”) for the first time this year, and he has lots of questions.

“I don’t even know how large my section will be yet,” he says, referring to the subsection of students he will be teaching. He only found out this week which professor he'll be assisting. “I do feel like both [student and worker],” he adds, “so there’s this weird conundrum. But I guess that’s the point” of the board’s decision.

With its ruling, the NLRB clarified that graduate students at private universities can be considered “employees” as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. This means they have the right to join a union and bargain collectively. The ruling reverses a 2004 decision involving graduate students at Brown University and brings teaching assistants in private universities in line with those at public institutions, who started organizing in the 1960s.

Poison or protection?

The universities themselves have argued that allowing graduate student employees to collectively bargain could poison the school’s learning environment, harming the work of faculty, undergraduates, and the graduate students themselves.

But for the students involved, it is simply a reaction to larger changes in higher education that have heaped more and more responsibility on nontenured workers and made it increasingly difficult for them to make ends meet.

“These campaigns are a response to radically different reality in academics than even one our own professors experienced,” says Paul Katz, a fourth-year PhD student at Columbia studying Latin American history.

The number of tenured and tenure-track professors at American colleges dropped from 45 percent of all teaching staff in 1975 to less than a quarter in 2011, according to the American Association of University Professors. Meanwhile, part-time faculty like adjunct professors and grad students have picked up the slack, comprising more than 40 percent of college instructors, the AAUP reported.

So not only are graduate students doing more and more work, but the reward at the end of all that work is becoming less and less alluring.

“In the past there was this idea that you suffer through five, six, seven miserable years [of graduate school], you eat ramen noodles, you live in a cockroach-infested hovel, and then you emerge from that cave into the bright light of tenure,” says Mr. Katz. “But universities are not adding tenure lines now, they’re removing them, and they’re shifting work to adjuncts.”

Will unions deliver on campus?

There are concerns that union membership could cause more problems than it solves. Harvard graduate students have teamed up with the United Auto Workers for their union drive, but at least one student has questioned whether a union could deliver on the myriad complex issues graduate students face across departments.

Universities have warned that union involvement would interfere with the academic environment. In a letter to faculty and graduate students yesterday, Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier, respectively the president and provost of the University of Chicago, wrote that the NLRB decision raised “the fundamental question” of “whether a graduate student labor union would advance or impede students’ overall educational goals.”

The graduate student education process, they argued, was distinct from the well-defined work of employees in the skilled trades and clerical positions.

“It is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth,” they added. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers.”

Union supporters often counter this argument by pointing to a 2013 study of graduate student unions at public universities showing that unionization didn’t notably harm faculty-student relations or academic freedom.

If private universities follow the example of public universities, there will be limitations to what can be discussed during collective bargaining, according to Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell Law School.

“Certain kinds of material that have to do with academic freedom and a range of other factors are really going to be off the table,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned about this decision when it comes to causing major disruptions at private universities, because that just hasn’t been how it's worked at other institutions.”

Wehle has his own concerns – about the details of the union’s priorities, about its possible effect on the academic climate – but when Harvard graduate students finally gather to vote on whether to form a union, he plans to vote ‘yes.’ Not just for his own benefit, but for future graduate students as well.

“Do I need, or do I want, or should I have a legacy here?” he says, waving his hands at the old crimson buildings of Harvard Yard. “That is a conversation that I’m having, especially with the prospect of being exploited as an adjunct professor.”

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