Friday, July 16, 2004

More on the State of the Union

Still no word from ASET (the Tufts Unionistas), their website looking undisturbed since December last year, and the Brown proto-union's webpage is now given over to, I kid you not, a page of porn links. There's just the Columbia proto union page I already linked, so far as I know.

Yet if you see the UAW press release about this ruling, you'd think grad students were up in arms nationwide, agitating for their God-given right to a compulsory labor union. As the press release has it: “We’re more determined than ever to organize, to improve teaching and learning conditions on campus.” said [Sheyda] Jahanbani, a PhD candidate at Brown who has worked as a teaching assistant in the University’s history department. Yes, so determined to that we've let the website die and suffer the ignoble fate of becoming a page full of links to porn.

The union movements at many of the affected schools are dormant, if not dead entirely. The Tufts union, ASET, had so little support from the student body that the only major action they could organize after the election was a futile phone-call campaign, in which primarily union activists unaffiliated with Tufts called President Bacow for a three-hour period, demanding he drop the now-successful NLRB appeal.

Second, the UAW press release, like most of the other pro-union propaganda, gives one the impression that it's an us-vs.-them, graduate proletariat-vs.-administration bourgeois struggle out there in academia. The reality is that many grads want no part of a union, and the propriety of such a union for academia is not made any more real whether a majority of those who show up to vote see it or not. A very likely scenario is that, say, 1000 grads may find themselves mandatory members (or more precisely, mandatory donors - you don't have to "join," but either way you are required to pay the membership fee) of an organization they find repugnant to their values, just because 250 (of 450 who were there to vote) voted yes in a union election held years before their arrival at that particular school. But it's not any better even if the election is reheld every few years, and even if a clear majority prefers the union. It's the minority who would prefer to study and work without the interference of the United Auto Workers whose academic freedoms, freedom of association and freedom of contract are imperiled by mandatory unionization, with its one-size-fits-all contracts. To name only one example, here at UW, I would've liked to have had the choice to get almost $15,000 in pay for TA work instead of only 2/3 of that, plus health insurance that I will rarely, if ever, need. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, indeed.

I hate to make this personal, but then, this is a blog, so that's probably par for the course. But one that that really rubs me the wrong way is the utter groupthink that unions inspire. Maybe that's what's needed in isolated economic contexts, e.g., in a small town with only one factory to offer jobs, in the early stages of capitalism, where the social pressure to conform is the only force holding together a strike that means the difference between enough pay to feed a family and wanton starvation. But it's certainly not appropriate for academia, where no one is starving and very few even have families. (And I won't even get into whether it's responsible to start a family if one's only means of support is a TA income, where some people get off thinking that such irresponsiblity imposes a burden on other grad students...)

It bothered me immensely to see ordinarily rational people so gung ho about the recent strike at UW, or at least willing to submit to the judgment of the collective over their own personal objections. Where was the independent thought, and the courage to stand up for what one thinks is right? Where did this Bush-like "You're with us or against us" attitude come from? It's okay if you disagree - just offer me something resembling an informed argument. With some notable exceptions, I found very little.

If there is any more damning problem of unions in graduate school, I do not know it - that the social atmosphere of unions is utterly inconsistent with the cultural climate of individual freedom of expression and thought that makes a graduate education possible.

More pro-union reaction from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, is here in pdf form. He says fairly predictable things about the travesty of "workers" being denied a basic human right to unionize, evading the real issue the ruling answered about whether graduate students actually qualify as employees in the sense of the 1935 Labor-Relations Act. There's some stereotypical Bush-bashing too. Why does all the evil in the world seem to emanate from George W. Bush to these people? I'd think the NLRB board members themselves had a much larger direct hand to play in the final decision than anyone else. (To continue this tangent - I don't remember conservatives trying to link all the evil in the world to Bill Clinton. Once in a while, you'd see people linking a Janet Reno blunder to Clinton, but in general, people were held accountable for their own actions and words. Joyceline Elders was crucified for her own unpopular ideas; she wasn't held up as "yet another example of the Clinton administration's disregard of the American people," or some such.)


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