Joe Hill Takes On Joe College

Feeling squeezed, professors and grad students turn to unions

Campus unrest has usually been the province of hotheaded 20-year-olds. But these days, it's the professors and graduate students who are kicking up a fuss. In November alone, professors voted in a union at Southern Illinois University and scheduled an election for one at the University of Minnesota. Grad students at the University of California staged strikes and rallies at five campuses. And those at New York University held a meeting for students from around the country to learn more about unionization.

Then, on Nov. 18, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it is considering dumping 20 years of precedent to rule that Yale University grad students should be treated as employees. If that happens, private universities such as NYU and Yale could be forced to treat graduate student associations as bona fide unions entitled to collective bargaining.

What's going on here? Years of tight budgets have prompted universities to whittle away at the tenure system for professors and increase the financial burdens on grad students. And as old definitions of teacher and student change, profs and grad students alike are turning to unions for help in keeping up salaries and benefits and negotiating job security. About 40% of all faculty are organized today, up from about a third in 1982, making higher education a key growth area for white-collar union organizing, says Richard W. Hurd, a Cornell University labor studies professor.

So far, most of the activity has occurred at public universities, where state laws make unionization easier. Now, the trend could spread to private universities as well--at least among graduate students (federal law largely prevents unionization by professors at private universities). That is likely to put even more pressure on university finances, adding to already mounting costs and rising tuition. Whether on public or private campuses, unionization could also mean more adversarial relationships in the university community and "a singling out of compensation and working conditions somewhat to the exclusion of the education and scholarly agendas," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the University of Minnesota.

The restive climate in academe comes partly from a simple economic equation: The supply of newly minted PhDs has outstripped the demand for tenure-track professors. Many universities have cut costs by shifting more of the teaching load on to part-time professors and graduate students, while limiting expensive tenured faculty. In 1994, adjunct profs or grad students made up 51% of university teachers, vs. 25% in the 1970s, according to the American Association of University Professors. "In the past, people were willing to stick it out with this feeling of `Well, we're going to get a job in the future,"' says Dan Bender, an NYU grad student trying to form a union there. "Now, that's not assured."

So when the NLRB agreed to consider whether Yale's graduate students are employees, the move resonated across many campuses. Yale administrators have refused for years to recognize the Graduate Employees & Students Organizations (GESO) as a union, despite strikes and job actions. They argue that the teaching grad students do is not a job per se but is part of their education.

After some 200 teaching assistants protested last December by withholding grades in their classes, Yale responded by denying some of them the best teaching assignments and disciplining others. GESO complained to the NLRB, and last month its general counsel, Fred L. Feinstein, announced he would issue an unfair labor practice complaint against Yale. The grad students should be considered employees, he argued, since their pay (averaging $10,200 for nine months) is taxed, and Yale subjected them to "adverse employment action, not academic action."

FIGHTING WORDS. Feinstein also recommended that the full labor board, which will rule on the complaint within the next year, should reconsider its 1970s rulings that grad students are primarily students, not employees. Yale says it is entitled to deny teaching jobs to grad students and vows to fight. "We admit students, we don't hire them," says Gary Fryer, special assistant to Yale's president.

A student victory would have broad implications. It would allow students to hold a union representation election and force the university to bargain with any union that resulted. It also would open the door to unionization at all private universities, where no grad student union is recognized. If that happens, "you could see potential for an explosion of organizing on the part of graduate students," says Dennis Devaney, a management labor lawyer at Winston & Strawn in Washington.

Professors, too, have been embracing unions, as they feel the economic crunch and loss of control over decision-making. Faculty at the University of Minnesota scheduled a union representation election after the university moved to weaken tenure protections. And Southern Illinois University professors voted for a union after seven years of stagnant salaries. Faculty across the country "feel that their positions are being usurped by administrators," says James E. Sullivan, an art professor and union leader at Southern Illinois.

Administrators worry that adding unions to the academic mix could skew policy-making. "We don't think unions should be deciding issues of academic judgement and educational and research missions," says Peter Chester, a labor relations official at the University of California at Berkeley. But as frustration mounts in the ivory tower, aca-demics who traditionally have shied away from unions are reconsidering--and signing up.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.