Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Academic labor is information labor too

A recent column in The Nation describes the plight of Columbia University graduate students as they try to organize in the face of not only resistance from a newly-conservative National Labor Relations Board (which in 2004 overturned a 2000 ruling granting graduate students at private universities the right to organize), but an administration recommending anti-organizing tactics which may in fact be illegal:

The memo, dated February 16, 2005, is signed by none other than Alan Brinkley, a well-known liberal historian who is now serving as Columbia's provost. Brinkley has gone out of his way to assure outside observers, including New York State Senator David Paterson, that "students are free to join or advocate a union, and even to strike, without retribution." Yet his February 16 memo, addressed to seventeen deans, professors and university leaders, lists retaliatory actions that might be taken against students "to discourage" them from striking. Several of these measures would likely rise to the level of illegality if graduate student employees were covered under the National Labor Relations Act.

Such measures include telling graduate student teachers and researchers who contemplate striking that they could "lose their eligibility for summer stipends" (i.e., future work opportunities) and also "lose their eligibility for special awards, such as the Whitings" (a prestigious scholarship and award program). Yet another proposal cited in the memo would require students who participated in the strike "to teach an extra semester or a year" as a condition for receiving their scholarly degree.

The article nicely ties such questions over the employment status of graduate students to the wider issues of the "corporatization" of the university (both public and private) and the questions (from both the right and the left) about the state of "free speech" in the US university today:

Ironically, although conservatives continue to see liberalism as the bogeyman, the rise of a corporate labor model in higher education may pose a far greater risk to academic freedom and free speech. Historically, let's not forget, the leaders of the academic freedom movement recognized that the only way to prevent corporate trustees and other outside interest groups from violating the free speech rights of their professors was to establish a system of faculty self-governance, peer review and long-term job security. Otherwise, any professor who voiced unconventional or unpopular views was extremely vulnerable to getting fired.

Viewed through this lens, the unionization campaigns at Columbia, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Penn and other institutions may be the last, best hope for stopping administrators from imposing a corporate labor model on universities that erodes faculty power--and with it academic freedom.

At my own university, which as a public, state university has allowed graduate students the right to organize since the late 1960s, the graduate student workers face both a seemingly impotent administration and a hostile, "neoliberal" state legislature in an environment of budget cutbacks to the university across the board. At issue are cuts in wages (which are already below what the "market" of peer institutions pay), and an increase in health care benefit costs (benefits crucial to young families where both parents are often in school). Here's the way our Teaching Assistant's Association describes their current situation:

In a move to gain political points with the public, Republican members of the committee refused to allow the contracts onto the floor for a vote, claiming that public employees were "responsible" for the State's financial woes-despite the fact that money had already been budgeted to pay for the contracts. After months of lobbying and public protest by TAA members and other unionists across the state, the logjam was finally broken. There was a price, however: a threat to "make public employees pay" for health insurance in the next round. [...]

Members felt that the state was violating a tacit agreement that had held for almost 20 years: state workers (including TAs and PAs) would take lower pay increases in exchange for good benefits (like $0 health insurance premiums). The UW-Madison's TA/PA wage package was already near the bottom of the Big 10; grad employees at peer institutions were making on average over $1,000 a year more. UW administrators understood the growing gap and its implications for grad student recruitment and retention and made strong statements in support of the union's position, but to little avail. A split in the management team, however, did not mean progress at the table.

Here at Madison, a Spring 2004 strike by the TAA won some media attention and perhaps built some solidarity among members, but has not helped their contract plight and inevitably provided ammunition for their neoliberal critics in the legislature.

All this should be a reminder to students of "information labor" that the academic labors of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination (aka. research, writing, teaching) are important areas of study and activism as well. For an admittedly uneven but certainly sincere primer on some of these issues, see Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Office hours: Activism and change in the academy (New York: Routledge, 2004). Or take a minute to actually talk to a graduate student worker about the conditions of his or her information labor in academia in the twenty-first century.

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